HANCOCK COUNTY — Austin Kincer spotted three white-tailed deer darting through the woods on the very first day.
When his mom picked him up from camp Monday afternoon, he chattered on about the encounter all the way home. Later that week, Austin used a quick-setting plaster to capture the impression of a deer’s footprint in the wooded acres of Nameless Creek Youth Camp, locking his memory into a keepsake.
Those experiences are at the heart of the nonprofit’s mission to support local families each year with an experience that, for those who can’t afford it, doesn’t cost them a dime.
Austin, 11, and his brother, Caleb, 12, attended the Plug Into Nature summer camp for the first time this week in the nonprofit summer camp’s seventh year. A record 50 third- through fifth-graders joined six teenage counselors and a small army of volunteers for the event, a week-long immersion into nature, outdoor activities and sports for county children who might not otherwise be able to afford a summer camp experience.
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Austin and Caleb’s mother, Amber Seacat, calls the opportunity a blessing. She learned about the camp — and the scholarship opportunities for youngsters who qualify — from Jerry Bell, president of the camp’s board of directors, she said.
She was excited to learn about the program, thinking it would be a great opportunity for her sons to be able to attend camp. Without the funding made available for families in need, attending this week wouldn’t have been a possibility. Instead, the single mom has been delighted all week by her sons’ stories.
“Every day is a story they get to tell and a memory they get to keep,” she said.
Campers learn about topics relating to the outdoors from experts all week long at the 30-acre site, 2675 S. County Road 600E. This year, they learned bicycle and campfire safety tips and received a demonstration on outdoor cooking.
Along the way, the campers learn skills that don’t make it onto the activity list — when to lead and how to follow, organizers said.
But of course, there is plenty of time for fun.
Charlottesville Fire Department firefighters helped end the week with the much-beloved water day, which includes a water balloon fight, squirt gun battles and splashing in the creek.
County school officials help camp leaders connect with children who could benefit from a scholarship to attend, said director Martha Haynes. Later, enrollment is opened to anyone else who wants to join, she said. About half of the youths attending the camp received partial or full scholarship funding, Bell said.
The campers aren’t worried about who got to come to camp in what way — they are more interested in finding deer and raccoon tracks and trying their hand at arts and crafts alongside newfound friends.
And that’s just how organizers want it to be.
They work hard to find funding for the summer camp, getting donations from churches, local philanthropic organizations and applying for grant funding, Haynes said.
“It’s an absolutely remarkable achievement for people in the community,” said Benny Eaton, vice president of Nameless Creek’s board of directors.
Nameless Creek boasts an all-volunteer staff, and no tax money is used for the operation of Plug into Nature camp, Eaton added.
It’s more than just kickball and camp songs, Bell said. The kids who come back year after year learn about topics that could lead them down a career path, and they forge friendships with both fellow campers and their counselors, he said.
Caleb and Austin have come home telling tales of their activities and their triumphs during the “X Games,” the playfully competitive sports portion of camp, Seacat said. And every morning, they’ve been eager to clamber into the family car and spend another day playing and learning at the southeast Hancock County camp.
Campers had to head home early on Tuesday because of the stormy weather, but most of the kids took the thunder and lightning in stride, said board member Lymon Thompson.
He gave the credit to Haynes, who he said is ready for any turn of events at the youth camp, weather-related or otherwise. He said the camp is lucky to have such an organized leader who is willing to volunteer her time.
Campers and counselors alike are already making plans to come back next year. Caleb loved playing sports with friends and spending time in the woods.
“It’s a great place to be,” he said.