By Anna-Marie Menhenott
ST. LUCIE COUNTY -- Many of us remember fun-filled days at summer camp; canoeing, bonfires and swimming at the lake. These are the memories that make childhood sweet.
However, not every child has the chance to enjoy camp life. The cost of spending a week at camp is more than some households can afford. That's where Lenny Smallcombe and the Fort Pierce Elk's Lodge 1520 step in.
"We don't like to turn any kid down," said Mr. Smallcombe. "If a kid wants to go to camp, we try to get him there. Everyone should get to experience summer camp once in their life. It's at camp where you make some of your best memories."
For the past three years, Mr. Smallcombe and Andrea Blackburn, a fourth-grade teacher at Samuel Gaines Academy in Fort Pierce, have worked together to give students ages 9-13 the opportunity to attend summer camp at the Florida Elks Youth Camp in Umatilla.
The facility includes a multi-functional gymnasium that is used for movie night, and has three full-length basketball courts. The athletic facilities cover 17-acres of the property and include archery, flag football, soccer, softball, volleyball courts, a golf driving range and a miniature golf course.
"There are so many benefits for the students who are going to this camp," said Ms. Blackburn. "It's an opportunity to see that there's more than the city where they're from. They can see there's more out there and maybe they will get a bug to explore and want to visit other places."
Many of the children who attend the camp are away from home for the first time. The camp staff makes sure that each camper stays busy and doesn't have time to dwell on being homesick.
The campers have a full day of activities that include swimming, canoeing and paddle-boating, a rope course, indoor sport facilities, games and camp songs, catch-and-release fishing, a water-fun day and an opportunity to make friends from across the state.
"Many of this year's campers have been before and are looking forward to seeing friends they've made in the past," said Ms. Blackburn. "There are also some students who will be too old to go next year and are looking into becoming a 'counselor in training' next year."
Because many of the counselors were once campers, each have a keen sense to what each camper's needs are. Although campers are discouraged from calling home, they are given a lot of support if they are missing home.
"Missing home can be an issue," said Ms. Blackburn. "But there's never been a situation where a child has come home. After the first night, the kids are having so much fun that they soon forget about missing home. Usually, they aren't ready to come home at the end of the week when we pick them up."
Transportation to the camp is provided by Title I funds, making the entire experience cost-free to parents and guardians.
Sending kids to camp is not the only the goal for the Fort Pierce Elks lodge. They have started a program in which some children are sent home with a backpack full of food for the weekend. Their goal is to prevent hunger in those children who may not know where their next meal is coming from.
Other programs include a veteran's program in conjunction with Treasure Coast Hospice that honors the families of those who have served in the U.S. military.
For more information about sending a child to the Florida Elks Youth Camp, visit www.floridaelks.org. To learn more about the programs offered by the Fort Pierce Elks Lodge 1520, visit www.bpoe1520.org.