By Emily Williams
When you enter Camp Fletcher, you are transported into a different world as you pass under a sign that reads Wohelo, which stands for work, health and love.
The words have been a motto for the camp since 1926 and are a nod to its original and continuing purpose, established by its founder, Pauline Bray Fletcher.
Fletcher, who was the first African American registered nurse in Alabama, created the facility to serve underprivileged black children in the greater Birmingham community. It was a time when the threat of tuberculosis weighed heavy, and she believed allowing children the opportunity to play in the fresh air helped them build stronger lungs and immune systems.
Today, the camp is managed by the Camp Fire Alabama organization but will continue to serve its founding purpose amid yet another health crisis, COVID-19.
As Camp Fire Alabama CEO Nancy Meadows and Outreach Director Sian Eastwood sat on the porch of Camp Fletcher’s main office, they reminisced about their summer campers and talked about plans for their newest venture, Fletcher Academy.
“I’ll tell you, I can’t imagine being a mother of school-aged kids right now,” Meadows said. “Especially if you are a working mom, a single mom or in a dual-income household.”
As they spoke, two rambunctious rescued kittens chased each other back and forth across the wooden structure, much like young children playing tag.
“During the summer, as we realized that this (pandemic) was going to go on, we sent out a survey to the parents of our campers, just to find out what their concerns were,” Meadows said. “Be careful what you ask for.”
She said the most common need cited by those who responded to her survey was a safe place for their children to take part in remote learning during the work week, made even better if they also could play in the outdoors.
“When parents came back with that, it was a no brainer,” Meadows said. “We exist to serve children and families. That’s why we are here.”
The answer is the new Fletcher Academy, which will offer up the camp as a space for kids to work on their virtual classwork as well as participate in classic camp activities in the great outdoors.
So far, kids have signed on from school systems in Vestavia Hills, Hoover, Lakeview, Helena, Shelby County, McCalla and beyond.
A Healthy Body …
Over the summer, though it did not host its regular residential camp sessions, children in grades first through ninth were able to participate in day camps. Upwards of 70 children attended, less than in a normal summer, but the staff knew of none who tested COVID-positive.
“I swear, I think it’s because they are outdoors, they’re in the fresh air, they’re getting exercise,” Meadows said, and that harkens back to Pauline Fletcher’s philosophy.
“She was so intent upon kids being outdoors,” Meadows said. “She felt it made their lungs stronger and their immune system.”
When the kids aren’t logged into their online classwork, they will be taking part in a variety of activities on the camp’s 300 acres. There will be canoeing, gardening, sports, fishing, crafts, hiking, character building and teamwork exercises, among other activities. Of course, while weather permits, there will be swimming days.
The kids will be separated into small groups depending on their schedules, each led for the day by college-aged counselors who will be there to help with their classwork or to just be a mentor.
“I could get out there and lead some of these kids, but none of them would pay attention to me because I’m old,” Meadows said. “College students are what these kids want to be when they grow up.”
The camp staff has had a great response from potential interns who are enrolled at Birmingham-Southern College, right down the road from the camp.
According to Eastwood, the interns/counselors are one of the camp’s best assets because they act as role models for the kids.
Her own son is a camper and is at an age at which self-esteem issues begin to arise.
“His counselor really helped him this summer,” Eastwood said. “He could tell that he was struggling a little bit.” The counselor, just through communicating and watching her son, took note of activities that he loved. Whenever her son felt a little down, the counselor would get him involved in playing baseball or simply end the day with a compliment.
“He also gave him some things to do at home,” she said. “He showed him how to do these push-ups, so every night before bed he’d be doing his little push-ups. It just gave him so much more confidence.”
It is the human connections and interactions that Meadows and her staff believe make a lasting impression on the kids the camp serves.
“Academics and grades are just one measure, of a child’s progress and success,” Meadows said. “Really, all it does is help them take a test. So, when they aren’t doing their remote learning, we are going to offer them our character education program, our career education program, self-reliance curriculum, small-group mentoring” and so on, she said.
Some of their lessons will be about diversity and understanding: how to disagree in an agreeable way, how to handle stress and anxiety – something extremely important during a time of health scares.
While there are a lot of great lessons in the works, the facility does have some limitations that parents would have to work around. The crux of those limitations is that Camp Fletcher is a camp.
It doesn’t have a copious budget, particularly during a pandemic. Therefore, it can’t buy or rent a bus to transport campers. Kids will have to be dropped off by an adult in the mornings and picked up in the afternoons.
The first building on the property still stands and was built in 1926, and the facility has no heat or air conditioning. All of the structures are either open-air or screened.
The camp did receive a donation, though, that helped install fiber optic cable, so they have internet service.
“If James Spann calls for a tornado outbreak or a hurricane blows up into the gulf and we lose power, we’ve got no phones,” she said. “That’s a liability if we’ve got kids out here. If there is a chance that there is severe weather, we will have to close.”
In addition, for about three months in the winter the facility must be closed because the water needs to be turned off to avoid frozen pipes.
Kids also need to take rain gear to camp in case some less severe rain rolls in.
“Even if it’s a little drizzle, they will keep going,” she said. “They will get dirty. It will get hot. They will be sweaty and they will sleep well at night.”
All of that play will also help tire the kids out and prepare them for their scheduled downtime of virtual study and reading during the day.
Camp Fire is working to raise a final $300,000 before it can break ground on a new dining hall in October.
“It will be our first winterized building,” Meadows said.
Leaders with the camp plan to revamp its bi-annual Junk in the Trunk community sale this fall to raise money for the new building and to keep admission costs low.
The event was inspired by a similar community sale in Eastwood’s native Wales, where vendors gather and sell their “junk” out of the trunks of their cars.
“You’d be surprised what people try to (sell), and you’d be surprised what people will buy,” Meadows said.
The crew is working to organize a “pass, punt and run” competition that kids could join for a donation. There also will be a game of Car Bingo, something the facility began hosting during the pandemic lockdowns.
“We started it just as a way to give people something to do, to get out of the house,” Eastwood said. “People really got into it, and we gave away fun prizes … the winner got a packet of toilet paper back when they were out of stock.”
For anyone who wishes to lend a bit of help, Meadows said there is the opportunity to contribute to a scholarship fund so children have the opportunity to attend Camp Fletcher regardless of their financial limitations.
For more information, visit campfire-al.org or call 205-584-6033.