VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. –
More than 70 Virginia National Guard youth from across the commonwealth participated in the 12th Annual Youth Camp, July 23-28, 2017, at Camp Pendleton in Virginia Beach, Virginia. In addition to the campers, adult and teen volunteers assisted in supporting the Virginia National Guard Youth Program staff in a week full of high energy-outdoor and indoor activities.
“The mission of the camp was to bring National Guard youth from around the state together for a family experience and educational connections not only between each other, but to adults and peers that are older than them,” said Joe Duerksen, the Virginia National Guard Child and Youth Coordinator.
Children of Guard Soldiers and Airmen rarely have the same experience as active duty servicemembers who live on or near military bases and communities. The unique mission of the National Guard to serve both state and nation means Guard families are geographically dispersed. Youth Camp enables the biggest supporters of the Guard family to converge in one place to share experiences and bond during a variety of events.
Additionally, camp gives the kids a chance to understand what their parents do, in a hands-on environment.
“For many of the campers, this camp is the first time they’ve seen or experienced the things their parents do,” Duerksen said. For example, the campers begin and end each day with a flag ceremony. They clean and live in open bay barracks. Every day was structured with exercise, educational lessons and challenging events. Teen counselors led their groups of young campers through ropes courses and discussions, both activities engaging mental and physical capabilities. Much like their parents, the youth experience life on a military base for the week.
In addition to the daily structure, they traveled to Ocean Breeze Water Park and Adventure Park in Virginia Beach, and Busch Gardens in Williamsburg. They took advantage of the beach access and open fields at Camp Pendleton, but it wasn’t all outdoor fun and games.
Educational workshops that focused on resilience, communication, leadership, character building and flag etiquette were also a part of their experience.
Staffers from the Winchester STARBASE Academy taught the campers about science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. Campers drew race tracks with multi-colored pattern embedded in the drawing that would instruct a miniature robot how to act. Certain combinations of colors in the block coding would make the robot go faster, slower, zig-zag, or even go in circles. Science and Technology Academies Reinforcing Basic Aviation and Space Exploration, or STARBASE, is a Department of Defense educational program to inspire and excite youth about STEM.
Campers also explored static displays of military vehicles and equipment, and participated in an American flag retirement ceremony, according to Duerksen. After that, camp participants volunteers partook in the ceremony at dusk in burning the unserviceable flag.
“For many of those kids, it is the very first time they get to see the visual connection of why their parents serve,” he said. During the event, patriotic music played in the background as the history of the country was recited explaining each color and its significance. “For some of those kids, especially this year with parents just coming from deployment from the 29th Infantry Division and the 116thInfantry Regiment, it’s an emotional moment for them to see that connection and reality.”
Each camper took a piece of the flag being retired and placed it into the fire as silence was observed in respect to the gravity of the ceremony and the representation of their actions in being a part of the official occasion.
Many of the teen counselors started out as campers themselves who have stayed on through the years to help mentor the kids who came after them. This year, seven teen counselors celebrated their final year with the Virginia National Guard Youth Camp.
“There’s something about this place, it’s like home,” said Nia Lloyd, a teen counselor who has participated in the program for eight years. She began as one of the youngest in the camp and worked her way up through the age groups to become a counselor. Over the years, she has bonded with fellow campers and learned a lot through the program and this year is her final year. “I’ve learned a lot about patience and to be kind, because you never know the impact you make on someone without even knowing it.”
The last day when parents arrived to pick up their campers, tears and hugs were plentiful.
“I’m really sad, we’ve built up so many friendships,” Lloyd said. At the close of camp, her group of campers took pictures with her and introduced her to their parents.
The camp is a culmination of a year’s worth of planning by the Virginia National Guard Family Programs, but none of it would be possible without the Soldiers, Airmen and family members who volunteer their time in preparation and attendance.
“I want to thank our adult volunteers, we wouldn’t be able to do any of this without them,” said Duerksen. Many of the volunteers are former youth program alumni, spouses of service members and service members. These individuals volunteer to take time out of their jobs and duty statuses to make the camp happen each summer. “They are the ones that make this camp happen and have an impact on these kids.”