VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. –
Children of Virginia National Guard Soldiers and Airmen enjoyed a variety of activities at the 18th annual Virginia National Guard Youth Camp July 23-28, 2023, at the State Military Reservation in Virginia Beach, Virginia. The camp featured educational activities, team building exercises, displays from National Guard units and local first responders, a flag retirement ceremony, an afternoon at the beach and trips to the Virginia Aquarium and Nauticus.
“This was an amazing week for our children, teens, volunteers, and staff,” said Teresa Merritt, state Family Programs director. “To see these groups come together as strangers and leave with lifelong friendships or reconnect with someone they met in the years past is so special.”
Thirty-six adult volunteers and 21 teen volunteers oversaw the 60 campers, who ranged in age from 8 – 12.
“Our Guard youth learned strengths they never knew they had, explored new ways to be resilient and practiced life skills to help guide them in their futures,” Merritt said. “We couldn’t have asked for a better week and we cannot do this without our amazing group of dedicated volunteers.”
“Although it was a hot week with lots of moving, that heat didn’t stop the fun and hands-on learning,” said Jessica Mullins, Child and Youth Program coordinator. “There is a lot of preparation and planning throughout the year for this event, but in the end, it could not be made possible without amazing people like our volunteers who dedicate their time to be with us during the summer.”
Each day focused on a different life skill with the campers, including educational activities, such as the wonders of engineering and aerodynamics and homemade rockets, visits from military units and first responders and trips to the beach and Nauticus. Visitors and community partners included representatives from the Fort Barfoot-based 34th Civil Support Team, the Winchester-based STARBASE Academy, the Virginia Beach Police Department’s mounted patrol and the Virginia Beach Police Department’s SWAT team.
STARBASE is a Department of Defense educational program, sponsored by the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs, where students participate in 25 hours of “hands-on, mind-on” activities in STEM over five days.
The 34th CST is a joint Army and Air National Guard unit of 22 full-time specialized Soldiers and Airmen whose mission is to support civil authorities during a domestic incident. These incidents can include a terrorist attack or threatened terrorist attack, a natural or manmade disaster in the United States, clandestine/drug lab evidence collection, and/or an unintentional release of nuclear, biological, radiological, toxic or poisonous chemicals.
The theme for this year’s Youth Camp was “Young Champions.”
“Back in January, members of the Virginia National Guard State Teen Panel came together during our monthly meeting with this thought on their minds,” explained Jeremiah Smith, lead Child and Youth Program coordinator. “‘The theme should specifically highlight the campers this year with emphasis on their unique journeys as VaNG Youth,’ one of them said. Their parents are heroes, and to us, their children are champions. Which gave us our camp theme- Young Champions.”
Although the camp primarily focuses on the Virginia National Guard Youth between the ages of 8-12, there are also teen dependents of Virginia National Guard Soldiers and Airmen who participate in their own capacity.
Many of these teens are former campers who grew up attending the camp. As a result, they bring a special perspective as counselors.
Because of their unique role, the Youth Program offers them a day of training just before camp begins. This day not only consists of the important leadership training required to fill the position as a volunteer, but there were also some activities and games geared toward team building and to help them bond together.
This summer, as a special gift to the teens, an entire educational activity rotation block led strictly by the teens themselves was held on the last day of camp, including STEM activities, a diversity art project and more. In order to help the campers build their independence, the Youth Program wanted teens to be able to recognize theirs first.
“As the new lead youth coordinator, I wanted to re-visit the Youth Camp handbook, and in it, we came across the five initial life skills that a camper attending Youth Camp would achieve by its conclusion,” Smith said. “I saw these five life skills as five promises we make to our youth each year. A promise to educate them on communication, relationships, resilience, independence, and mastery. We would officially refer to them as young champions, and in the end, watching each of them step out of their comfort zones, form new friendships, and recognize the strength and courage they have, is truly the impact the program sets out to make.”