You can tell a lot about a place by the sounds it makes. At first Camp Oty’Okwa seems quiet. There are no cars whizzing by and no dogs barking. Instead, there’s wind rustling in the trees, birds chattering and the distant sound of locusts coming together to create a chorus of summer. But leave the parking lot and walk closer to the camp and you’ll hear music and laughter: the happy, carefree sounds of children at summer camp.
For some kids who attend camp here, it’s a life changing experience they will never forget. Built in 1942, the camp began as a 165 acre farm that was operated by Big Brothers Big Sisters, primarily to serve the sons of soldiers lost in World War II. Today the camp is 730 acres and offers a year-round experience for boys and girls. In addition to regular summer camp, there are camps with varying focuses including Science Camp, Grief Camp, Literacy Camp, Seasonal Environmental Education and Girls Week.
David Schirner began his career here as a lifeguard in 1971. Today he serves as Camp Director and Executive Vice President of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Ohio. “I started as a lifeguard and I just never left,” David said with an easy laugh.
He explained there are many things that make this place unique. To start, it is one of only two remaining Big Brothers Big Sisters camps left in the United States. Moreover, Camp Oty’Okwa gives kids the opportunity to experience and explore nature in the breathtaking natural environment of the Hocking Hills where rock outcrops, woodlands and hiking trails abound. At camp, they make new friends and learn lots of skills including how to work with others and even how to deal with adversity.
At regular summer camp, structure exists mainly at mealtimes and there is no set program for the rest of the day. Instead, kids live and play in a setting where a small group and counselor decide what to do each day, considering the needs, interests and limitations of each child in the group. Hiking, swimming, art projects, bird watching and canoeing are just a few of the possibilities. The day VCNB visited, a large group was enjoying a spirited session of Zumba.
Cathy Knoop serves as Business Development Coordinator for Camp Oty’Okwa and her devotion to camp shows in the hugs she happily accepts and the interest she takes in what the kids are doing. “They learn to compromise and to work with others. Sometimes a member of the group has a physical limitation and the others have an opportunity to learn empathy and compassion because that child isn’t great at what the others want to do,” Cathy explained.
David said the camp has evolved over the decades to suit the needs of the kids. It began serving kids who lost dads in the war but by the sixties, the camp was evolving as divorce and single parent homes became more common. “The challenge has been changing, adapting to the needs of families and remaining current through 2016. A lot of what we do is social work,” David said.
He indicated that many kids are referred by schools and organizations locally and across Ohio while other children attend simply because they desire a camp experience.
David said that a fair number of campers are from the immediate area. “We’ve found from working with kids in this area that local kids need this place as much as city kids. We are finding they just don’t get outside much. They’re playing video games and watching tv as much as any other kid in America despite having nature so close,” he said.
Cathy and her husband Paul have volunteered at the camp for about six years. Now retired, Paul was Education Director at Aullwood Audubon Nature Center and Cathy was an elementary science teacher. “My husband and I volunteer here because we enjoy getting to know the kids, teaching them, seeing them grow up and being part of their lives,” she said. “Environmental education is important to us and we enjoy sharing that.”
They extend environmental education into all areas of the camp including through a recycling and composting program that prevents most waste. They also buy locally produced food at the Chesterhill Produce Auction as much as possible.
David said there is much work that needs done to keep the camp operating. “We are here to be good stewards for the property and to send kids to camp,” he said. “We have a strategic plan designed to make facility improvements and to keep this camp running for another seventy years. Fortunately, we have a lot of amazing people who like this place and who are willing to give of themselves and to provide funding to send kids to camp. We couldn’t do it without them,” he added.
One of the newest additions to the camp is the Discovery Center. The dining hall is located inside and the walls are lined with stations that use artwork and interactive pieces to teach about the area’s native plants and animals, about recycling and a number of other topics. Outside the building there is a pond, native garden and a compost station.
All this work is not just for campers. Camp Oty’Okwa encourages community involvement through community events and hikes, school group visits, adult education workshops for teachers and naturalists and a host of other events. For a fee, they also teach adult education classes like one on preserving produce and even a weekend survival workshop. Their next free Community Hike will be on October 1. Reserve your spot for this or learn about other events by contacting Al Marietta at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 740-975-6384. Click here for a full list of upcoming events.
Organizations and businesses that need retreat or conference space often use the camp as well. Facilities, food and programming are available for small groups of up to twenty and large groups up to 200.
Volunteers are welcome for trail repair, camp winterization and other project work days. The public is also encouraged to attend events at the camp and cash donations are always appreciated. “We value our community and the partnerships we have here. The volunteers, the donors, the wonderful people who support what we do. We couldn’t do it without them.”
Camp Oty’Okwa is located at 24799 Purcell Rd., just a few miles from the Old Man’s Cave Visitors’ Center. Click here for more information.
Click through the slide show below for more images from Camp Oty’Okwa.