Fort Mill Times

Carolina Tales: Lake Wylie gem hidden away in plain view

By Ken Sanford

Camp Thunderbird’s Wet Wylie Water Slide starts from a 30-foot tower emptying riders into Lake Wylie.
Camp Thunderbird’s Wet Wylie Water Slide starts from a 30-foot tower emptying riders into Lake Wylie. LAKE WYLIE PILOT FILE PHOTO

Lake Wylie has a hidden gem. Well, perhaps it’s just hidden in plain sight. It’s the YMCA of Greater Charlotte’s Camp Thunderbird.

Many of us pass it daily on Highway 49, going to or coming from Charlotte, with a good view from Buster Boyd Bridge while crossing the lake. River Hills residents come even closer, traveling back and forth through the front gate to the shops along Highway 49. Boaters also get an excellent view, particularly of the camp’s waterfront and the activities there, particularly the sailboats that paint a beautiful picture on the lake.

What many may not realize is Camp Thunderbird is a major enterprise, one that provides major services to the greater community, the region and beyond. The camp serves 2,000 youth every year in residential camping, and additional numbers of youth throughout the year in a variety of educational activities, particularly environmental education. The reach of the camp begins in South Carolina, spreads into North Carolina, expands to many states across the nation, and even attracts international campers, who provide a broadening experience for regional campers.

In an interview, Jill Moore, executive director of the camp, drew back the curtain on the camp, and its activities and services. She came to Lake Wylie in 2014 with 25 years in nonprofit management and human resources. With her family - husband Joe, a health and wellness director for the Siskey YMCA, and sons Jordan, a sixth grader, and Joshua, a fourth grader, she enjoys hiking, biking and outside games.

Moore heads an experienced leadership team at Camp Thunderbird. Resident Camp Director Kaye Carroway has 38 years in leadership positions, and the others are experienced in the YMCA organization, including Kaye’s husband, Waterfront Director Bill Carraway. Brad Rippetoe is operations director, and Chris Goodrum is camp assistant director.

Here’s some history: Camp Thunderbird was originally called Observer Fresh Air Camp when it was founded 80 years ago in 1936 by Curtis B. Johnson, founder and former owner and publisher of The Charlotte Observer. His goal was to use the natural surroundings and support of area church members to provide an experience that would let children achieve their fullest potential in “mental development, physical well being, social growth and spiritual awareness.” Johnson did have a restriction on the gift. It had to be used for a camp. It couldn’t be sold for the rapidly developing community that has grown up around it.

Thanks to Johnson’s foresight and the enlightened leadership of the YMCA, the camp has survived and thrived. Camp Thunderbird is one of the largest camps in the country.

The most important impact of Camp Thunderbird is not just that it provides a beautiful natural backdrop for the greater Lake Wylie community and the suburbs of Charlotte, but also the contribution it makes to the growth and development of children who participate in its programs. At first, the camp programs were just for boys. But in 1965, the mission was expanded to include girls. The camp’s programs now provide more than 1,000 experiences on a year-round basis.

It may be a natural result of the many years of its existence and the concurrent growth of the region that includes newcomers from across the country, but there are occasional misunderstandings of the mission and reach of the camp and its programs. Some have said, “I see busloads of wealthy kids arriving from Atlanta every weekend.”

The actual count of South Carolina youth served by Camp Thunderbird in the past two years has grown from 400 to 470. Equally impressive is the number of South Carolina youth provided with financial assistance. That percentage has grown from 9 percent to 15 percent.

And, yes, providing a camp of the quality of Camp Thunderbird is expensive. Just consider that Camp Thunderbird operates a fleet of boats, for example. Maintaining them on a year-round basis is costly, But Moore and the YMCA leadership wish for every child to have a camping experience. She spends a considerable portion of her time raising money for scholarships to make that goal a reality. Families are charged on a sliding scale, based on ability to pay.

The programs of the camp are much broader than the overnight camps. And they run year-round. Camp Thunderbird serves 130 schools in the area with its environmental programs. Moore says she and the camp staff are dedicated to safety. This mission is reinforced by boating accidents, often involving adults who neglect safety precautions.

Camp Thunderbird has contributed substantially in the last eight decades to the community we call home.

My two sons were day campers at Camp Thunderbird, commuting daily from Charlotte. My daughter was a member of the Y Indian Princess program, a father-daughter togetherness experience. We stayed in the cottages and enjoyed the camp’s offerings. It was indeed an experience to try to sleep near bunks full of giggling girls through the night.

For many years, my church, St. John’s in Charlotte, rented Camp Thunderbird for a Sunday for a day of inspirational speakers, music, recreation and fellowship. Sadly that process became too expensive, but it generated fond lasting memories.

My wife is even more experienced with Camp Thunderbird, having three daughters who were campers, two of them later becoming camp counselors. More recently, one daughter has been serving on a YMCA board dealing with Camp Thunderbird alumni relations. Both daughters participate in reunions. For two summers, a granddaughter has been a cabin counselor and a tennis instructor and two grandchildren have been campers for several summers.

Camp Thunderbird indeed provides a family experience, and we are fortunate to have it in our midst.

Ken Sanford has lived in Lake Wylie 15 years, and is a former Charlottean who often visited the lake. His first memory was with a church group swimming near the old Belk mansion. He had just gotten contact lenses when someone pushed him off the dock. He was able to close his eyes in time to protect the lenses when he hit the waterand went on to have fun.

On the calendar

Camp Thunderbird is hosting Farm to Table Dinner 6:30-8 p.m. Oct. 6.

Learn about sustainable practices from camp’s environmental educators to use at home, and how the Environmental Education Center impacts students from southeastern schools large and small, including Title 1 schools.

Dinner will be prepared by camp chef Chris Averett and his team using farm fresh local ingredients, including some from the camp garden. Dress is casual.

Tickets cost $25. Register by Oct. 3 at campthunderbird.org/events.

Call 704-716-4100 for more information.

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