LSU AgCenter Southwest Region returns to 4-H Summer Camp to celebrate its centennial year

(09/02/2022) POLLOCK, La. – Now that the school bells have once again started ringing, hundreds of 4-H'ers from across the LSU AgCenter’s Southwest Region are returning to school with fond memories of 4-H Summer Camp at Camp Grant Walker.

Summer 2022 was a season of special importance for Christine Bergeron, director of the Grant Walker 4-H Educational Center. This year was the first that campers could return to the facility in rural Grant Parish since 2019 due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic two years ago, in addition to damage sustained during the 2020 hurricane season. But also, part of this year’s excitement was the celebration of the facility’s 100th year of getting Louisiana’s 4-H'ers into the outdoors for educational, recreational and motivational fun.

“We had to do a few things differently based on the aftermath of COVID and with damage from Hurricanes Laura and Delta — and the ice storm,” said Bergeron

Since 1922, Camp Grant Walker has served as a hub for generations of 4-H members from all 64 parishes to converge among the longleaf pines. Local businessman Rufus Walker offered the use of the land to the 4-H program in 1922. Then in 1936, he officially donated the land to the state. Now, the 90-acre facility has grown to host 4,000 to 5,000 campers annually.

“The interesting thing about being here for 100 years is we keep hearing stories of people who have attended camp in past years, and the positive memories they share with us,” Bergeron said.

In Bergeron’s decade of serving as director of Camp Grant Walker, she said one of the most rewarding experiences is seeing campers remain involved in the 4-H program by serving in leadership roles at summer camp years later.

“You have your campers and then those campers become junior counselors. Then when they go onto college, they apply to be our summer staff team members. Several of those staff members go on to become 4-H agents. That to me is how I know we have a strong, positive program … because those leadership roles continue.”

As camp staff team member Gabby Gay leads a group of campers in an outdoor team-building activity, she says she has made the transition from camper to junior counselor to staff member. The LSU dietetics major from Cameron Parish credits her 4-H agents in motivating her into leadership positions.

“I feel like 4-H — even since I was a camper — has built me into the leader that I am,” she said. “I wouldn’t have taken the staff position if I weren’t so comfortable in my leadership abilities. I give all of that to Louisiana 4-H.”

4-H Agent Teddi Folse was instructing the camp’s all-terrain vehicle safety course during the week she brought her Lafourche Parish campers to Pollock. She also personally progressed through the 4-H camp experience from camper to counselor. Now, she is a 4-H agent. This year 49 Lafourche Parish 4-H'ers attended camp at Camp Grant Walker.

Folse explained, “Camp is fun; it’s educational. Our parish activities are fun and educational. So, if they do all of that together, it makes a big circle.”

Cameron Parish 4-H Agent Brittany Zaunbrecher served as camp manager the week she and her colleagues brought 29 campers and five junior leaders from Cameron Parish to Camp Grant Walker this summer. She said celebrating 100 years of 4-H Summer Camp is an opportunity for the campers to continue the legacy of learning, socializing and having fun at the same facility generations of 4-H members have attended before.

“It gives them the chance to be a part of a long-standing tradition,” said Zaunbrecher. “For some of them, their parents had come here; their grandparents had come here. Maybe, their brothers and sisters had come here. So, it’s just really special for them to get to experience this place.”

The fourth through sixth grade campers have opportunities to enjoy all the outdoors has to offer with recreational activities such as canoeing, archery, hiking, fishing and sports. But the educational programming offers campers opportunities to choose different activities that they may have never been exposed to back home. The educational tracks, designed by LSU AgCenter specialists, include outdoor adventures; science, engineering and technology (S.E.T.); Louisiana wetlands; food and fitness; water safety; and hunter safety. Program Director Adam O’Malley said the evolution of the educational tracks began as way to bolster educational experiences in a fun environment. He said the activities offered now greatly differ from what campers may have seen in 1922.

“Since the late ’80s early ’90s, 4-H really did start to focus more on the educational curriculum and shift its focus outside of traditional agricultural and home economics-based topics. STEM is now one of our big focus areas, along with healthy living and citizenship. We offer drone, robotics and other science and technology related programming along with highlighting the options for occupational outlook.”

O’Malley said the programming offers campers from varied backgrounds the ability to delve into activities that may not be available or prevalent in their home parishes.

“Here at camp, we are able to offer kids from more urban areas the outdoor skills curriculum that they may not have experienced at home,” O’Malley said. “And we can offer the STEM-based projects for the more rural kids who traditionally have more of a focus or interest in the outdoor skills.”

Participating in the S.E.T. educational track was a trio of Cameron Parish campers who were carefully working to assemble a tower out of straws and popsicle sticks. They were all first-time campers who agreed that they want to return to 4-H Camp next year.

“Camp is really fun … except for the time we have to wake up,” said Brycen Doucet, who hails from the Cameron Parish community of Grand Lake.

Also from Grand Lake, Kutter Sibille explained, “I chose the science track because it seemed fun, but I also like the outdoors track where we get to go on outdoors adventures.”

Lafourche Parish Junior Leader Layla Zirlott said serving at camp will aid her as she begins to pursue an education degree at Nicholls State University.

“I get to build friendships with leaders and the kids,” she said. “I get to build connections. I get to learn a lot about myself, too.”

Adult volunteers are a vital part of keeping the camp going week to week. Harry Hitt, from Lafourche Parish, returned to Camp Grant Walker 27 years after he was a camper. This year he accompanied his 12-year-old son, Connor. Hitt said the program is an engaging experience for all the campers.

“It’s very well organized. There’s a lot of small details that they cover to make sure the kids stay busy. There’s a very good attitude towards safety, keeping the kids engaged and teaching them growing-up skills — respect, fairness, all those things.”

From Cameron to Lafourche Parish, campers from across the Southwest Region attend 4-H Camp each week of the summer for a Monday through Thursday stint which Bergeron said is, for many, the longest time they have been away from home.

“For a lot of them, it’s their first time away from home,” Bergeron said. “This is a very safe environment. We pride ourselves on that.”

2020 proved to be a tough year for Camp Grant Walker as the COVID-19 pandemic and a tumultuous hurricane season halted all camp activities. During the height of the pandemic, no campers were in attendance, but Bergeron, along with Program Director Adam O’Malley, quickly adapted to offer virtual and at-home camp experiences replete with educational, recreational and social activities. In the summer of 2021, Bergeron, O’Malley and staff members hit the roads offering a “traveling summer camp” in different areas of the state.

“The 2020 Virtual Camp and 2021 Traveling Camp were new territories for us,” Bergeron said. “We knew we just couldn’t stay stagnant and not do anything for our youth. We wanted to continue to provide youth programs, even if it was different and out of the box.”

When the 2020 hurricane season came barreling through Louisiana, Camp Grant Walker sustained considerable damage. Bergeron said several buildings, including the facility’s cafeteria and several cabins, were damaged by Hurricanes Laura and Delta. Some repairs still need to be made, but Bergeron and her staff were able to host campers onsite again by shifting activities to other buildings on the property. She said the camp would not have recovered so quickly had it not been for the support of the community, LSU AgCenter administration, 4-H state staff, program leaders and agents, and the 4-H community.

“We had a lot of outreaches from people who wanted to help us after the hurricane with cleaning up debris or by donating money for building repairs,” Bergeron recalled. “Because we’ve touched so many people throughout the years, people were very generous and wanting to give back.”

Three 4-H youth working together on a STEM track.

Cameron Parish 4-H campers, from left, Kutter Sibille, Tucker Canik and Brycen Doucet work together in the science, engineering and technology educational track at Camp Grant Walker. Photo by Derek Albert/LSU AgCenter

4-H youth learning to have a steady aim.

Cameron Parish 4-H Agent Bradley Pousson helps a 4-H camper steady his aim during a session of Camp Grant Walker’s hunter safety course. Photo by Derek Albert/LSU AgCenter

Youth participate in outdoor team-building activity.

4-hers participate in an outdoor team-building activity as part of the Food & Fitness educational track during their week at Camp Grant Walker. Photo by Derek Albert/LSU AgCenter

4-H youth learning safety on the water.

Campers train to stay afloat as part of the Water Safety educational track at Camp Grant Walker. Photo by Derek Albert/LSU AgCenter

3 youth riding ATVs.

As 4-H Summer Camp evolved over its 100-year span, activities such as ATV Safety have made their way into the Camp Grant Walker offerings. Photo by Derek Albert/LSU AgCenter

9/3/2022 9:21:28 PM
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