Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina celebrates a successful second year of Our Big Backyard summer camp

Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina hosted its second year of summer camp, Our Big Backyard, at the end of June. Similar to its inaugural year in 2018, participants experienced a weeklong traveling day camp that included unique outdoor, nature-based activities each day. The summer camp is presented in partnership with the N.C. Cooperative Extension-Burke County Center.

The purpose of Our Big Backyard is to immerse children in the outdoors, increasing their environmental literacy through fun, educational activities. Foothills Conservancy registered 53 campers this year, an increase of 10 from 2018.

N.C. Cooperative Extension-Burke County Center provided four graduates from their 4-H Teen Leader Internship Program who served as camp mentors. Numerous adult volunteers also facilitated camp activities, in addition to conservancy and Cooperative Extension staff.

This year’s camp aimed to create a whole new week of experiences, but a few favorite venues from 2018 remained on the schedule. As in 2018, campers visited Lake James State Park on Monday for hiking, swimming and lessons on aquatic creatures in Paddy’s Creek and, on Tuesday, they picked blueberries at Perry’s Berry’s to create blueberry jam later in the week.

“We wanted the week to include some unique experiences in case we had returning campers,” said Beth Willard-Patton, associate director of the conservancy. “So we only duplicated activities that we knew were favorites based on feedback from our 2018 participants.”

Everything else campers experienced during the week was unique to this year’s program. Campers visited South Mountains State Park and learned about the native wildlife and collected samples from the Jacob Fork River with a park ranger.

Wednesday was spent entirely in Downtown Morganton beginning the day with a treat — watching a free movie at Marquee Cinemas. Following the movie, TOSS Studio led outdoor art activities using fruits and vegetables as inspiration. Campers created their own individual pieces to take home and collaborated on a larger piece that now hangs in the Foothills Conservancy office. They then toured Adventure Bound Books, where they received an age-appropriate environment-related book. Downtown Morganton gave each child five dollars in Downtown Bucks to spend at the Morganton Mini Farmers Market, where campers bought fruit, flowers, and sweets. Homer’s generously opened its doors for campers to enjoy another treat — free ice cream courtesy of the restaurant.

“This was one of our favorite days because of all the generous support we received from our incredible downtown community,” said Willard-Patton. “Most of the kids had never been to the bookstore and it was hard to get them to leave! We also learned that one camper loved the Farmers Market so much that he asked his parents to go the following week so he could show them around.”

On Thursday, the N.C. Cooperative Extension-Burke County Center hosted camp at its facility. Campers rotated through stations during the day, including one station where campers assembled solar powered fuel cell car kits, which were funded by Burke Women’s Fund.

“It was our priority to include STEM learning in this year’s schedule, and we were thrilled when Burke Women’s Fund awarded us a grant to purchase a car kit for every camper to assemble themselves — with the help of a volunteer,” said Willard-Patton.

Other Thursday activities included making molds of animal paws, dissecting owl pellets and identifying small animal bones, painting with fish stamps, assembling seed necklaces, a planting exercise featuring a mini-greenhouse, and outdoor yard games. Greenway Transportation also made a presentation to campers about using public transit.

On the final day of camp, Camp Grier hosted campers for a variety of activities. A 501(c)(3) non profit itself, Camp Grier partnered with Foothills Conservancy to place a conservation easement on 203 acres of their 650 acre property in 2017.

“When you think about attending a summer camp, their facility is the image that would come to mind and we were so fortunate to have their support of Our Big Backyard especially during their busy camp season,” said Willard-Patton.

Campers slid down a natural rock slide, one of the most popular attractions at the camp. Willing campers put on youth bee suits and got hands-on with the active honey bee hives on the property. Others played in the creek, made “seed bombs” and met some of the pigs that live on this thriving farm. Many of the campers had never visited Camp Grier.

Conservancy staff sent a survey to parents and guardians of campers the week following camp to ask about their experience.

“The response was incredible,” said Sophie Shelton, communications and outreach associate for Foothills Conservancy. “Many campers revealed that at least one thing during the week was a first for them, like picking blueberries. Even more kids than last year reported that they had never been to Lake James.”

Our Big Backyard is funded entirely by grants, private gifts and in-kind donations from local businesses. The conservancy received generous support from Burke County United Way, Carolinas HealthCare Systems Blue Ridge Foundation, International Paper Foundation, Burke Youth Organized Philanthropists and the Burke Women’s Fund.