Camp UNITE reaches new audience with virtual camp

Summer interns Ashton Farmer, from Clay County, and Frankie Baldwin, from Owsley County, pose with Camp UNITE t-shirts. | Photo contributed

Camp UNITE finished its virtual camp Thursday after three days of learning through Zoom. Despite not being in-person like normal, Nancy Hale, the president and CEO of UNITE, said the camp was still able to have a tremendous outreach.

“Camp UNITE is an education initiative,” said Dale Morton, communication director for Camp UNITE. UNITE stands for Unlawful Narcotics Investigations, Treatment and Education.

The camp is for students entering seventh, eighth and ninth grades who have been exposed or affected by drug use or students who cannot afford to attend summer camp.

“The camp is a combination of learning leadership skills, communications skills, promoting teamwork, problem solving, giving the kids confidence in their abilities, letting the youth know that there are adults that care about them and that no situation has to be faced alone,” said Morton.

This was the 14th year of Camp UNITE. The program started in Pike County, but has been held on the campus of the University of the Cumberlands for the last 12 years. This year staff made the decision that rather than cancel camp, they would move the program to an online format.

“We just could not cancel,” said Hale. “This would have been our 14th year. We’ve seen middle school students grow up in camp UNITE.”

During one of the sessions, Hale said she received a text from a mother of one of the campers. From that text, Hale said, “There were six adults who were listening to that presentation too. She just shared. She said, ‘thank you so much. This has meant as much to us as it has to the girls.’”

“I know that while the campers are Zooming in with us, there are big brothers and sisters, or there are moms and dads so whoever is there in the household is also watching and zooming,” said Hale. “The outreach has been tremendous.”

From the beginning of camp, Hale made sure to let the students know that this year may be different, but, “we have learned that we are still stronger together…even when we’re six feet apart!”

Camp staff chose green as the color of the camp shirts for several reasons. First, green is the color of compassion, Hale said in her opening speech to campers.

“Each evening, since the COVID-19 pandemic began, our Governor has asked us to light up our homes, our businesses, our schools with a green light to show compassion for those who have lost their lives to the virus,” Hale said in her speech. “In the medical world, green not only stands for compassion, but it is considered to bring out a sense of hope. When I look out and see all of you in your green camp shirts, I am filled with hope!”

Hale told campers green also represents health, adventure and harmony.

As staff was preparing for the last session of camp, Hale said there was a moment that members kept talking about.

“There was a moment that just made all of our hearts smile,” said Hale. A young man, who has been a UNITE camper before, during a session, he raised his hand. Hale said that he had raised his hand to say, “I just want to thank you all, UNITE, for putting this on. It gives me something to do at a time like this and just reminds me that I am not alone.”

Hale said the staff were so touched by the moment that one staff member announced that they were going to strive to be more like that camper. Hale said the staff was inspired to “Don’t be the best in the world, be the best for the world.”

“We probably get more from camp than the kids do,” said Hale. “We know that it changes their lives, but it changes our lives too.”

98 students registered for the free camp. Each student received a “Camp in a box,” which were hand-delivered boxes which contained a camp shirt, face mask and the supplies campers would need to complete their tracks, or activities, like basketballs and art supplies.

Students were able to participate in three online tracks. This year nine different tracks were offered including arts and crafts, basketball, dance, drama, hair and makeup, martial arts, outdoor skills, soccer and ultimate frisbee.

“It is so hard to compare virtual and in person,” said Hale. “Virtual we have only been able to be with them two hours a day for three days whereas when we are in person at the University of the Cumberlands, we are with the campers for four days, 24/7.”

UNITE was still able to provide unique activities such as the traditional camp dance and guest speakers.

UNITE staff worked with organizations throughout the community to host camp this year.

For campers who did not have access to a computer or internet, UNITE worked with youth service centers and extension offices, who allowed those students to come to their offices and use their computers for two hours to participate.

The camp is funded by donations, it does not receive funding from the state or federal level, said Morton.

Hale said the camp plans to return to its in person format next summer on the campus of the University of the Cumberlands.

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