Harbor Style Harbor Style May 2017 : Page 64
The Gator Wilderness Camp School helps adolescent DQ[UPCXKICVGVJGFKHſEWNVVGGPCIG[GCTUKPQTFGTVQ DGEQOGOQTGRTQFWEVKXGOGODGTUQHUQEKGV[ lark, 14, was a troubled teenager. He had anger issues – bullying his sister, fighting with his stepfather, being disruptive at school. He began to hang around with the “wrong crowd” and was soon stealing and lying to his parents. “I would throw temper tantrums,” he said, “if I didn’t get my way.” Clark’s rebellious attitude brought him to Gator Wilderness Camp School, located off State Road 31 in Punta Gorda. For the past 15 months, Clark’s life has taken him in a new direction. It hasn’t been easy, but he has been successful in changing his lifestyle to become a more productive member of society. “It’s a choice everyone has when they come here,” he said. “Camp didn’t change me – I changed. It took a while.” The teen said he learned that life is a two-way street at times – sometimes you get your way, other times you don’t. Clark was determined to make changes in the way he treated people. “I worked hard on developing relationships with the others around me,” he said. “I want to put more into the group than I’m taking out.” ³ Story by Al Hemingway I Photography by Steve Donaldson 64 | HARBOR STYLE
Giving Boys A Chance
The Gator Wilderness Camp School helps adolescent boys navigate the difficult teenage years in order to become more productive members of society.<br /> <br /> Clark, 14, was a troubled teenager.<br /> <br /> He had anger issues – bullying his sister, fighting with his stepfather, being disruptive at school. He began to hang around with the “wrong crowd” and was soon stealing and lying to his parents. <br /> <br /> “I would throw temper tantrums,” he said, “if I didn’t get my way.”<br /> <br /> Clark’s rebellious attitude brought him to Gator Wilderness Camp School, located off State Road 31 in Punta Gorda.<br /> <br /> For the past 15 months, Clark’s life has taken him in a new direction. It hasn’t been easy, but he has been successful in changing his lifestyle to become a more productive member of society.<br /> <br /> “It’s a choice everyone has when they come here,” he said. “Camp didn’t change me – I changed. It took a while.”<br /> <br /> The teen said he learned that life is a two-way street at times – sometimes you get your way, other times you don’t. Clark was determined to make changes in the way he treated people.<br /> <br /> “I worked hard on developing relationships with the others around me,” he said. “I want to put more into the group than I’m taking out<br /> <br /> Cowboys, Miccosukee & Buccaneers<br /> <br /> Gator Wilderness Camp is a Title 1 private school situated on 260 acres “designed specifically to serve adolescent boys from the ages of 10-15 years old. This group of boys is significantly struggling to interpret a myriad of issues in their families, schools and communities.”<br /> <br /> The average stay at the facility is between 15 and 18 months. Director Greg Kanagy said they cap the number of boys at 30. Presently, there are 21 boys at the camp, divided by age into three groups: Cowboys, ages 10 and 11; Miccosukee, ages 12 and 13; and the Buccaneers, ages 14 and 15. There are two chiefs and two supervisors per group.<br /> <br /> The nonprofit organization teaches boys four programs: building relationships, problem solving, planning and structure.<br /> <br /> “The boys have lost that spark and desire to learn and we try to reintegrate it,” Kanagy said. “They don’t do well in a standard classroom environment. We have a great success rate. We have been told by Charlotte County Schools that we have the highest test scores.”<br /> <br /> The land for the Gator Wilderness Camp was donated by a couple who lost their son in an accident and wanted to help boys from Southwest Florida, he said.<br /> <br /> Kanagy was an ordained pastor at the Locust Grove Mennonite Church, located in Belleville, Penn., prior to accepting the role of director at the camp in 2009.<br /> <br /> His wife, Sharon, a registered nurse, volunteers as the camp nurse and medication coordinator, working closely with doctors and psychiatrists to ensure the boys have the proper medical care.<br /> <br /> Upon entering the property, a person may get the feeling they have stepped back in time. Visitors are usually greeted by Kanagy in a chuck wagon powered by two Austrian Haflinger horses, Cindy and Carmel, who take people on a tour of the camp facilities.<br /> <br /> “We have eight Haflingers and two quarter horses here at camp,” Kanagy said. “The boys feed them and the horses are used for other purposes as well.”<br /> <br /> The camp is environmentally conscious – trees are cut down for use but are replenished. “Every year we plant 1,000 cypress trees and 500 Florida pines,” he said.<br /> <br /> On weekends families can visit, and every five weeks, plus Thanksgiving and Christmas, the campers can go home.<br /> <br /> The rules of the camp, prominently displayed in the mess hall, read, “What we do – we do as a group – and with a good attitude.”<br /> <br /> That’s where the four programs – building relationships, problem solving, planning and structure – play a vital role in allowing the boys to change.<br /> <br /> Building Relationships<br /> <br /> Building relationships can be difficult, especially for the troubled teens who are enrolled at the camp.<br /> <br /> As the website states, “It is the goal of each member of the staff team to place a high priority on partnering with campers to (1) develop the desire to believe he can experience success and satisfaction in relationships and (2) to develop the skill set to achieve these hopes and dreams. Campers are challenged to grow in a relationship with Jesus Christ, parents, peers, and others.”<br /> <br /> In addition to the day-to-day camp activities, Kanagy said the boys are assigned projects that allow them to work as a team to develop bonds with their fellow campers.<br /> <br /> The boys learned to build an authentic Seminole Chikee hut, a structure that is supported by posts, with a raised floor, a thatched roof and open sides, according to Kanagy.<br /> <br /> “They only use hand tools, no power tools, just like the pioneers did years ago,” he said.<br /> <br /> Also located on the property is a 55-gallon sugar cane press that is not machine driven – it runs on horsepower. “The boys operate the press by using the horses on site to turn it,” he said. “It’s also a great way to teach them history, how the early settlers used devices to make a living and take care of their families.”<br /> <br /> Kanagy said he acquired a timber framed barn in Pennsylvania that was disassembled, all the pieces were marked, and it was shipped to the camp. The students are now assembling the building.<br /> <br /> “The boys like to work with their hands,” he said. “And these projects are a perfect way to do that. It also allows them to mingle and build those much-needed relationships between each other.”<br /> <br /> Structure<br /> <br /> Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic once said, “Building a solid foundation in the early years of a child's life will not only help him or her reach their reach their full potential but will also result in better societies as a whole.”<br /> <br /> Creating structure to a boy’s early years is paramount; hopefully, as he grows, this will follow him through life.<br /> <br /> From the moment they awake in the morning, the boys are taught to make their beds, clean around the campsite and perform other duties as required.<br /> <br /> “At the Miccosukee camp, the students are building new sleeping quarters,” Kanagy said. “We use pine for the framework and bamboo sticks to support the material that covers the roof.”<br /> <br /> The boys take time out of their work schedule every day to study in the mess hall, Kanagy said. “Campers who qualify for Title 1 services receive one-on-one reading tutoring once a week,” according to the website. “Campers also receive one-on-one tutoring with a math teacher once a week, who specifically designs a personalized curriculum for each student based upon their current abilities.”<br /> <br /> Gator Wilderness offers McKay and Step Up For Student scholarships as well. “The McKay scholarship provides academic funding for students with special needs in Florida, while the Step Up For Students program provides academic funding for low-income Florida families,” the website states<br /> <br /> Twelve-year old Aidan was disrespecting authority and was “bringing his family down” when he arrived at Gator Wilderness Camp. His mother was looking into sending him to one of the Florida Sheriff’s Youth Ranches until she discovered the camp, which is much closer to home.<br /> <br /> Aidan has been at camp for a year and has adjusted well to the regulated schedule. “I try not to cut corners and hold myself to a higher standard,” he said. “I try really hard to have patience with the others in my group.”<br /> <br /> At the crafts class, Aidan said he makes things for his family members, including his dog.<br /> <br /> “I always make sure he has enough treats,” he said, smiling.<br /> <br /> Planning<br /> <br /> There are two types of planning, Kanagy said, long term and short term.<br /> <br /> “The boys develop the short-term planning, from the day’s activities to making the meal,” he said. “Five days a week they eat in the mess hall. But on the weekends, they sit down and figure out how much food is needed for the meal, who will cook, clean, etc. The chiefs and the supervisors are invited. Everything is budgeted.”<br /> <br /> Keeping with the tradition of pioneer living, the campers use Dutch ovens, pots made from cast iron, over an open fire to cook the meal.<br /> <br /> Over on the long-term planning side of the spectrum is the camp’s annual “Turkey in the Hole” fundraiser held every Thanksgiving. Turkeys are wrapped in 10 layers of aluminum foil and include some type of citrus and other seasoning. The birds are then placed into a hole and a fire is built for cooking. It normally takes eight to 10 hours until they are finished.<br /> <br /> “Last year we cooked 64 turkeys and served 700 visitors,” Kanagy said. “The event is open to the public. People donate and we have an auction to assist us in raising funds. We made $64,000 this past year. We put in a lot of time and work to ensure it would be successful.”<br /> <br /> The campers also gather and organize trips, canoeing, kayaking and hiking as part of the long-term planning process.<br /> <br /> One trip included leaving from Marco Island and canoeing to various keys to spend the night. Fourteen-year old T.J. and Clark were pulling into one camp when they struck an unknown object with their paddle<br /> <br /> “There was this huge bubble in the water,” T.J. said. “It could’ve been a shark. The camp has the best shark fishing in the area.”<br /> <br /> “In the Everglades, we were casting a net for fish and we saw a 4-foot black tip shark,” Clark said. “We dropped the net and ran.”<br /> <br /> Other excursions have included a 30-mile boat trip to Everglade City, usually done during the winter months; a 79-mile hike through the Foothill Trails in South Carolina, a journey from Fargo, Georgia to Suwannee, Florida via the Suwannee River; and a 35-mile trek through the Adirondacks.<br /> <br /> “We waded across streams waist high on the Adirondack trip,” T.J. added, “and saw lots of beaver dams.”<br /> <br /> Perhaps the most adventurous trip is still in the long-term planning stage – following the path that Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark took during their expedition to explore the northwest after the US Government had purchased an estimated 827,000 square miles of land west of the Mississippi River from France.<br /> <br /> After reading Undaunted Courage, written by noted historian Stephen Ambrose, one of the campers thought of a trip that would not only be exciting but everyone could learn about American history.<br /> <br /> Although Lewis and Clark followed the Missouri and Columbia Rivers to present day Washington State, the group plans to begin in St. Louis, Missouri, and finish their trip in Montana.<br /> <br /> “The boys had to meet with the board of directors and present their idea,” Kanagy said. “It has not been approved yet.”<br /> <br /> Problem Solving<br /> <br /> Every person faces problems throughout their lives – and the campers at the Gator Wilderness Camp are no exception. Guided by the camp chiefs and counselors, the boys learn to solve their dilemmas they face each day.<br /> <br /> “If there are any confrontations in the group, we stop immediately what we are doing and solve it,” Kanagy said. “If we don’t it will continue and fester.”<br /> <br /> Clark said he attempts to talk about troubles with his peers and work them out.<br /> <br /> “I try to take care of the people around me,” he continued. “We need to talk about ways to solve the issue by keeping it within the boundaries of the group. No matter what mood I’m in, I try not to show my problems. I try not to get down on myself. I don’t throw a pity party.”<br /> <br /> Aidan echoed Clark’s sentiments when attempting to resolve issues that occasionally arise amongst the campers. “I try to show patience and I don’t cut corners,” he said.<br /> <br /> “It is our goal that every camper entrusted to our program learns to identify and talk about problems in his own life and through the encouragement of camp staff finds the strength to tackle these problems with a spirit of honesty and courage,” the website states.<br /> <br /> Kanagy said the environment the boys live in can assist them with their personal troubles.<br /> <br /> “The woods are a safe place,” he said. “They can go there to think, yell, kick and throw rocks; it’s a way of venting. Loss and abandonment is big in a boy’s life. They need internal controls they can use as a part of solving their problems.”<br /> <br /> Evaluation<br /> <br /> At the end of every day, an important question is asked, “How did we do?”<br /> <br /> Every night after supper, counselors, chiefs and boys gather around a campfire in the pow wow area, a small clearing at each camp site, to discuss the day’s events.<br /> <br /> “We ask each other what we can do better?” Kanagy said. “Another important question is, ‘How can we change our lives?’”<br /> <br /> The evaluation is an important phase of the program, permitting each camper to look back on what they did that day and how it can be applied to use when they reach adulthood.<br /> <br /> Kanagy is justifiably proud of the positive changes Gator Wilderness Camp has had on the boys who have attended.<br /> <br /> “We had one boy who was on nine different medications when he first came here,” he said. “Today, he is a junior at Charlotte High School and is just taking two of them.”<br /> <br /> Mason spent 16 months at Gator Wilderness Camp and graduated in December 2014. He penned an essay which read, in part, “But there is one thing I know from my experiences at Gator Camp. Life is going to be hard and things are not always going to go my way. I have to step up and be strong and learn to live my life the right way. Even through these tough times I have to push through and be the best I can be, not for anyone else, but for me and for my life.”<br /> <br /> There are a row of guitars in the mess hall that the boys can practice with if they wish.<br /> <br /> Clark has added one item to his list that he can take with him when he graduates from the camp. “I want to learn to play “Sweet Home Alabama,” he said with a smile. “That’ll be cool.”<br /> <br /> For more information on Gator Wilderness Camp School, visit www.gatorwildernesscamp.com or call (941) 639-7722.<br />
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