MONTICELLO, Ill. —Kids are swimming, kayaking, doing archery, learning about science and all the fun things they always do at 4-H Memorial Camp in Monticello.
One big thing is different this year.
As part of the pandemic protocol, which was tighter in Illinois this winter when Andy Davis, University of Illinois Extension camp director was planning this year’s event, the camp is not just for kids.
Instead of bunking in the cabin with other kids, Mom, Dad and siblings hunker down together at night and enjoy activities together during the day.
Each family gets their own cabin during the three-day, two-night summer camp located at a lake and surrounded by trees.
“All of the things that make camp great like outdoor adventures, hiking, boating, and swimming are just as fun socially distanced once we flipped to a family camp model,” Davis said.
The camp organizers have held family camps before, so they knew how to run it.
The camp was closed in 2020. While minimal staff did repairs and maintenance, is was sad to see no campers, Davis said. Even though the camp is limited in size and arranged to suit pandemic protocol, it is alive with activity this year.
Only 15 families participate in each camp.
During this transitional pandemic year, there are also fewer camp weeks, fewer staff and fewer campers, but there is no shortage of fun and laughter. Even the odd scream can be heard as first-timers try out the zip line.
“We’re all super excited to be here,” said Bethany Wood, the camp’s special programs director.
As always, camp activities have timely themes. Wood, with funding from a Bayer grant, is holding a Carbon Consumption Challenge theme this year, combining science, technology, engineering and math skills into the mix. Campers and their families learn what agriculture, businesses and individuals can, and are doing to reduce their carbon footprints.
In 2019, the Bayer grant funded activities about pollinators.
This particular camp, the weekend of July 4, was for members of those who served in the military. Since 2013 University of Illinois Extension has hosted children of veterans for a week of camp each summer, with support from Camp Corral, a nationwide nonprofit serving the children of wounded, ill, or fallen veterans.
Davis said many of the campers have traveled a long distance this year, including from North Carolina, Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana and Georgia.
“I’ve never remember so many people coming from so far away for a three-day program,” he said.
One of the 15 families really enjoying the experience was that of Dennis Funtila, a Marine veteran from Las Vegas. The family of five didn’t know what a “hayrack ride” was until their first ever hayride. They were accustomed to the bright city lights of the Neon Capital of the World. Fireflies were new to them.
Funtila’s smile was broad when he described his 4-year-old bravely going down a zip line for the first time. Funtila also smiled as he watched his family taking an archery lesson. The proud dad said the Camp Corral experience and the Extension staff here have done a lot to help him with post-traumatic stress disorder and to enjoy time with his family.
“We are grateful,” he said.
After archery, the Funtilla family headed to the water sport area where kayakers and canoers come and go near the designated swimming areas with lifeguards on duty. Nearby campers play beach volleyball, fish and take part in other activities.
During the day someone will likely be making a tie dye shirt, a craft, a model rocket, rock climbing or learning to safely fly a drone, Davis said. Later in the day are hayrides and campfires.
Organizers adapted to the changing state rules, carefully followed protocols for the three main camps open to all. Only one child had to be of 4-H age, 5-18 years old, for the family to qualify to stay in one of the 32 cabins, he said.
The Camp Corral family camp and the Air Force/Army Family Camp, for currently serving families, had similar programs to the family 4-H camp, but only have a more defined audience, he said.
When the 250-acre camp is in full service, there are 320 beds, often used by special groups including the Diabetes Association, FFA and church groups, Davis said.
The family camps are so popular, he would like to add more for next year – but all the weeks are already planned for the popular 4-H camp in 2022.