Editor's note: This is the first in a series of articles about Camp Sertoma and the impact its closing would have on Stokes County and on the individual lives influenced by time spent attending and working at the camp. If you have a story to share, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Camp Sertoma 4-H Educational Center is a place of refuge for thousands, a camp that offers hope and happiness to the many children, teenagers, and adults who attend each year. It is also a place of new beginnings, for not only those who attend and work at the camp, but for the many couples who choose to start their lives together, using Camp Sertoma as their wedding venue. The news that Camp Sertoma would close after this year, along with three other camps, was released in a letter this week from Dr. Marshall Stewart, State 4-H leader, and co-signed by State Cooperative Extension Associate Dean and Director Dr. Joe Zublena and Dean Dr. Richard Linton.
The letter stated that the 4-H camping program, which is described as one of the “delivery modes for positive youth development” includes six properties in North Carolina: Swannanoa in Buncombe County, Sertoma in Stokes County, Anita-Alta in Caldwell County, Betsy-Jeff Penn in Rockingham County, Millstone in Richmond County, and Eastern 4-H in Tyrrell County. Although it is acknowledged in the letter that the properties “have provided positive experiences for thousands of young people,” the letter also stated that there is “no secret that financial challenges relative to maintenance of camp properties, coupled with the economic hardships and limited discretionary income of many NC families” has caused the decision to close four of the six camps: Sertoma, Swannanoa, Anita-Alta, and Betsy-Jeff Penn, which “created a combined deficit of over $400,000 in operational costs.” The camps will remain open until Jan. 1, 2014. No information was given about the future of the properties. More information is expected in the following weeks.
Many are questioning the decision after the state has spent millions in renovations at Camp Sertoma in recent years.
Camp Sertoma is not only a 4-H camp and a local wedding venue, it is also used by other camping groups, including the Deaf Camp, hosted by the Camp Sertoma Club, which has operated at the camp for over 35 years. Camp Challenge, hosted by the North Carolina Banker's Association, has been at the camp for 17 years. Forsyth Technical Community College uses the camp for vocational programs, including welding, construction, HVAC, and more. The camp recently opened its doors for summer rentals.
Efforts are already underway to save Camp Sertoma, with a Facebook page with over 400 supporters who joined within two days of the news, as well as a website. A petition has been started and supporters, including Janis Henderson-Hunsucker, are encouraging those who want to assist in the efforts to save the camp.
Camp Sertoma is located off of Moore's Springs Road in Stokes County. It has an extensive history as a summer camp, but was originally built as a resort, Vade Mecum Springs, owned by Cicero Tise. Vade Mercum was a popular destination for many in the late 1800s and early 1900s, who sought relaxation and rejuvenation at the mineral springs and resort. Cicero Tise left a will when he died in 1917, one that stated the property would be used “to enhance lives” as they participated in “educational, religious, or scientific endeavors.” Various agencies have run the camp over the years, including the Episcopal Diocese, Easter Seals, and the Yadkinville and Winston-Salem Sertoma Clubs, and it was turned over to N.C. State University in 1981.
The 900-acre property includes the three-story old hotel, also known by many as Cheshire Hall, which was built around 1890. There is also a chapel, barn-style gymnasium, cabins, camp store, swimming pool, archery range, horse barn, ball field, ropes course, extensive trails, and more.
Keith Russell moved to Stokes County six and a half years ago to work as the director for Camp Sertoma. Russel said he had no information about the future of the property and had not received any final word on what would happen to the facility after January 1. “We have heard from lots of people, phone calls and emails, regarding the news. Lots of former campers and staff members have called and emailed, very concerned about it,” said Russell.
The closing of the camp would result in the loss of two full-time positions, as well as many part-time and summer positions. Russell said the property manager would still be living on the site, as well as staff with a presence on the site while they were working through a closure plan.
Russell said three weddings booked for May of next year were cancelled, since the camp is set to close on January 1.
Janis Henderson-Hunsucker said camp is in her blood, and she has spent 11 summers “off and on” working at Camp Sertoma as well as other camps. She started the Save Sertoma website and Facebook page in an effort to raise awareness and rally community members and those with positive camp experiences, and perhaps even save the camp. Henderson-Hunsucker said she would like to see N.C. State “put the breaks on the plans” and give the property a chance to make money, since the “wedding business is booming,” and other organizations and businesses are using the facilities, such as Forsyth Tech and Tony McGee with Moore's Springs.
“The last will and testament of the owner of Vade Mecum stated the idea that you will come here and be forever changed, 'come with me,' and you will carry the thoughts and memories forever. Sertoma is a place to gather, communicate and learn, and the concept of a learning laboratory will be destroyed if the camp closes. The efforts of putting it together and keeping it as a place of learning will go away and I want to see it preserved to serve the youth,” she said.
Over 400 have joined the Save Sertoma Facebook page in two days, many who used to work at and/or attend the camp, people from all over the United States and even around the world, Henderson-Hunsucker said. The Facebook page was full of memories of camp and many people asking how they could help.
Stokes County 4-H agent Matt Barber said the extension office was “very sad to see it go” and added that he knows how much of a positive impact it is to the community. “I spent several summers working there, and I know the positive impact it can have.”
Moore's Springs Campground and the MST Mountain Bike Trails operates on land leased from Camp Sertoma. Tony McGee of Moore's Springs said a three-year contract was signed with N.C. State, which allows him to lease the property. He said he hopes to continue his relationship with the university and wants to keep rehabilitating the property. Moore's Springs has an extensive mountain bike trail system McGee designed and helped to create, and people from many areas travel to Stokes County to ride the trails and enjoy the property. Over 1,000 people have liked the Moore's Springs page on Facebook and McGee said he has worked with workforce development and grants to create “an event venue with many sponsors.”
“We are in love with the place and we hope we can keep it going. All indications are that we will be able to…my home is here and I want to stay,” McGee said.
Support for Camp Sertoma
Those who wish to assist in the efforts to save Camp Sertoma and preserve it for future generations may visit the webpage at www.savesertoma.org as well as the Save Sertoma Facebook page in order to seek further information about the camp, who to contact, and how to help.
Many supports plan to attend the Stokes County Commissioner's meeting on Monday, October 28 at 6 p.m., at the Ronald Reagan Building at the Stokes County Government Center in Danbury, in hopes the commissioners will draw up a resolution asking NCSU to continue operating Camp Sertoma as a 4-H Educational Center. Public comments are allowed at three minutes each, for those who sign up prior to the meeting.
Memories from camp
“I remember Sertoma as always being a chance to be outgoing. I was always pushing myself to climb the highest when we went rock climbing or to be the one to go around the ropes course the most. My week at camp was always my favorite week of my entire summer! I had the opportunity to learn new things and make new friends. I went to Sertoma for eight years and I can't imagine another summer without it.” - Emily Clark of Thomasville
“This last summer was my first working for the 4H program. It was the greatest summer of my life and I was so excited to go back. There are so may memories. Kids who did not want to be there at the start of the week would cry at the end when they left…but there is one memory that I will never forget as long as I live…It was a little boy, [name withheld]. The boy was so polite and he kind of gravitated towards me as the week went on. He was so excited about archery and kept telling me that I was 'the coolest guy he'd ever met.' It was heartwarming and flattering and that was before I learned about his situation. I found out that [he] was there because his dad was in jail and his mother had passed away. A police officer dropped him off at camp so he could get away for a bit and have some fun while they sorted his new living situation out. The peace that camp brought that child, there is no telling just how much Camp Sertoma helped him. I wore a bandana every day at camp and he gave me one of his the day before he left. I will treasure that memory and that bandana for as long I live. It will also break my heart knowing there may be more kids like [him] who won't have that camp to help them during their time of need…I hope we can do something.” - Joey Jones from Wilkes County