‘Camp the way it should be’: 4-H campgrounds welcome youth back in time for 100th anniversary

(08/02/22) POLLOCK, La. — Charles Hebert is among thousands of people who have memories of spending a week at Camp Grant Walker during childhood summers.

Making the trek to the Pollock campgrounds for a few days of doing outdoor activities, making new friends and sleeping in cabins has long been a highlight of the Louisiana 4-H experience. Hebert had such a good time that he went on to become a camp counselor and volunteer — and ultimately, a 4-H agent with the LSU AgCenter.

He still gets excited when camping season rolls around.

“This is the best and most fun time of the year,” said Hebert, who has been with the AgCenter for 28 years and is based in Lafayette Parish. “We get to recruit kids to come to camp. Many of them have never left their parishes, so this is a new experience.”

Camp Grant Walker holds a special place in the hearts of generations of Louisiana 4-H’ers. This year, the facility — named for the parish where it is located and for local businessman Rufus Walker, who donated the land — is celebrating its 100th anniversary. And this summer’s camping season, which wrapped up at the end of July, marked the first time since 2019 that 4-H’ers from across the state have converged on the campgrounds.

“We’re just glad to be back in person,” said camp director Christine Bergeron. “The last two years, we’ve had a lot of struggles — not only being closed for COVID, but also the damage we suffered from hurricanes Laura and Delta and from the ice storm.”

4-H staff put on a virtual camp in 2020 and organized a traveling day camp program last year. This year, participants were back to doing quintessential summer camp activities — swimming, canoeing, riding four-wheelers and fishing as well as arts and crafts, games, dances and educational endeavors — beneath towering pine trees.

“Everything we do is outdoors, and it’s important for the kids,” Bergeron said. “It’s important for us to be back where we’re supposed to be and have camp the way it should be.”

The campers are in fourth to sixth grades. Camp sessions are held each week throughout the summer, with a few parishes participating in each session.

“Camp is really fun, and unlike school, they give out learning in more of a fun way than a boring way,” said Mana Salehi, a camper from Lafayette Parish who was attending with her twin sister, Nikki. “And I really like all of the activities we get to do.”

Her favorites were swimming and canoeing.

Does she want to come back next year? “Yes, definitely.”

Winston Lambert, a 9-year-old camper, was fascinated by a science exercise in which campers put different materials in a water bottle to model pollution and filtration in wetlands environments. “It was pretty cool,” he said.

Most of all, Winston said, he was enjoying the freedom that came with being away from home.

Camp helps young people develop independence and other important life skills, Hebert said. For example, campers are responsible for working together to keep their cabins clean. And because they come from communities across Louisiana, campers learn to respect differences.

“You have kids from the south and kids from the north that learn that kids speak differently. Language is a little different — our dialects,” Hebert said. “But ultimately, our kids come together as a great team.”

The experience also opens participants’ eyes to the many opportunities available to them in 4-H, said Colton Dupre, who came to Camp Grant Walker as a youngster in 4-H and is now a staff member there.

“I think this is a good place to build those connections with other people and start to see 4-H is bigger than just your small clubs,” he said. As 4-H’ers get older, they can participate in state and national competitions, return to camp as counselors and more.

Camp Grant Walker opened in 1922. Back then, the cost to attend summer camp was one live chicken.

Many things have changed in the past century.

When Wanda Zeringue camped as a 4-H’er in the 1960s, “it was a little different” than the modern-day experience. She recalled staying in cabins that didn’t have air conditioning and cooling off during the day by swimming in a creek.

Years later, Zeringue sent her children to camp, and more recently, her grandchildren have attended. She said she has been pleased to see new activities added and facility improvements made over the years.

These days, she comes to camp as a volunteer with Lafayette Parish 4-H. She was joined this summer by one of her granddaughters, who was at camp for the first time.

“I thoroughly enjoy it — watching the kids learn and interact,” Zeringue said. “They’re very quiet the first day, but by the last day, they don’t want to leave.”

She has fond memories of her time at Camp Grant Walker and is glad the tradition is continuing.

“4-H camp was a week away from home. You got to learn new things. You got to see people from all over the state,” she said. “And it was really a fun time, and it’s been the same for my daughter and for my granddaughters.”

Two 4H kids in a canoe.

4-H’ers, including Lafayette Parish’s Nikki Salehi, right, paddle canoes around a pond at Camp Grant Walker. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter

4H kids riding fourwheelers.

LSU AgCenter 4-H agents Chris Pearce, left, and André Brock, right, help 4-H’ers get accustomed to the controls of four-wheelers at Camp Grant Walker. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter

Girl fixing her fishing rod.

Olivia Royer, a 4-H’er from St. Martin Parish, adjusts the line on her rod while fishing in a pond at Camp Grant Walker. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter

4H kids sitting in bleachers.

4-H’ers gather for an assembly beneath pine trees in Camp Grant Walker’s outdoor Greek theater. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter

4H kids loading a vehicle.

LSU AgCenter 4-H agents Charles Hebert, second from left in red, and Chad Hagan, right with box, share a light moment as they distribute water and snacks to campers. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter

8/2/2022 11:37:21 AM
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