The sounds of children truly at play probably don’t differ much from generation to generation. So it seems the soundtrack of summer at Camp Grant Walker has likely been the same for 100 years — laughter drifting among the pines, arms splashing in the water, an arrow whistling through the air, feet dancing across the floor.
The 4-H campground, nested on 90 acres in the town of Pollock near Kisatchie National Forest, has been hosting Louisiana youth for a century. Current campers’ great-grandparents may have experienced their first time away from home at 4-H camp, learning new skills and making lifelong friends just as their progeny might have this past summer.
In the 1950s, Wayne Jordan’s parents dropped him off at an office in Ouachita Parish where he would board a school bus to head south to what is now the LSU AgCenter Grant Walker 4-H Educational Center.
“I didn’t know a soul on that bus,” Jordan said. “I just knew I wanted to go and have fun.”
Nearly 70 years later, he still remembers the assemblies, screened-window bunkhouses, wildlife and nature classes, nightly dances and swimming in the creek. “I hear they have a nice pool now,” he said.
Camping has been a fixture of the 4-H Youth Development Program since its earliest beginnings. In 1915, the first 4-H camp was organized in Virginia. Within three years, more than 1,700 camps had emerged across the U.S., with total attendance surpassing 100,000 youth.
In 1922, the first group of youth camped under the pines on land owned by local businessman, Rufus Walker. Since then, thousands of young campers from all 64 Louisiana parishes have taken part in the transformational experience on that same spot.
For Jordan, like 4-H’ers who attended camp before and after him, camp was an unforgettable and rewarding experience.
“Camp provided an opportunity to broaden my outlook on life and the importance of building new relationships,” he said. “It also kindled a flame inside me to have a career of service.”
Jordan spent 30 years working in Extension in Mississippi and Georgia. As the Extension director for Georgia, his office oversaw five 4-H camps across the state. He said it was always great to visit the camps, be with the campers and see youngsters still learning and growing through 4-H camping.
“I have to believe that my 4-H experiences, including Camp Grant Walker, were significant contributors toward my career in Extension,” he said.
Nearly 60 years later, Sean Elsea attended that same camp and also found his career path.
During his second year at camp, Elsea was familiar with the track selection process. Campers would gather at the Old Dance Pavilion and race to the assorted tables to sign up for the track they wanted. After a moment of indecision, he headed to his top choice only to find the sign-up sheet had already been filled. A quick detour to a second table revealed yet another full sign-up sheet. That left him in the Food and Fitness track.
It was the summer of 2012, and Elsea said Zumba was all the rage. “We would go early each day to cook, then after eating the food, we’d do these little Zumba workouts. I was not thrilled about that part,” he said. “But for the whole week, we would make fun food projects. It was the first time I got the chance to cook on my own, and I realized it was something I really enjoyed doing. After I left camp, I didn’t want to stop.”
Elsea kept cooking. He became the camp cook for his Boy Scout troop, participated in the ProStart culinary arts program in high school and then attended Baton Rouge Community College for culinary arts. Today, Elsea cooks fine cuisine at an upscale restaurant in Baton Rouge.
“That track at camp was the first thing that ignited my spark — that made me want to go down that path. I wouldn’t have ever thought of culinary arts as a career until that summer. As soon as I did that, I realized my passion for cooking.”
By the time Elsea attended camp, bunkhouses were airconditioned; the grounds had a Junior Olympic-size swimming pool. But he also went to assemblies in the Greek theatre and tried to get his preferred track in the Old Dance Pavilion — these were some of the first structures built on the grounds. In 1938, the Works Progress Administration in Louisiana, arising from President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, began construction of bunkhouses, a cafeteria, open air pavilions, the Greek theatre and several other permanent structures. Many of these improvements still stand today.
Todd Tarifa, the department head for 4-H Youth Development in Louisiana, said he has seen how 4-H camp can change lives. As a former 4-H agent, regional 4-H coordinator and specialist, Tarifa has watched countless kids go through camp, including his own daughter.
“4-H camp has provided Louisiana youth with a place to grow, gain independence, and explore future opportunities,” Tarifa said.
“I have witnessed the positive effects attending 4-H camp can have on a child.”
Each year, camp director Christine Bergeron sees friends reuniting at camp after a year apart or kids who start out homesick but end up having the best week at camp.
“Camping remains one of the most vital parts of positive youth development by providing a safe environment for youth to develop social skills, build character, improve responsibility and resiliency and have fun with their friends.”
The camp has experienced its own resiliency. After two years of being shuttered because of COVID-19 and significant hurricane damage to the facility from multiple storms, Louisiana 4-H was determined to bring camp back to Grant Walker in 2022. 4-H’ers could participate in a virtual camp in 2020 and camp staff created a traveling camp for 2021. While they were able to reopen the facility this year, it was not at full capacity. In a typical year, camp hosts about 475 kids a week. This year weekly attendance was around 210.
“This was the 100th anniversary. We knew we wouldn’t have the facilities up to 100% but we had to do whatever we could do to get here,” said Charles Hebert, 4-H agent in Lafayette Parish and former 4-H camper.
While students rotated through their educational tracks and participated in recreational activities, construction crews were repairing flooded bunkhouses and tree-shattered roofs on buildings not in use this summer. Dynamic Group donated labor and material at a value of nearly $60,000 to make repairs to the multipurpose building, which allowed food to be prepared onsite for the return of summer camp.
Much is possible this year because of donations. Save the Children donated more than $50,000 in educational materials and camp bed donations to replace items damaged by hurricanes Laura and Delta.
The Meraux Foundation contributed $25,000 towards fundraising efforts immediately following these storms. CLECO provided more than $45,000 of in-kind storm recovery tree removal and road repairs across the entire property. A 2019 donation from the Saints and Pelicans sports teams allows camp to offer scholarships to one student from each of Louisiana’s 64 parishes.
Mana Salehi from Lafayette Parish was attending camp for the first time with her twin sister, Nikki.
“Camp is really fun. Unlike school, we learn in more of a fun way, and I really like all the activities we get to do,” Salehi said.
Camper Winston Lamber from St. Charles Parish said, “I like it because I don’t have my parents supervising me.”
Rene Amond never attended as a camper but became a volunteer in the 1970s. She remembers wondering what she was getting herself into her first year.
“The minute I stepped onto the grounds, I fell in love,” Amond said. “I thought it was a blast, and I looked forward to it each year almost as a vacation.”
Amond continued to chaperone camp for 19 years. Through laughs, Amond recounted many stories. One involved her waking up in the middle of the night and feeling something crawling on her. A child staying in Amond’s bunk had found an unusual bug on the campground and packed it in her suitcase to take home. The bug, a rather large rhinoceros beetle, had escaped the child’s suitcase and found its way to Amond.
Bugs, dirt, kids being kids — it was all part of the fun.
Amond’s campers couldn’t know the technological advances their kids would come to see as just a part of everyday life. Today’s youth can spend hours a day staring at screens, but the week at camp brings them back to nature.
“Camp allowed us to be kids. No technology, just fun-filled days in the sun and educational learning. Although we didn’t know we were learning, we were, and that is something we remember and cherish,” said Xavier Bell. He attended camp as a camper, counselor and camp staff, and he is still going to camp, each year as a 4-H agent, yet another example of someone who found their career path by way of 4-H camp.
Marla Elsea and Adam O’Malley contributed to this article.
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Rene Amond first signed up to chaperone a week of camp in 1975. She returned for 18 more years.
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