Summer camps back with new experiences

Maurice Adkinson, of Hog Valley, right, leads his teammates in a celebration following a game of Human Foosball during a three-day summer camp at Camp SoZo in Ocala National Forest.

For many young people, charitable camps are the highlight of their summer. It means getting out of the house and an opportunity to experience new things with volunteers who dedicate their time to helping them grow. While most charitable camps were canceled last year because of COVID-19, the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranch continued with its plans by offering a virtual opportunity. This year, staff is looking forward to welcoming students back for overnight stays and camp activities, but volunteers are still needed to help out with activities and to chaperone the groups.

Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches

Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches is a nonprofit that helps at-risk children.

Maria Knapp, vice president for donor and legislative affairs for the Florida Sheriffs Youth Camp, said the camp is looking forward to the return of campers.

“We will still have safety protocols in place,” she said. “Children will still be required to have masks, waivers will be signed, temperatures taken and the number of children in the cabins will be limited.”

The nonprofit has three current locations that provide a positive camping experience by providing a wholesome atmosphere for kids ages 10 to 15 years old.

Knapp said children will have plenty of activities to engage in including water sports.

“They will have opportunities to build basic teamwork and peer communication skills while also working with deputy sheriffs and law enforcement volunteers to form positive, healthy relationships,” she said.

While camp doesn’t begin until June, registration is open online now at youthranches.org.

There are three camp sites: Youth Camp-Barberville in Pierson, Caruth Camp in Inglis and a new camp, Camp Sorensen, in Hillard. Campers are assigned to a site based on their county of residence.

“Each camp runs on various weeks throughout the summer, so we can limit the number of campers on the grounds,” Knapp said. “We just want to make sure everyone is being safe.”

Helping the camp

Skip and Carol Bryan, coordinators for the Friends of Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches, and other members of the group have been on a mission to help the Youth Ranches anyway they possibly can.

One of their latest projects included partnering with the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office for a donation drive April 9 to 10. All donations were sent to the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches to either be added to the cabins or sold in their thrift stores.

“We collected items like clothes, toys, appliances, furniture and some electronics,” said Skip, of the Village of Lynnhaven. “We just wanted to continue doing our part to help them out.”

In the past, the group has decorated pillowcases to be given to children attending the camp.

“They have been used to help children remember their summer camp experience,” Carol said. “We are always looking for various ways to help the camps and the children attending them.”

Friends of SoZo Kids Inc.

Linda Casey, president of Friends of SoZo Kids Inc., said she is excited for volunteers to return to Forest Lakes Park Community Center in Ocklawaha for the SoZo summer program.

The program runs for six weeks, from June 7 to July 13, and it will be open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Wednesday.

“Fifteen to 30 children, between the ages of 5 and 17, will typically be on-site each day,” said Casey, of the Village of LaBelle. “The children usually attend for free and either walk to the center, are dropped off by family members or picked up and delivered to the center by the SoZo Kids van.”

Volunteers for this camp are needed and they must complete a volunteer application and undergo a background check, which includes being fingerprinted.

“We are also looking for individuals or groups interested in helping with snacks or meals,” Casey said in a news release. “We also want to set up stations where they can learn various skills like photography, science or even something like roller derby.”

For more information about the camp or how to volunteer, visit friendsofsozokids.com or email contact@friendsofsozokids.com.

Camp SoZo’s impact

Pastor Dave Houck is looking forward to hosting the camp this year.

Houck is pastor of Salt Life Church in the Ocala National Forest and founded the Help Agency of the Forest, which runs the SoZo Kids program.

“We weren’t able to have camp last year, so we focused on projects instead,” Houck said. “We are really looking forward to having the kids back at the camp this year as it provides a safe and fun environment for children to escape the everyday life of poverty stress. It’s a place where kids can just be kids.”

Houck said the children attending camp will be able to participate in a variety of activities including swimming, canoeing, fishing and other water activities. All children, between the ages of 7 and 17, living in the forest can attend the camp.

“We are being cautious and making sure children are able to safely attend camp with social distancing and masks,” he said.

There will be team sports and activities, movie nights, pizza parties and campfires, he added.

“Having the children at the camp means we can try to help break the cycle of poverty within their lives,” he said. “If we start them at a young age, we have a better chance of helping them have a better life with better opportunities.”

For more information about the camp or to register, visit sozokids.org.

Senior writer Andrea Davis can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5374, or andrea.davis@thevillagesmedia.com.