Outdoors: Second chances

Last month, a 15-year-old named Alex celebrated his graduation from Camp Woodson in Swannanoa. I was there to hear him speak, along with a crowd of fellow graduates, employees, court counselors and staff from the Swannanoa Valley Youth Development Center, where the camp’s offices are. In a soft voice, Alex said, “I am a man who believes in second chances.”

The road to second chances: Camp Woodson’s fate lies in the hands of state legislators debating the new budget. Photo by Jonathan Welch

And that, indeed, is why he was there. Operated by the N.C. Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Camp Woodson runs a voluntary, adventure-based wilderness program that’s been giving teens like Alex a fresh start since 1976. Most of them have been committed to one of the state’s youth-development centers. Successfully completing a 32-day Woodson session is their return ticket home. But it isn’t easy.

“We’re no more a ‘camp’ than Camp Lejeune,” says veteran field-staffer Noel Swinburne. Each session is structured around five backpacking expeditions, with a handful of other activities mixed in, such as rock climbing, paddling, community service and a monitored solo excursion.

As a former Woodson employee, I’ve seen the program in action, and I believe in it. That’s why I was listening to Alex. But his group’s graduation may be one of the program’s last. Gov. Beverly Perdue has excluded Woodson from her proposed budget. There’s still a chance—but little time—to prove to legislators that they shouldn’t pull the plug on it.

True, it’s no easy task measuring the learning outcomes of a therapeutic wilderness program, or convincing legislators that it works. “I believe the program really makes a difference,” says Camp Woodson Director Steve Teixeira. In part, he gauges the program’s success by its favorable recidivism rates. Of the 103 students to participate in a Woodson session last year, only 22 percent were charged with a crime in the six months following graduation. That’s significantly better than the 52 percent recidivism rate for all the state’s youth development centers.

Many of Camp Woodson’s lasting results can’t be captured in statistics, however.

And while slashing the program will save the state $1 million, I can assure you that each dollar goes far. Consider Woodson’s use of carbide lamps when hiking in the dark on long expeditions. About the size of a soda can, the devices generate a small, bright flame when drops of water react with calcium carbide. Once favored by coal miners and cavers, carbide lamps have since been replaced by battery-operated halogen lamps, and the camp staff manages a graveyard of scrap parts just to keep a handful of the lamps functioning. It’s one small example of Woodson’s overall culture of resourcefulness.

And that rugged approach is exactly what these unsettled teenagers require. Just as carbide lamps stand at the fringe of the wilderness-lighting world, so these kids cling to the margins of our communities. Kids like Alex have burned all their bridges, committed serious crimes and been locked up. “We routinely work with kids who have failed miserably in the YDC environment but thrive here,” notes Teixeira. “Our students are used to rebelling and resisting, so it can be very disarming when we empower [them] to make choices and hold them accountable for their decisions.”

Soon, the General Assembly will consider proposing changes to the governor’s budget. But while budget makers have been bombarded with e-mails, calls and letters, the reality is that Woodson is competing for scarce dollars with other effective, useful programs. But consider this: Reps. Carolyn Justus of Henderson County and Bruce Goforth of Buncombe County are the primary sponsors of a bill that would appropriate $3 million to build fences around two youth centers in the eastern part of the state. I find the irony cheerless: That’s enough to fund Woodson for three years, and it would fence in some of the very kids who might otherwise find redemption in the woods.

Scrapping Woodson would also jettison nearly two dozen jobs while eliminating a model project. “It doesn’t make sense to cut the program,” says former Woodson head Elbert Hargrave. “You should cut things that don’t work, that lose money, that you don’t need. This is a nationally respected program. This program can’t be replaced.”

Here’s what I learned from working there: Camp Woodson is a place for transformation, a place where teens like Alex can make significant changes in their lives. What’s most agonizing to me is that kids like him may not get a second chance—and they’re the ones who need it most.

To voice your support for Camp Woodson, contact Gov. Bev Perdue (919-733-4240), Sens. Martin Nesbitt Jr. (martin.nesbitt@ncleg.net or 919-715-3001) and John Snow (john.snow@ncleg.net or 919-733-5875), and/or Reps. Susan Fisher (susan.fisher@ncleg.net or 919-715-2013), Bruce Goforth (bruce.goforth@ncleg.net or 919-733-5746), Carolyn Justus (carolyn.justus@ncleg.net or 919-733-5956) and Jane Whilden (jane.whilden@ncleg.net or 919-715-3012).

[Jack Igelman worked at Camp Woodson from 1997 to 2000.]

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