A Summer Camp Where Fun, Fellowship Are Open to All

A Summer Camp Where Fun, Fellowship Are Open to All

Sam Torn

Executive Director, Camp War Eagle

I believe every child should have the opportunity to go to summer camp. It’s a chance to get away from mom and dad for a week or two, to make new friends, to take a break from the electronic world.

So many people today think friendship comes with the click of a computer mouse, but at camp, you learn about the investment that friendship requires. When you think about it, so many of the tools you need to learn in life – self-confidence, independence, teamwork – you learn first at summer camp. 

That’s why I am so proud of what we’ve achieved with Camp War Eagle in Northwest Arkansas – I see the positive impact it has had on kids from across our region. 

The vision for Camp War Eagle came from Alice Walton. It was her idea, more than a decade ago, to provide a summer camp experience that would benefit all children of our region – regardless of income level, regardless of race, regardless of social status. It was her support – and the support of the Walton Family Foundation – that made the camp possible.

Alice Walton visits with a camper at Camp War Eagle.

When we were designing Camp War Eagle, Alice was passionate about making sure we served kids from a cross section of cultures, races and income levels. Somebody may live in a bigger house. Somebody may have a different skin color, but we are all the same. Camp should reflect society. To make Camp War Eagle accessible to families of all means, we have a sliding tuition scale that starts at $25 – and goes up modestly based on income. 

Since we opened in 2006, more than 45,000 kids have attended Camp War Eagle’s overnight camp and other programs. We serve more than 3,500 summer campers a year. Roughly 30% of those children are from families with incomes below $25,000 and another 30% have incomes lower than $40,000. 

No matter their economic circumstances, kids still have to earn their way into camp. We believe that places extra value on the experience and makes it more rewarding. To gain admission, kids earn points for effort and achievement in school and for performing community service. In 12 years, campers have completed more than 750,000 hours of community service.

The camp itself is, well, just tons of fun. 

There’s a high ropes course, a climbing wall, a water park, horseback riding – really there’s no chance kids will be bored. 

We also emphasize arts and education. Campers have the chance to paint and make pottery, do woodwork and gardening. It was very important to Alice that the camp instill in kids an appreciation for nature, conservation and the history of Northwest Arkansas while they’re here. It is a camp where an appreciation for God and his creation are emphasized.

More than anything, Camp War Eagle is about people – about building relationships that will help kids over their lifetime. It’s why so many campers come back, year after year.

Audrey Rodriguez was a camper at Camp War Eagle and returned as a counselor.

They’re young leaders like Audrey Rodriguez and Hannah Hawley, who first came to camp when they were 12 years old and loved it so much they returned as counselors. This year, both were on Camp War Eagle’s top staff. 

Audrey recalls her first summer at camp, when she was so shy and reserved she feared bouncing across ‘the blob’ – one of the famous obstacles in the water park. She overcame her anxiety with support from fellow campers and her counselors. 

“There was automatic support. That really helped me come out of my comfort zone,” Audrey says. “Over the years I went to camp, each year I came out of my shell a bit more.”

Audrey, now 23, says Camp War Eagle opened her eyes to a world of possibilities. Camp counselors were college students who became her role models. No one in Audrey’s family had ever attended college, “so it was a big deal for me to realize I could do what these counselors were doing.” 

Audrey graduated college in 2016 and is now a teacher in Springdale, Arkansas. Her experience working with kids at camp inspired her career choice. She now mentors campers from her own school, many of whom are from low-income, minority families.  

“Many of those kids are underserved. They haven’t ever really done anything like archery – I love that Camp War Eagle gives them the opportunity to experience that.”

Hannah Hawley as a camper at Camp War Eagle

Hannah, now 22, says Camp War Eagle was just “a magical, beautiful experience” for her as a child. 

“I lived every single summer at the ropes course and loved it. I’d spend all my free time there. But the things that really stick out to me are special moments between cabin mates and my counselor.

There was just so much joy. It was a space of joy and laughter. It was an atmosphere of love.”

Stories like Audrey’s and Hannah’s reinforce to me how transformative Camp War Eagle has been across Northwest Arkansas. 

Over the years, we have been able to expand our program beyond summer camp. We understood from day one that all kids – but particularly kids who are not of means – need year-round support.

Today, through Camp War Eagle 365, we offer after-school programs and mentoring for more than 1,000 youth each year. We also have a day camp in the summer that serves another 1,000 kids. 

I still get excited every summer, when the first campers arrive for overnight camp. I love seeing kids smile and I particularly love it on opening day, because you stand there and realize we’re helping so many kids have an experience of a lifetime.

Seeds of Opportunity is a storytelling series that will recognize 30 partners the Walton Family Foundation has partnered with over the years to build better schools, protect our environment and improve quality of life in our home region through culture, recreation and the arts. They are people and organizations who – through creativity, imagination and urgency – are advancing opportunity for people and communities at home and around the world.

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