There’s a good chance that at least one, if not most, of about 20 teenage boys from Camden experienced their first real taste of nature recently. The group of at-risk youth, accompanied by Family Outreach Ministries’ Brian Mayes and ALPHA Center Director Paul Napper traveled to Camp Woodie in Pinewood the weekend of April 26. At the camp, which serves as headquarters for the S.C. Waterfowl Association (SCWA), the boys canoed, shot at clay targets, learned about plants and animals on nature hikes and did a bit of stargazing. The boys went to the camp for free, thanks to donations from the public.
Mayes and Napper talked with some of the boys about their trip during a visit to newly-crowned Kershaw County School District Teacher of the Year Rebecca Rundlett’s classroom at Camden High School.
Some of the boys bragged about how many clays they’d hit. Others marveled at how well they got along without electronics for most of a weekend. Some of them showed off their new-found expertise of the natural world.
Laughter punctuated most of the recollections, as much from Mayes and Napper as from the boys.
Napper, for instance, had given the boys some advice about alligators on the trip down to Pinewood.
“Now, what’d I tell you? Make sure you’re with a buddy … remember, you don’t need to be the fastest, just the slowest,” Napper said.
Napper was joking. As it turns out, there are no alligators at Camp Woodie. There are water moccasins, though, and some of the boys did see one in a tree at one point.
“You could hear the screaming a mile away,” Mayes said, laughing.
Much of that Saturday’s activity was designed to conquer fears. Corey’s is perhaps the most notable story.
Corey was so afraid of the water that when it came time for his group to go canoeing on Camp Woodie’s lake, he didn’t just refuse, he fought off almost any attempt to get him inside.
“He was so afraid to get on,” Mayes said, “but he had a blast. By the time they came back, his canoe came in first.”
And that’s how Corey ended up with his new nickname: Canoe.
A while later, Canoe got up before the class and talked about the weekend. At first, he joked around that nothing really important happened, but Mayes was having none of it.
“When I first heard about it, I thought it might be fun, but when we got there, it was even more,” Canoe finally said. “I got to shoot a gun, overcame my fear of the canoe, learned about trees and leaves and ate animals I never thought I’d eat.”
That included eating wild hog; he said he also liked roasting marshmallows for the first time.
“I also thought I heard a man or monster outside, knocking on the window,” Canoe said.
That turned out to be Mayes playing a trick on the boys in one of the cabins. He’d been throwing pebbles at one window. The boys heard and decided to move to another room, only to have Mayes follow them, throwing pebbles again.
Several of Canoe’s classmates -- one with the nickname “Candyman,” two others named Johnny and Bryce -- talked about shooting the .22s at the clay targets. Sitting at his desk, Candyman mimed at how much kickback there was from the rifle. Napper praised the boys for their first-time prowess.
“To hit sporting clays is tough,” he said. “I know of hunters who never hit any out of 10. And you learned that a gun doesn’t give you respect; you have to earn it.”
Some of the boys also recounted how, after a nature hike, they warned off Mayes from a batch of poison ivy and some algae in the lake. Another remembered why beavers chew wood all the time: their teeth never stop growing.
“So, you guys were paying attention,” Napper said.
That doesn’t mean everything ran smoothly.
Saturday evening, the group took advantage of the fact that Pinewood is, basically, out in the middle of nowhere -- there’s no city lights to interfere with the night sky, a sky lit up by billions of un-obscured stars.
Unfortunately, Napper said, some of the boys weren’t respectful enough to listen.
“Mr. BB (Mayes) had a talk with them and they came back and apologized,” he said.
One man who came to respect the boys was James Bennett, former owner of Bennett’s Barber Shop. He went along for the trip, a chance to get back to the outdoors he’s always loved.
“The trip was second to none,” Bennett said. “I hadn’t been out of the house in a while, with my health fading on me. Brian did a marvelous job with them. The trip was something; I wasn’t expecting that.”
His favorite part of the trip: fishing.
“I enjoy fishing anyway. I love fishing, but I don’t get out to do a lot anymore. I used to do a lot of rabbit hunting, too, but I can’t walk now, so I fell back on what I love, fishing,” Bennett said.
Most of all, though, was seeing the group enjoy themselves.
“The boys were so amenable. Those boys are super. Just seeing them out on that water -- it was amazing -- enjoying themselves, seeing the expressions on their faces. That was something special,” he said. “I look forward to having another trip like that.”
It turns out the boys played a special role with Bennett during the weekend.
“You guys took care of him,” Napper said in Rundlett’s class. “You need a good pat on the back for that.”
“Mr. Bennett’s like a new person,” Mayes added. “He’s called everybody to brag on your guys.”
That prompted him to add, “You can be the original. You don’t have to be the copy,” urging them not to follow any bad examples among their peers and in the community.
The boys took care of Napper, too. Mayes pointed out that Napper was on medication that weekend that weakened his legs. So, Mayes asked two of the boys to watch for times when they could help Napper out.
“They were like two sergeants behind him, making sure he was OK,” he said.
Mayes and Napper also used their time in Rundlett’s classroom to remind the boys of their academic obligations to her and themselves. The boys had agreed to finish any incomplete assignments ahead of the trip in order to go. Mayes noticed some “incomplete” names on the board and urged them to do better. He and Rundlett reminded them to make sure their grades stay up to help them on the road to college or jobs. Mayes said many of the skills they had learned in class helped them during the weekend, and that some of the skills they learned at Camp Woodie would serve them in school.
He asked the boys what Rundlett’s working with them means.
“It shows she cares about us,” one boy responded. “She makes sure we make the highest grades possible,” another replied.
Their work with Rundlett, Mayes and Napper is paying off. The boys had all agreed on trying to reach a goal of having a 3.0 grade point average by the end of the school year. Whether that happens remains to be seen, but Mayes asked the group an important question.
“How many of you are better off than the previous year?” he asked, in terms of grades; nearly all the boys raised their hands. “You have no excuses not to succeed, not with a teacher like Ms. Rundlett.”
Rundlett returned the favor, telling them to be thankful for help from positive male role models such as Mayes and Napper.
“When someone gives you their phone number and says to call if you need help, take advantage of it. They are being sincere,” she said.
Mayes even challenged the boys to beat his score on a standardized test taking place soon. He said he would take the test and if the group beat his score, they would be rewarded with a party.
There’s more in store for these boys, and other Camden and Kershaw County youth. Thursday night is the SCWA banquet at the Shrine Club. Tickets for the banquet will go toward four-week scholarships to allow more students to attend Camp Woodie.
On May 24, the new Jackson Teen Center will host a teen talent show featuring a step dance showdown between the Kershaw County Diamonds and the original Rho Chi Kobraz. Summer flag football and basketball programs are coming up.
And there’s another chance to hit the nature trails and be out on the water.
“We’d like to go up on Lake Wateree and give them all a chance to fish,” Mayes said.
As Canoe came back up front to help lead Mayes, who played guitar, in a round of The Temptation’s “My Girl,” Napper summed up the weekend this way: “We took 20 boys down to Camp Woodie, and we came back with 20 young men.”