Introducing the new Preston Outdoor Education Station

We visited with Ken Wold, Executive Director at Camp Wood YMCA, about the newly completed Preston Outdoor Education Station. Learn more about this exciting addition to camp, see photos of the station and then arrange a visit to explore the trail for yourself and see what makes camp’s setting in the Tallgrass Prairie truly one of a kind.

A commitment to the Tallgrass Prairie.

The idea for an outdoor education station began over 15 years ago during discussions with staff about a long-range vision for Camp Wood YMCA’s future. Wold especially, felt that it was important to teach campers about the Tallgrass Prairie—a rare ecosystem of which only 4% of its original footprint remains today.

However, as urgent building and program improvements took precedence, the dream of a designated outdoor education facility would have to wait. Fortunately, conservation and education efforts were not delayed. Under Wold’s leadership and with staff’s hard work, the following years included efforts to not only improve camp’s facilities, but to also improve its stewardship of the Tallgrass Ecosystem within its boundaries. These efforts included initiating controlled burns on camp property, restricting camp’s herd of horses to designated areas and removing invasive and aggressive species that threatened to take over the grasslands. Efforts were also made to teach campers about the plants and animals that make the Tallgrass Prairie their home.

The camp landscape of 15 years ago is visibly improved today. The tallgrasses are no longer overgrazed by horses, native flowers have returned to the hillsides, and campers enjoy the sounds and sights of native wildlife enjoying the prairie alongside them.

Butterfly Milkweed (orange flower) and purple coneflower cover a hillside at camp wood ymca after the spring burns.

Butterfly Milkweed (orange flower) and purple coneflower cover a hillside at camp wood ymca after the spring burns.

The time is right.

In 2014, Camp Wood YMCA made preparations to celebrate its 100th summer and launched a fourth capital campaign—a campaign that, at last, secured funds for an Outdoor Education station through the William and Aloha Preston Foundation.

Later that year, Tom Nelson, an architect who’d helped to design many of the newer facilities on camp told Wold about an interesting program at K-State called Design+Make and contacted the program instructor, David Dowell, about the possibility of working on the outdoor education station. Dowell was interested and he and Wold began the process to make this long-delayed dream a reality.

Design+Make is a final course that gives 5th year Architecture students the opportunity to not only design a project, but to build it as well. The program gives students a unique perspective on the real-life construction challenges of implementing architectural design concepts. Camp Wood YMCA’s unusual setting in the Tallgrass Prairie would offer the students plenty of challenges—in both design and implementation.

The work begins.

During a series of meetings with camp staff and board members, “questions were asked about what to consider as they planned the project…who we served, what we taught,” remembers Wold, “and about environmental concerns like wind, rain, heat, cold, and rock.” Wold and others also broke the news to the students about one final environmental consideration for their design—it had to be fireproof, withstanding the regular controlled burns that keep the prairie healthy. The students and Dowell were intrigued.

part of the dry stack stone wall constructed by design+make students and luke Koch at the newly completed preston outdoor education station.

part of the dry stack stone wall constructed by design+make students and luke Koch at the newly completed preston outdoor education station.

After much hard work, teams of students proposed several design ideas and built small-scale models of potential structures for the site. The variety of designs and the thoughtfulness behind each of them was impressive. Ultimately, staff and board members were most excited about the team’s design that called for 5 separate stations along a trail. To that trail-based design, another team’s hillside gathering space was added. Each station would focus on a different element of the prairie ecosystem (wildlife, wind, rock, grasses, and sky). 

Construction began off-site during the 2015 spring semester. The first order of business was perfecting the Japanese fire-proofing method of shou sugi ban—in which students charred the cedar to be used in the project. In addition to making the boards more resistant to fire, the charring also allows any future fire damage to blend in with the already fire-scarred boards.

As soon as weather permitted, the students were on site working with contractors to do earth work and plan for the construction of the main gathering space, which included a more than 200-foot dry stack stone wall. The wall is a nod to the once common dry-stack stone fences that crisscrossed the Flint Hills. It also blends in well with the surrounding landscape. The architecture students would work with local stone mason, Luke Koch, to lay the wall by hand. By the time the final stone was laid, students had witnessed the spring fires, early summer storms and late summer heat that they’d designed around—each element transforming the prairie landscape around them. The station was already teaching about its Tallgrass Prairie home.   

Open for exploration.

Construction of the Preston Outdoor Education Station was completed in 2016—Camp Wood YMCA’s 100th summer in operation. A ribbon-cutting was held with Design+Make students and Wold reports that visitors and school groups have begun to explore the trail. Teachers are eager to bring their classes to learn about the Tallgrass prairie through this new and unique outdoor education feature. In addition, Summer 2017 campers will get to experience the trail for the first time.

Wold is hopeful about the long-range impact of the Preston Outdoor Education Station. “Ecosystems found in the tallgrass prairie are rare and if we are going to preserve them, we must create a passion for the prairie. As Baba Dioum, a Senegalese poet and conservationist, says, ‘In the end, we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.’ I believe Camp Wood YMCA is in a unique position to do just that.”

Just the beginning.

The completion of the Preston Outdoor Education Station marks an exciting moment for Camp Wood YMCA and its efforts to educate visitors about its Tallgrass Prairie home. However, Wold notes that the new outdoor education station is just the beginning. “We are constantly learning and doing what time and funds will allow.”

In addition to the station, Wold and staff are also pursuing other ways to incorporate outdoor education initiatives into all areas of camp. This fall, Camp Wood received a gift from three donors and the Flint Hills Map Project of a large three-paneled map of the Flint Hills along with accompanying lesson plans. Each panel is geared toward educating different age groups (Elementary, Junior High, and Senior High) about aspects of the Tallgrass Prairie ecosystem. In addition to finding a home in Camp Wood’s main dining and gathering hall, the maps are being placed in schools throughout the Flint Hills to help teachers create an awareness of place among their students. “We’re excited that our summer staff and campers will have access to these great resources,” shared Wold.

Ken Wold, executive director, has worked to not only improve buildings and programs during his 20-year tenure, but to also improve camp's stewardship of the Tallgrass prairie ecosystem.

Ken Wold, executive director, has worked to not only improve buildings and programs during his 20-year tenure, but to also improve camp's stewardship of the Tallgrass prairie ecosystem.

Personal reflections on a prairie home.

Wold has worked and lived at Camp Wood YMCA for 20 years now. When asked to reflect on the prairie’s impact in his personal life, he offered the following:

“I recently read an article by naturalist E.O. Wilson about wild places and how people are naturally drawn to certain places much as any animal. Camp Wood YMCA and the vastness of the grassland feel like home to me. Our kids grew up able to wander with free range a large area of land. It has given them the comfort, peace of mind, self-confidence and independent spirit that we hope for in children. My wife, Mollie, and I walk the trails at camp just about every day. Exercise and being outdoors has proven to be a very good stress reliever.”

Wold and camp staff hope that the Preston Outdoor Education Station will help every camp visitor experience that same stress relief and peace of mind. And if the station can do that, hopefully it will also inspire them to preserve the Tallgrass Prairie for generations to come.

To learn more about how you can explore our new Outdoor Education Station, give us a call at (620) 273-8641. School groups, families and individuals are welcome!

The Camp Wood YMCA Experience: A Teen's Perspective

"Rainbow" (Tyce) gets a lift from some campers this summer.

"Rainbow" (Tyce) gets a lift from some campers this summer.

Meet Tyce, otherwise known by campers as Rainbow (such colorful hair!). Tyce was 17 years-old this last summer and served as a Volunteer, but he has been attending Camp Wood each summer for the past 8 years. We asked him to share how camp has had an impact on the teenager and leader he is today.

When I first came to Camp Wood I was nine years old. I had never heard of Camp Wood before and I had never been to any camp at all. My first time going to camp, I was really nervous and shy inside and outside of camp. But after a few days of my first week at camp, I began to come out of my shell and I soon realized camp was a place that I could be myself without being judged.

A little less than a year later, I realized that being able to go back to camp was an option and it was the best news ever. Growing up being lucky enough to go to camp was amazing. Being a camper at Camp Wood has been a life-changing experience. The friendships that I have made and the lessons that I have learned at camp will stay with me for the rest of my life. Camp is the only place on earth that I know where I feel more at home than my actual home. I love camp more than anybody that I know. Camp Wood is so important to me, and my life would not be anywhere near the same without it.

Making sure each camper feels welcomed and comfortable at camp is important to long-time camper and current Volunteer, Tyce (known by campers as "Rainbow").

Making sure each camper feels welcomed and comfortable at camp is important to long-time camper and current Volunteer, Tyce (known by campers as "Rainbow").

The reason I kept coming back to camp as a kid was because I always felt like I was safe to be who I really am and not be judged for it. But the reason I keep coming back now as a staff and a volunteer is completely different. The reason I come back now is so that I can make sure that all the kids at camp have as good of a camp experience as I had, if not better. When I see the kids smile and hear them laugh it’s the best feeling in the world and it makes everything I do even better. The reason I keep coming back is for the kids.

Thanks for sharing your story, Tyce! Having a place to belong is so important for teens. We love that Tyce’s Camp Wood experience helped him feel comfortable and confident enough to discover the joy of serving others and a desire to give incoming campers a similarly empowering experience at camp.

If you’re looking for a fun, caring environment for your teen to build confidence, make new friends and discover their talents, consider our fall Teen Adventure Camp from Sept. 30-October 2. For just $95, it’s a great way to try Camp Wood YMCA for the first time or give your returning teen camper a boost in confidence as they continue school this fall. Learn more about Teen Adventure Camp and register today.

Reflections on Summer 2016

By BJ Murray, Senior Operations Director

As we near the middle of September, fall is upon us. School has started. The grasses are taking on their autumn colors. The nights are cooler and the days are shorter. And though we’re looking forward to exciting events at camp this fall, we can’t help but reflect a little on this past summer. Enjoy these thoughts from BJ Murray, Senior Operations Director.

To reflect on the summer of 2016 is a difficult task.  It was filled with so much good, so many friends and so much fun that it is difficult to put into words. But really, that is the whole point of camp on so many levels. It’s a spirit, a feeling, a place to be yourself. And unless you have experienced it first-hand, it is something you just keep talking and/or writing about until everyone around you gets sick of hearing about it.   

Often I am asked, and sometimes even ask the staff, “What is it that keeps you coming back to camp?”. Ninety-nine percent of the time they, and myself, will answer “the people.” They love the other counselors they work with, they love their supervisors, and mostly, they love the kids. That’s what they are here for. But I think it becomes more than just loving the people at camp.

I think it’s the feeling that they get from serving other people. I think when you are living out the “I’m Third” motto (God first, others second, I’m third), caring for others and serving are what truly gives you that special feeling that you cannot quite explain. It is easy to talk about archery – you nock an arrow, straighten your hand with the bow, pull back the string (one finger on top, two below), line up your shot, and straighten your fingers. Easy. But how do you explain what happens around a campfire? How do you talk about the depth of conversation, the bonding, the laughter? Sure you can say it was a beautiful fire, but you just can’t give someone the feeling of the flames’ heat. Similarly, you can talk about being in the beauty of nature, but a picture can’t quite capture the pure beauty of a Flint Hills starry sky. It’s the same with camp. It’s hard to explain.

I say all this because as I think about this summer, it is those difficult to describe things, those friendships and connections, that I think about. I think about the spirit of camp that so many children and staff went home with in their hearts. I think about the tears (so much crying!) on Friday nights as campers said their goodbyes to the counselors and other campers. Those tears tell me that we got it right this summer. We did what camp was supposed to do. We gave campers a place to belong, a place to call a second home, a place to be themselves without worrying about judgement, a place to be a kid. It’s a hard thing to say good-bye to a place like that. 

This summer was my first of what I hope to be many, many, many summers at Camp Wood YMCA. And this first one is going to be awfully hard to top. On the last day of camp before we even started this fall season, we were already 20% full for next summer and we have over 20 staff committed to returning (that is a big number for a camp and I would guess 75% of our staff from this summer will be coming back). I feel confident that Camp Wood YMCA will continue to grow not just in its numbers, but more importantly, in the impact we have on our campers and visitors. It is a very exciting time at camp. 

It was a great honor for myself and for the rest of the staff to serve so many campers this past summer. I look forward to doing so again next summer. Have a great fall, everyone but I’ve already started my countdown to next summer.

Happy Adventures,

BJ Murray, Senior Operations Director

As you start the countdown to Summer 2017, be sure to Pre-register online. With so many campers already signed up to return, sessions will fill up fast. Click below to reserve your spot for Summer 2017. It takes less than 5 minutes and you'll receive a new camp t-shirt in the mail this fall!

There's still time!

Did June get away from you? Don’t worry, there’s still space in many of our July and August sessions. Browse open sessions by date below!

Or maybe your child attended camp earlier this summer and was begging you to come back? Make their dreams come true and sign them up for a second session this summer! The best part? All your forms are already submitted, so it’s just a matter of making your deposit! Limited space is available in the remaining sessions. Sign up soon!

Open sessions:

Staying in touch while giving them space.

For many parents, the week that their child is away at camp can be a challenge. Parents are used to monitoring what and how their children are doing throughout the day and often check in with them frequently via cell phone when they’re not at home. While there are no cell phones or similar electronics allowed at camp, you can still touch base with your son or daughter. Here are a few ways that campers and parents can ease their separation this summer.

Plan ahead.

Colorful paper and some fun new pens might entice your child to write to you from camp. Don’t forget to pack stamps and an envelope, too! Or maybe your child prefers to draw? Ask them to draw pictures in a sketchbook throughout the week and then share them with you when they return home.

Nothing beats a simple care package.

A deck of cards, a bag of suckers to share, and a nice note telling them how you hope they’re having a good time—what could be better? Just be sure to include enough treats for the whole cabin and avoid any foods with peanut products (to protect our campers with allergies) and gum (it’s no fun to clean up). Address your care packages and letters to: Camper Name, Cabin #, Camp Wood YMCA, 1101 Camp Wood Road, Elmdale, KS 66850

NEW THIS YEAR! Send them a one-way email.

What’s a one-way email? Well, it’s just a regular email that you send to your child. The one-way part means that they will not be able to email you back (they’re too busy making new friends and having fun to sit inside on a computer!). Send your message to cwcamper@campwood.org. You MUST include your child’s full name and cabin number or we will be unable to deliver your message. Emails are printed daily at 11 a.m. and anything received afterward will be distributed the next day.

Spy on them.

Well, not really. But you can browse through the daily photos we post on Facebook and Flickr. We can’t guarantee a photo of every child—but more than likely you’ll get at least one glimpse of them during the week. And don’t worry if they’re wearing mismatched clothes or their hair’s a mess—that’s part of the fun of camp! No one cares what you’re wearing as long as you’re having fun and being safe. We hope these daily pictures capture the newfound independence and confidence of your children as they learn new skills and make new friends. Enjoy them!

We hope these tips help you to keep in touch while your child is at camp. Often, it’s harder for the parents than it is for children since we keep campers busy throughout the day. At night, they’re often so tired from the day’s adventures that there’s not much room for homesickness. This is a good thing! All children need opportunities to grow in confidence and independence—and summer camp is the ideal place to do so.

Thanks for sharing your child with us this summer! If you have any further questions about keeping in touch, give us a call at (620) 273-8641 or email us at ymca@campwood.org.