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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

Camp Thunderbird Becomes A Haven For Rescue Mission As Virus Upends Life

If it weren’t for the Charlotte Rescue Mission, the geese on Lake Wylie might have Camp Thunderbird to themselves.

Generations of schoolkids from a broad swath of North and South Carolina have spent a few glorious days in spring learning hands-on science at the YMCA camp. It's a tradtion for many.

This spring, Executive Director Kimberly Conroy says the camp -- which is just across the state line from Charlotte -- got its first booking from Wake County.

"And Wake County was first to have a positive case of COVID-19, so they were the first to cancel," she says.

With students banned from visiting Camp Thunderbird, it could have sat empty this spring.

The rest of the story is painfully familiar: Field trips canceled. Schools closed. Gatherings banned. Camp staff furloughed.

That left a lot of outdoor space sitting empty -- 118 acres, with about two miles of Lake Wylie shoreline.

Meanwhile, the Charlotte Rescue Mission had more than 200 people going through its 4 1/2-month  residential rehabilitation program. The residents were already more-or-less separated from the rest of the world – the men at an uptown campus, the women near the airport. But Rescue Mission President Tony Marciano says people dealing with addiction tend to overreact to stress.

"So if an addict in early recovery is being asked to in effect quarantine themselves voluntarily, after awhile their best thinking says 'I know what’s best for me. I’ll just leave the mission and I’ll figure it out, ' " he says.

A Plan To Save Lives

For a lot of them, he says, that would mean returning to the streets, at a time when shelters and soup kitchens are closed. That would put their lives in danger.

So Marciano got in touch with Todd Tibbits, CEO of YMCA of Greater Charlotte. Within a week they had a plan to bring residents to Camp Thunderbird for day trips.

Camp Thunderbird had to get special approval to allow Rescue Mission visitors to fish.

It was quick, but not easy. Conroy says it required approval from officials in two counties and two states – Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, where the mission is located, and York County, South Carolina, home to the camp. They were all scrambling to decide what’s safe and what’s forbidden.

At first glance, seeing dozens of unmasked visitors mingling at Camp Thunderbird looks anything but safe. But Conroy says they’re coming from a setting where that’s the norm.

"Inside the Rescue (Mission) they all live together as a family unit," she says. "They cook together, they eat together, they play together."

Conroy is among half a dozen YMCA employees who wear masks and gloves to avoid infecting their visitors.

"All of the staff who are running the program live on site and we’re all quarantined here together," she says. "That way we make sure we’re not bringing anything in from the outside, either."

Simple Pleasures

The plan calls for all activities to be outside. It’s always a high point when the lunch van arrives. Last week's announcement of "fried chicken patty Wednesday" brought whoops and cheers.

Guests from the Rescue Mission try kayaking on a warm March day.

Spring weather is a variable. Some days are great for water events, some a bit chilly. On one of the cold days, Conroy told the group blankets would be available for anyone who wanted to do a boat ride.

"Is there anyone who still wants to go on the boat?" she asked, sounding skeptical. Several men called out "Yeah!"

The residents are divided into groups of 50-70 and come once a week, staying from about 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. They can choose from activities like tennis, archery, baseball, basketball, putt-putt, fishing and cornhole.

Visitors can try grooming horses, or handle snakes and other creatures in the wildlife room.

Rescue Mission resident Christopher Griggs says he just loves the chance to be outdoors, look at the lake and walk the trails.

"I always knew about Camp Thunderbird but this is my first time actually being out there," he said.  "It’s a good time to reflect on yourself. You know, just kind of take advantage of the scenery."

Griggs says he'd like to try kayaking, though he might need to learn to swim first. And he chuckles over a recent activity:  "They got like a nice big hill there, they use that as a slide, a water slide."

More Than Just Fun

Conroy says one of the joys for staff is teaching adults how to just relax and play.

"What we hear a lot from them is that this is the first time in as long as they can remember having fun not being under the influence of alcohol or drugs," she says. 

Donors have provided about $40,000 to keep the Rescue Mission program at Camp Thunderbird going through the end of May. After that, Conroy hopes their young summer campers can move in, though the camp is making contingency plans in case they have to delay opening.

All this may seem like a lot of trouble to let people shoot hoops or walk a trail. But Marciano says it’s a lot more than that.

"It sent the message that you’re not alone in this world," he says. "One of the aspects of addiction is isolation, when you feel like you’re going through this alone and nobody cares about you."

Isolation is something a lot of people can relate to now. And every time the YMCA van pulls up to take another group to camp, people who are trying to rebuild their lives know someone cares.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.