At Camp Appalachia, a kids’ camp in Putnam County, a twisting dirt road winds by the large swimming pool. On a very hot day in June, dozens of children splash around as camp counselors keep watch.
On the side of the pool’s deck, the camp’s slogan is painted in red, white and blue: “Because every kid matters.”
Jared Davis, who helped create the camp and now runs it, knows those words are especially important to the 2,500 kids he serves every summer, the majority of whom are in the state’s foster care system or have a parent who is incarcerated.
“The overarching goal of our camp is to be a safe place where kids learn they’re loved and cared for and the world is better with them in it,” Davis, 35, said.
West Virginia has the nation’s highest rate of children in foster care, spurred by the state’s drug epidemic – the state leads the nation in drug overdoses – and long-standing poverty. There are more than 6,400 kids in the state foster care system. And, in 2016, a study estimated that one in 10 children in West Virginia were growing up with at least one parent in jail or prison.
Camp Appalachia offers some of those kids a chance to experience new things: jumping into a giant mud hole, sleeping in a cabin, exploring a lake and feeding farm animals. It also offers relationships with counselors who care and a safe place to share experiences, sometimes painful ones from childhood trauma or years in a system that is riddled with instability, poor outcomes and a lack of staff. As the state is preparing to distribute more than $1 billion in opioid lawsuit settlement money, communities and advocates know West Virginia children have been acutely impacted by the drug crisis. Right now, it’s unclear if or how the funds will help the kids in need and those who serve them.
At camp, Davis pointed to a red cabin that needed repairs but said he couldn’t afford it. In another part of the property, a large ropes course sat untouched because it needed too many repairs. “That’s $80,000, at least,” he said.
He added, “Fundraising has been difficult, and covid made fundraising nearly impossible.”
Connecting campers with support
Davis previously worked as a firefighter and emergency responder in the area. He saw firsthand how children who witnessed parental drug use or an overdose were regularly without mental and emotional support.
In response, he worked with others to found Camp Appalachia in Scott Depot. After partnering with a church, Davis and other founders purchased the 157-acre property for $535,000 in 2018.
“It was an abandoned property that had a lot of potential,” said Davis, who is finishing a master’s degree in camp management.
The camp started with 40 overnight campers. This year, Davis said he’ll have around 3,500 campers total at both the day camp and overnight camp. The camp hosts kids in kindergarten through eighth grade, and there are programs for older teens.
There are eight cabins, an archery area, an outdoor basketball court, a lake, a 35ft. climbing tower and more.
But, Camp Appalachia’s main focus is relationship building. By the end of the week, some campers have shared for the first time about sexual assault and other abuse they’ve experienced. The overnight camp has a high retention rate because campers regularly get to reconnect with returning staff members, Davis said.
“A lot of kids from the foster system or broken homes have major issues with impulse control. Trust is extremely difficult to earn with them,” he said. “The overarching goal of our camp is to be a safe place where kids learn they’re loved and cared for.”
When kids leave the camp and return to school, Davis said the state needs to do more to see these children as a whole person in need of support – not just a foster child where one program will fix the child’s issues.
West Virginia has struggled to provide enough mental and emotional support services for kids and schools don’t have equal access to these services.
It is yet to be determined how the state will spend its opioid settlement funds, which follow years of litigation with drug manufacturers, pharmacies and others for their roles in distributing highly addictive prescription painkillers in West Virginia. The money, which will be overseen by a private foundation, must be used to abate the opioid epidemic and can be used in a variety of ways.
In Pennsylvania, opioid settlement funds were used to connect children with mental health counselors in effort to prevent adult drug use. A North Carolina county will give more than $100,000 in settlement money to a child and family support organization to use for treatment and counseling. And, in Indiana, settlement money will be used to fund a specialist in neonatal abstinence syndrome, which is most often the result of exposure to opioids and can have lifelong effects on children.
“The solution is not in one particular place,” Davis said. “There needs to be an intentional investment in the mental health of students.”
Amelia Ferrell Knisely is an award-winning journalist with West Virginia Watch, a nonprofit newsroom. Originally from Rand, West Virginia, she has previously written for Mountain State Spotlight and the Charleston Gazette-Mail about child welfare, hunger and poverty. Ferrell Knisely also previously worked for The Tennessean in Nashville. Follow her on Twitter.