Camp aims to right teens' lives
Tucked away in the Yadkin Valley on a 649-acre campus just across the Wilkes County line, broken young lives get second chances, thanks to the legacy of a family drug-store fortune born 600 miles away.
Unless you knew where you were going, you would only accidentally stumble across this place, which is about a mile off N.C. 18.
It is one of two campuses in North Carolina (the other is in Candor in Montgomery County) where the N.C. Department of Public Safety’s Division of Juvenile Justice partners with Eckerd -- a foundation created by Jack Eckerd of the former Eckerd Drug chain and his wife, Ruth, to help troubled youth and their families -- for short-term rehabilitation programs for boys 13 to 17. The program signifies a shift in the way juvenile offenders are treated. The hope is that those passing through the program will help them move out of the justice system and go on to lead productive lives.
“It’s an opportunity for the kids to step back and see their lives differently,” said Boomer campus director Cindy Blackburn-Jones. “It’s giving second chances, the ability to change their lives.”
From 2002-2011, the Boomer campus functioned as a wilderness program for Eckerd, called Camp E-Ma-Etu, one of four Eckerd ran in the state. With a multi-year contract from the Division of Juvenile Justice worth $4.5 million to provide residential program, Eckered reopened Boomer and Candor in 2012, the Boomer campus re-opened as the residential campus-style program there now. It has a staff of 31, including case managers, counselors, administrative staff, cafeteria staff and teachers. The Boomer campus serves a wide region, from Durham County westward.
The teenagers come to Boomer after being found guilty of juvenile offenses. One 17-year-old from Watauga County -- their names could not be released because they are juveniles -- said this week he is getting ready to leave the campus and return home. He was convicted of underage drinking, and often found himself in bad situations by not following rules and boundaries. He says the program has given him a new start.
“It’s taught me to think before I do,” he said. “I’ve learned patience. It’s changed me inside. I now have goals now. I’m working toward my GED, and when I get out I want to help support my family.”
A 15-year-old from Greensboro said he was sent to Eckerd two months ago after being convicted of marijuana possession.
“I’m learning coping skills and how to deal with my problem,” he said. “I’m learning to take a minute to think about what I do and say beforehand, so it doesn’t come out the wrong way.”
Eckerd also provides community-based services for both boys and girls in Asheville, Charlotte, Greensboro, Lumberton and Raleigh and serves 50 counties in the state. Services include individualized assessment and treatment plans, congitive behavior therapy, and life skills.
Twenty-four teens are housed at Boomer in three dormitories, named Truth, Honor and Wisdom. Each dorm is equipped with a desk, bunk beds and a living area with a TV. Residents rise at 6:30 a.m. and go to the cafeteria for breakfast at 7:15 a.m. Most of the day is spent in classes or counseling sessions. Accredited by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, the program teaches English, math and science. The residents earn credit toward their GED requirements.
Some recreation time is available until dinner, and the rest of the evening is spent in the dormitories, playing ping-pong or watching TV. At 8:45 p.m., it’s lights out. Weekends are spent performing court-ordered community service, such as working at a local food bank, or cleaning up a bike trail. Residents who have been at Boomer at least 60 days can be eligible to gome home for either Thanksgiving or Christmas. All residents can go home once during their stay to practice life skills they’ve learned and meet with their families, who are also an integral part of the program.
“We encourage family members to create a nurturing environment upon the return of their child,” Blackburn-Jones said.
Before they graduate, residents have a tradition of painting large rocks lining the trails on campus. They want to leave their mark, to remind future residents that they, too, can change their lives in a positive way.
Painted on one rock was the following: “You can change the world, you control yourself. Never give up.”