Story and photos by Dan Kidder
Some are waiting for their parents to return. Some will never see them again. They are children of all ages. They come from all races, both sexes, and across socio-economic classes. As different as they are, they all have one thing in common. They are the children of the brave men and women who serve this nation in the armed forces.
While Utah celebrated their pioneer heritage with parades and fireworks, a large group of volunteers took time away from their own families for this three day weekend to take a bunch of kids fishing and provide them with a three day summer camp in the hills of the Utah Elks Association Camp Wapiti.
Sponsored by Hand in Hand Outdoors, Survivors Outreach Services, the Utah Elks Association, and the Truesdale Family, the Little Warrior’s Camp provided, free of charge, 3 days of outdoor activities and recreation. The three groups have formed an umbrella organization called the American Heroes Project.
“There are all kinds of activities for soldiers and veterans, but it is always the children who get left out,” said Bob Pagnani, Chairman of the Utah Elks Veterans Outreach Committee. “We wanted to include the children, because they also sacrifice for their country. They are little warriors.”
Not only were 52 children able to enjoy a mini summer camp in the hills above Tooele, UT, but thanks to the contributions of time, money, and products, scores of volunteers were able to directly impact the lives of these children.
All of the meals were provided by BML Construction, Barbacoa Mexican Grills, The Utah Elks Veterans Committee, the Truesdale family, the Walmart Distribution Center, and the hard work of volunteers from the US Army medical staff at Dugway Proving Grounds. Craft time was provided by supplies and manpower from Home Depot. The Army National Guard provided an indoor BB gun range for the children to try their hand at marksmanship. Additional activities were available on the 8 acres of the $2.5 million facility, provided by the Utah Elks Association.
Camp Wapiti was started in 1990 as a place to provide summer camp for children with diabetes, cancer, hemophilia, lung disease, congenital heart disease, the deaf, and the abused. In the 25 years that the camp has been in operation thousands of children, many terminally ill, have been able to participate in activities all paid for with dues of members of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks in the state of Utah. The camp has 17 cabins, which can each sleep 12 people.
The Little Warriors Camp was started in 2013 and served 12 children that first year. In just 3 years the program has expanded to provide activities for 52 children this year. Plans for future events call on the program to serve even larger numbers of children each year. The Elks of Utah have donated use of Camp Wapiti during the third week of July in perpetuity, as long as the program continues.
On the first day, dinner was provided by Brian Lee, Owner of BML Construction out of Ogden, and his family. BML Construction is also donating hundreds of hours of labor and materials to help construct A Place To Heal, a camp for disabled veterans on Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Utah/Wyoming border. Once they were fed and checked in, the children gathered to observe the posting of the American flag by soldiers of the Dugway Army Medical Clinic. The posting and retiring of the colors were done each morning and evening in honor of the family members of the children who are serving our nation. A movie, S’mores, bonfire, and the very full and sleepy campers wandered off to their cabins for the night.
On day two, breakfast was provided by the Utah Elks Veterans Committee and the campers headed off to a variety of activities, including arts and crafts, BB Gun shooting, fishing in Tooele Reservoir, hiking, volleyball, swimming, and much more. At lunch, provided by the family of Gunnery Sergeant Alan Truesdale, a 22 year veteran of the United States Marine Corps and Bronze Star recipient, the children refueled for even more activities. For many, the fishing was the biggest draw, introducing many children who had never dipped a line in the water to the joy of the sport.
Even though the fishing was completed late into the evening, kitchen staff stood ready to clean and fry any trout that was caught so the children could experience eating their first fish.
After a fantastic dinner provided by Richard Hemsley, President of Barbacoa Mexican Grill, the colors were retired and the campers headed off to more S’mores, a camp talent show, and another movie before dropping into their beds from exhaustion.
The last day was about breaking camp, and after a hearty breakfast, campers packed up and headed home, after sad goodbyes and exchanging contact information from newfound best buddies.
In every way the retreat was a typical three-day summer camp, exactly the same as many experienced by children all over the US. And that is what made it exceptional; the normalcy of it all. Because for many of these children, those who have lost a loved one to war or suicide because of war, their lives are anything but normal. Each day they are confronted with the grief that only the children of warriors can ever know and fully understand.
“By creating a normal experience for these children, we help them heal a little more,” said Capt. Steve Henline, founder of Hand in Hand Outdoors. “Events like this Little Warrior Camp, and others we host, can only provide a day or two away from the stress and anxiety that losing a father or a son must surely create, but it is our way of trying as we strive to make this a better community for all of us to live in and to remind these incredible families that we will never forget them and the great price they have paid for the price of liberty.”
As the program continues to expand, the need for additional resources continues to grow as well. Sportsman’s News readers who wish to contribute to the American Heroes project can contribute directly to Hand in Hand Outdoors, via their website at handinhandoutdoors.org/give-back/. Hand in Hand Outdoors is a 501C(3) tax-exempt non-profit and one hundred percent of all donations go directly to programs to assist veterans and their families.