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WIU's Camp Rocky for Local Youth Celebrates 25th Year

This year, Western Illinois University's Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Administration is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its Camp Rocky program.


The day camp program is run by students at WIU's Horn Field Campus, and offers local youth the opportunity to participate in camp-related programming and outdoor cooking.


The program, part of RPTA's Camp Leadership class, was started in 1998 by RPTA Chair Emeritus Dale Adkins and is currently taught by RPTA Assistant Professor Megan Owens. During the years in between, the class was taught by former RPTA faculty member Paul Schlag.


"To my knowledge, this is the only program in the nation that does this kind of experience," said Owens. "Other recreation programs have camps, but the students are not doing the planning and it is on a much smaller scale.


Adkins said when he was initially recruited to WIU to teach in the RPTA department, he was tasked with finding a way to use WIU's Horn Field Campus for classroom instruction.


"WIU has always been committed to service learning," said Adkins. "This class allows students to execute a camp experience for youth in the Macomb area in the outdoor learning environment of Horn Field Campus."


The youth camping experience began in 1998, as an overnight camp; however, issues surfaced with children arriving without heavy enough clothing or equipment for camping outside overnight. The camp is held each April.


Adkins began choosing a senior RPTA major with outdoor experience as the camp's director. Eventually that decision morphed to be used as an independent study experience for an RPTA graduate student interested in the outdoors or camp administration.


"It's just a tremendous learning experience for students," said Adkins. "It's a chance to plan, execute and evaluate a camp experience."


When Adkins became chair of WIU's RPTA program, he passed the teaching baton to Schlag, who gained permission to rename the program "Camp Rocky" and began as its teacher in 2007.


With the exception of one year when a scheduling conflict necessitated moving the camp to the Camp Chicagama Boy Scout camp at Spring Lake, each of the camps has been held at Horn Field Campus.


Owens took over teaching the class in 2018 after co-teaching the class with Schlag in 2012. She said that experience was what convinced her to continue her education and complete her Ph.D.


Owens completed her master's degree in RPTA at Western. She said it is unique to help students develop professional skills in recreation and camp production, and teaching that it is "not just about playing tag."


This year's camp offering included an overnight component for campers in fifth through eighth grades and a day camp for younger children.


The size of each camp fluctuates with the number of students who take the Camp Leadership class. This year nine WIU students ran the "Wilderness Explorer" camp for 45 youth.


"We have a waiting list every year," said Owens. "The activities offered are different every year, depending on what the students in the class are interested in."


The class begins with Owens assigning students to develop a mission statement for their camp, as well as choosing a theme. RPTA students handle every aspect of the camp planning and execution under her guidance.


"It becomes a unique experience that is truly configured by the students in the class," said Owens. "It is a progression of experience. The biggest lessons seem to be the planning and development process. By the end of camp, a light bulb goes on, the students understand the value of working as a team and dedicating considerable time to preparing this experience. They see and feel the campers' energy, which is a powerful lesson in itself."


The twice a week class is taught at Horn Field Campus.


"There is a hierarchy of leadership roles," said Owens. "It is set up like a real camp, with a camp director, assistant director and committee chairs. Students sit on committees and create a marketing plan and work on fundraising and hospitality."


Owens has continued Adkins' plan of using a graduate student seeking an independent study to serve as camp director. This student gains additional administrative experiences that are built on prior knowledge of working with the Camp Rocky program, or another summer camp experience.


"The student development experiences are pivotal," said Owens. "I tell the students, 'This is your program.' I make sure it's safe and ready to go, but they take on the responsibility for planning every aspect of the camp experience, ranging from risk management to designing activities following child development principles."


Across three faculty members, the experiential course design has led to powerful and memorable lessons that students take with them into the profession.


For more information about WIU's RPTA program, visit wiu.edu/RPTA.

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