By Staff Sgt Sherre Grebenstein, 167th Airlift Wing
/ Published July 10, 2009
Kingwood, WV -- Rappelling off a 50-foot wooden tower, escaping enemy capture, taking aim on the rifle range, maneuvering through a challenging obstacle course and learning water survival.
Just another day at this year's Youth Leaders Camp.
Now in its 43rd year, the unique camp - geared toward instilling leadership in junior and senior high school students from around this Mountain State - isn't your traditional summer camp. Those participating in the week-long venue run by the West Virginia Air and Army National Guard didn't have time to roast marshmallows nor sing "Kumbaya" around a bon fire. Instead, their days started at "O" dark-thirty with reveille and physical training ending with Taps.
Each day was chocked-full of events targeted to enhance leadership skills among the 66 campers which culminated in a graduation ceremony on Friday, June 26 at Camp Dawson in Kingwood, W.Va.
"I wish they had something like this when I was kid," said Pfc. Steve Hamrick, who acted as the Belay, charged with holding a rope at the bottom of the rappel tower.
"How many kids can say that they rappelled off a 50-foot rappel tower," said Hamrick, a YLC volunteer and Soldier with the West Virginia Army National Guard's 35th Civil Support Team based in St. Albans.
Hamrick said that YLC is popular because, "There are things up here that kids wouldn't normally be able to do."
Master Sgt. Sherry Claus, the first sergeant for YLC, said those who attend the military camp find they can do things they perhaps never thought they could, whether it be navigating the obstacle course or evading capture through the woods.
Campers find themselves pushing their minds and bodies to the limits as they "dig deeper, try harder and gain self-confidence," she said.
"We have kids from all backgrounds (social and economic)," said Claus, who is assigned to the West Virginia National Guard's Joint Forces Headquarters. "For the most part these kids don't have a National Guard connection."
Claus said the annual camp helps to build strength in the teens' formidable years.
"They are finding strength in each other and in themselves," she added.
Master Sgt. Kelley McKinney is in her third year as a TAC leader at the camp. As an instructor at the camp, she teaches, advises and counsels the teens under her leadership.
McKinney, who is assigned to the 167th Airlift Wing in airfield management, said YLC "builds their confidence. It's such a tender time for them."
She pointed out that at first two campers didn't want to scale down the rappelling wall, but eventually found enough confidence in themselves to complete the mission. She said not only does the camp help improve the teens' self-confidence, but also goes a long way in stressing teambuilding as well as the need to trust in others.
"This is a military camp," she said. "We use discipline."
But it is precisely that discipline which allows the campers to become better prepared leaders.
"I really think that they enjoy boundaries," she said. "They want to feel confident and part of a team."
And during the week-long excursion, there were plenty of activities to test campers physical and mental mettle.
After being "kidnapped" by Lt. Bryan Reynolds and Lt. Col. Jeff Sandy, both officers with the 167th Airlift Wing from Martinsburg, W.Va., the campers were forced to find their way through wooded terrain and signal for help from "Special Forces" who would eventually escort them to safety.
Reynolds said the exercise was not so much about escaping the enemy as it was knowing the tactics needed to survive the situation. He said the campers learned to communicate, stay alert and work as a team to acheive the same goal as they crawled through the mud and brush.
"Their potential is boundless," he said.
Reynolds said one of the major goals of YLC is to keep campers "challenged and stimulated."
Lt. Col. Joseph Buonocore, director for the YLC, said the TAC instructors accomplish just that and more.
"They set the bar very high," he said.
Buonocore, a member of the 167th Airlift Wing's Air Medical Evacuation Squadron, said the staff that volunteers at YLC is a "good cross section" of the Mountain State's National Guard.
Whether campers attending YLC have a military background or not, Sgt. Wayne Stephenson said the venue helps, "get them out of their element."
Unique problems are presented to the campers and they are charged with coming up with solutions together.
Stephenson - who is a member of the West Virginia National Guard's Drug Demand Reduction program which oversees YLC - said the camp is meant to be fun, but also get teens thinking about making the right choices in any given situation.
"There are always solutions, you just have to work through the problems," he said.
Stephenson said that he hopes those graduating from YLC become the "leaders in their communities."
And some who graduate from the camp come back for seconds or even thirds.
Kristofer Knotts, a junior at Hedgesville High School, said he thinks the leadership camp will help him sharpen his life skills.
"Last year I thought it was fun so I wanted to come again," said the 16-year-old Martinsburg resident.
With an eye on West Point and an ambition of becoming a weapons officer in the United States Air Force, Knotts said attending YLC was a logical choice to help him improve his leadership skills.
Not surprisingly, Knotts plans to attend the 2010 YLC.
Asked if he had any advice to those thinking about attending YLC for the first time, the veteran camper provided this practical nugget.
"Don't be scared and listen," he said.