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Camp needs help to help others


Wildwood Hills Ranch near St. Charles is more than the bunkhouses, lake and horse trails that meet the eye. To the at-risk kids it serves, it’s a safe haven where they build confidence and positive relationships with adults and peers.

“So many of them are starving for love and affirmation and attention,” said MaryLou Garcia, the camp’s executive director. “We have the room for 120 kids at any given time. We simply, at this point, don’t have the funding to be able to staff for that many.”

Garcia said many of the kids she sees are from broken homes, and although they’re excited to come to camp, they have their “walls up.” By the end of their week at Wildwood Hills, there’s a noticeable transformation.

“By Tuesday, they’re kind of figuring out something’s different because everybody’s nice to them,” Garcia said. “And then by Wednesday, they’re really starting to blossom. By the last day, they don’t want to go, and we don’t want them to go either.”

For six weeks this summer, Wildwood Hills will host weeklong scholarship camps for kids from across Iowa. In a faith-based environment, the youths work on team building and being a good friend. Garcia said organizers are still trying to gain name recognition for the camp, which is in its fourth year of operation.

“I think the people who have actually been here or been involved with anything that we’re doing really do buy in to what we do,” Garcia said. “The main challenge is that we’ve only been here three years as a non-profit, so people don’t really know that we’re here.”

The members of Wildwood Hills’ executive board, along with Garcia, are constantly trying to introduce new people to the camp and invite them to see the facilities.

“We’re only using maybe 10 percent of the 400 acres there,” board member Mike Whalen said. “We figure, that over time, there’s a lot of different things we can do. With more money and more support, we can serve more people.”

Grants, corporate sponsorships and individual donations bring 80 to 100 boys and girls, ages 8 to 12, to the camp each week. The kids are nominated through child-care charities such as Big Brothers Big Sisters and by school at-risk coordinators, Garcia said.

Gradually, the public’s awareness of Wildwood Hills seems to be increasing as local businesses and groups take an interest in making the camp a better place for the kids and the staff.

“We told some people from the Remodelers Council of the Des Moines Homebuilders Association that we needed a place to take care of sick or injured kids and they built a terrific health-care center for the kids, at no cost to us,” Whalen said.

On top of that, Garcia said a husband-and-wife team — he’s a surgeon, she’s a nurse — outfitted the health center with furnishings and supplies. The wife is also donating three weeks of nursing time to get it up and running.

This month, Martin Marietta Aggregates donated 200 tons of gravel to the camp, which hadn’t been regraveled for years due to the expense. Local haulers donated their time to haul the rocks down to St. Charles, Garcia said.

Corporate sponsors also make sizable contributions to the camp, and she said helping hands will soon be on the way thanks to commitments from Greater Des Moines companies.

“Variety the Children’s Charity and the Farm Bureau Federation have been very good to us in our efforts to secure grant money,” Garcia said. “We’re starting to work with companies who are starting to organize volunteer days. We’re working with Allied Insurance, Union Planters Bank and ITA Group with volunteer days, where they pay their staff for regular work time, but instead of doing their regular job, they’re coming down here to help.”

Garcia sees a lot of opportunity in having these business professionals see the camp in operation, and hopes that they take note of the buildings on site, which are available for off-season rental for either business or private use. There’s an assembly hall for large meetings, a lake-view building for small gatherings and a more traditional meeting room in the main house.

“We’re really hoping that we can get a lot of use out of these,” Garcia said. “We have a great facility, and we think, rather than always going with our hands out to people for donations, let’s utilize the facility to fund our work as much as possible.”

Melynda DeCarlo, of the organizational strategist White Rabbit Group based in Des Moines, has found that her adult clients can benefit from an experience at Wildwood Hills. She has used the in many different ways to suit her business needs and said the flexibility of the facility has impressed her.

“You can use the camp as everything from classrooms, an outdoor laboratory, or a retreat where clients can be kind of be introspective,” DeCarlo said. “There’s a real need for meeting space, and it’s so gorgeous out here that when people drive in, they immediately feel at ease.”

DeCarlo said she brings large corporations to the camp to assess how the group can meet their business goals. She takes them to the ropes course, an outdoor challenge area, to observe their interaction.

“The outdoor learning courses really get them to focus on how they react in the real-world work situation,” DeCarlo said. “We identify things they’re doing that aren’t going to help them get to where they want to go. For example, if self-interest is always my goal and I’m not team-focused, it’s going to be really difficult for me to do something in a team environment.”

Right now, Wildwood Hills’ horses are also being used as a revenue generator to fund the camp’s mission. Small groups can choose from among almost 30 horses for private trail rides. Also, for three weeks this summer, the camp will have paid campers, but Garcia said the goal is to operate all nine weeks with scholarships for at-risk children as soon as funding allows.

Fund-raisers also help the camp meet its financial needs. Wildwood Hills’ annual golf outing at Jester Park is this Saturday, May 26. July 3 will be a family fun day at the camp, and $10 per carload gives a family use of the camp’s amenities, plus fireworks and a concert.

The long-term goal for the camp is to model it after the Rawhide Boys Ranch in Appleton, Wis., which inspired Whalen to initiate the purchase of Wildwood Hills. Rawhide has year-round boarding for troubled youths, and has a 77 percent success rate in helping adjudicated teens.

“Thousands and thousands of young adults could be impacted in Iowa in the same way Rawhide does in Wisconsin,” Whalen said. “Phase one is the summer camp, and we’re looking forward to a time when we can combine that with a year-round program.”

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