Twelve families recently had the opportunity to step out of their daily routine and go on a camping adventure to the District’s Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve’s West Tract in Pasco County.
The District cooperated with Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World of Orlando and the American Disability Adventures group to provide this free camping trip. The goal was to provide children who may not have had the opportunity to experience the outdoors and camping, due to expense or lack of access, the chance to try it.
More than 130 children applied for the dozen spots that were selected through a random drawing. Each child was required to have a parent or guardian with them. Those selected were also encouraged to invite their siblings.
“One dad asked me if moms could come too,” said Margaret Blommel, the District land use specialist who organized the event. “I said ‘of course moms can come!’ We kept the drawing small because we knew the total would grow when we added other family members.”
Theresa Gatta, a single mom who is also disabled, learned about the trip through a counselor at school.
“I like the outdoors and this was a great opportunity to spend time with my two youngest children,” said Gatta.
Campers were asked to bring their own sleeping materials and had the option of bringing their own tents or campers. Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World of Orlando, as well as other partners and individuals, provided tents and the other camping gear needed for the families who did not have their own.
The Creech family purchased camping gear two years ago and broke it out for the first time on this trip. They were like several of the other families at the event &emdash; eager to start a family camping tradition but unfamiliar with where they could go.
“I used to go camping all the time when I was a kid,” said Michelle Creech. “Now that our youngest is a little older, we wanted to take the girls out in the woods.”
Once the campers set up their tents, it was time for a guided hike along portions of the Florida National Scenic Trail.
Eric Sutton, land resources director, led the younger campers while Will VanGelder, senior land manager, led the older kids on a longer hike where he encouraged them to use all their senses. The highlight was eating the ends of palmetto fronds. The kids were hesitant to try them until one of the parents tried it, then they all wanted to try a frond.
“It was nice to see the kids showing each other stuff on the hike,” said Ken Fletcher, a parent from Port Richey. “It’s not your sterile classroom environment.”
Fletcher grew up near Bradenton. He and his son Sam applied for the event because they aren’t very familiar with the outdoor opportunities available in Pasco County.
After the volunteers served up lunch, the campers tried their hands at archery and air rifles. Each group received thorough safety lessons before taking aim at the targets.
“Kids may not be able to tell their parents what happened at school yesterday but you can bet they’ll remember what they did outside today,” said Mike Blanton, American Disability Adventures executive director. “For most of these young campers, learning to have respect for archery equipment and air rifles is something they won’t soon forget, and this outing may be the catalyst that sparks their interest in competition archery and the shooting sports.”
Other activities included a fossil demonstration and campfire time with plenty of s’mores. All food was donated by area Publix stores and the Coney Island Drive-Inn.
Sunday morning, after the flapjacks were finished, the campers packed up camp and headed home.
“We couldn’t have asked for better weather,” said Blommel. “Everything went smoothly and we hope to be able to offer this kind of experience to more families in the future.”
For more information about recreational opportunities on the 343,000 acres of District-owned land, please visit WaterMatters.org/recreation.