One of the State's best kept secrets Back in 1933, the Elks provided a children’s rehabilitation hospital in Marion Country. The operation served hundreds of children. But medical needs and costs changed, eventually eliminating the need for the facility. So in 1984, Bob Grafton suggested shifting focus, buying some property in Umatilla and creating a camp that every child in the State of Florida could enjoy. Today, Grafton Hall stands at the front of the camp but only after a long and winding drive past muscadine arbors and rolling hills.
The Florida Elks Youth Camp is now in its 19th year. Since its first summer program in 1995, a total of 25,512 have benefited from our summer camp program, increasing from 103 campers that first year to 2,311 attendees in 2013. The facility is also available on a year-round basis for other groups and purposes, making a total of 306,682 campers who have enjoyed this beautiful facility. In 1993, we hosted 4,039 primitive campers. With the exception of two years, we have experienced an annual increase each year.
Grafton says the philosophy was to design and build a first-class facility and to do it right the first time, featuring all the amenities of the finest camps. That is exactly what has been accomplished on the 420+ acre tract, featuring a lake, lodges with all the comforts of home and a 15,000 square foot enclosed pavilion. Three NBA regulation courts with hydraulic flooring, archery, tennis football, kickball, bonfires and field days are just part of the camping experience.
The ropes course consists of various levels based on skill and age and its all self-challenging and voluntary. The newest point of pride is the Bates Aquatic Center with two supervised 25 meter pools that are wheelchair accessible and spacious enough to allow each of the campers two hours of swim time per day. Arts and crafts are also scheduled daily and a five-sink tie-dye station with a rinsing sink was installed on the grounds in the area where on Fridays,“Water day”, there is slip-and-slide that culminates in a 15-minute water fight. Everyone brings water guns, buckets, water balloons. A 1,400 gallon water truck comes in for a full-on, no-holds-barred water war. This is a place where kids can get as messy as they want, make as much noise as they want and still learn cooperation, responsibility and respect for others. They pick up after themselves and keep their areas clean. While there is the option of “roughing it” in tents, most of the campers stay in cabins with seven campers and two staff members in each. Krys Ragland, Program Director, has been with the camp for 17 years and says that almost every child who attends comes back until they “age out” at 18. They return as trackers, meaning they supervise tracks of six cabins, counselors and therapists.
The average ratio is 110 staff members for the 300 kids who attend weekly. The staff gets 50-60 hours of training, including a skill called “equalizing,” wherein the counselors discreetly look for needed items as they help children unpack. Any child who has less than seven complete outfits for the week is provided clothing, and each camper is given an official camp hat, water bottle and T-shirt. Campers are also checked to be sure their athletic shoes fit well and are in good condition. If not, they’re given properly fitted footwear. And all the items are theirs to keep and take home.
“Elks believe in every kid being equal. We let kids have a chance to be kids,” says Ragland, stressing that no Florida child is turned away due to the inability to pay. “The Elks want to give these kids the world.”
Along with the state-of-the-art camping facilities, intricately scheduled activities and just plain fun, there are some other things that make the Elks Youth Camp special.
“They are unplugged!” laughs Krys, explaining that upon registration, all electronics (phones, pads, and other devices) are taken away for the entire week. “We show them how to have fun with each other and by being outside. Then after six days away from that stimulation, we show a Friday night movie on the theater-sized screen. All of a sudden, it’s special again.”
These week-long camps run throughout the summer. The rest of the year the facility is available to other non-profit organizations. There are 16 hotel-like rooms for chaperones of other visitors. The last week of camp is reserved strictly for families with a member deployed in the military, uniting to share their strength and hope.
The Elks Youth Camp is just one example of how a few like-minded people with an idea have organized to bring hope and opportunity to so many. To date, more than 25,000 children have had the experience of camping, nature exploration, and building self-esteem and comradery, not to mention all that fun, because the Benevolent Protective Order of Florida Elks “give them the world”… at least for a week.
To see more of the Florida Elks Youth Camp,