Cram the Canoes: Local schools and businesses donate to Sheriff’s summer camp

Savannah Chastain
Fort Walton Beach High School students from the leadership class, pose with the canoe they helped donate. Pictured from left are; Mrs. Charlene Couvillon, Ashley Pullen, Ashley Gunn, Mr. Kevin Schmidt, Jessie Phipps, Mary Short, DeAnna Cales, Austin Atwell, Randy Reisen, Joshua Howe, Gareth Greene, Andy Herrmann, and Deputy James Reeves.

Summer is just around the corner, and already kids are starting to dream about long sunny days, the beach, and of course summer camp. However, camp can be expensive with the cost of travel, activities and equipment, so every summer, the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office selects underprivileged students aged 11-18, for a week-long summer camp at Florida’s Sheriff’s Youth Ranch, Camp Caruth.

“The school resource officers select the kids, choosing ones who cannot afford to go to camp otherwise,” said Deputy Faegin Willis, a SRO at Destin Middle School. “It’s not a last minute event; right after school starts I put my feelers out there. I know all my children; the kid has to want to go, be able to handle time away, have good behavior and be prepared for a week of camping and sleeping in log cabins.”

This year, the OCSO has teamed up with local schools and businesses to provide canoes and camping equipment for the campers.

“We have five canoes. All the schools in Okaloosa County are on board,” said Willis. “We are driving for paddles, basket balls and volley balls, sunscreen and bug repellent, anything to do with camping.”

Willis added that Destin Middle School is specifically pushing for shoes for the campers.

“Last year we sent 30 kids from this area, we donated 26 bicycles, and to see the kids and how their faces lit up…” said Willis.

Camp Caruth, located near Inglis, Fla., takes students from all over the state rotating by region for a week of outdoor activities that create a healthy environment for building self-esteem, leadership skills, and creating new friendships.

“It’s not just our kids, it’s the whole state of Florida,” said Willis. “Okaloosa County does so much for them that we got two sessions this year.”

Willis told The Log that the local region extends from Washington County to Escambia County and includes 74 students per week.

School resource officers serve as chaperones, along with camp counselors and interact with campers in daily events. Willis, who has volunteered for camps in the past, told The Log, “We as SRO’s like to mingle in with the kids to let them know that we’re not the bad guys all the time. We get up and eat breakfast with them, and go out on excursions with them. We even put on a skit to let them know we are just as silly as they are.”

DMS student Stacey Collins attended Camp Caruth last year, and said making friends and getting to participate in new activities were the highlight of her summer.

“I think it was a great experience for me to get to know different kinds of people, and learn different things like archery and going to the hot springs,” she said. “We also did skits and I had to stand up in front of people. I have stage fright, but I did it, and it was really fun, I just like everything about it.”

WANNA GO?

This year Okaloosa County students will participate in Camp Caruth June 8-13, and July 6-11.

To sign up for camp contact a school resource officer, or call Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Gary Venuti at 259-0085.

WANNA DONATE?

Cram the Canoes donation boxes or canoes are set up at all Okaloosa County schools.   

HarborWalk Village will have a canoe available for donations April 24 as part of Finest on the Emerald Coast,

and May 3-4 as part of the Cinco De Mayo Festival.