Bruce Wilmoth was picking up a rental car for a trip out of town when his day took a momentary detour: The woman at the desk smiled and told him that his name sounded familiar. Eventually, they discovered that she remembered him from her days as a camper at West Virginia University’s National Youth Sports Program. Wilmoth, a retired faculty member in WVU’s College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences, was the former NYSP activities director.
Steve Brannon, a counselor at University High School, was talking to a tennis coach who told him about an eager student-athlete who wanted to try out for his team. The coach asked the young lady if she had a tennis racquet. She said yes, she’d acquired one at NYSP from Brannon, who doubles as the camp’s community liaison.
For Wilmoth, Brannon and others associated with NYSP, these are not out-of-the-blue encounters, but the indelible stamp of a popular summer camp that celebrates its 25th year at WVU this year.
“I run into kids from camp all the time,” Brannon said. “You’ll be walking down the street and see one of the t-shirts. It’s made a real difference in people’s lives.”
Said Wilmoth, “I’ll be at the mall with my wife and all of a sudden someone will come up and grab you around the waist and say, ‘Are we going to have camp next year?’ “
More than a milestone, NYSP’s legacy is found in the magic summer memories of thousands of campers and employees from the region and the can-do spirit of CPASS, which hosts and organizes the camp.
Through the determination of CPASS, the camp has remained free of charge and open to all 10- to 16-year-olds in Monongalia County and surrounding areas. The federal money that started NYSP evaporated earlier this decade but, at WVU, the camp has thrived and expanded its mission to better serve the community.
CPASS Dean Dana Brooks, who wrote the original grant that brought NYSP to WVU, has been instrumental in establishing partnerships and seeking support when the funding cut caused many camps around the country to shut down. WVU shortened its camp from five to four weeks, and the length of its operating time by a few hours a day, but also widened its net to welcome all comers. Heading toward its third decade of existence, it continues to deliver a well-rounded program based on physical activity, health and academic enrichment to hundreds of campers a year.
“You ever hear of organizations that take on a life of their own?,” Brooks said. “This is one of those.”
Click to hear Dana Brooks, dean of WVU's College of Physical Activity and Sport Science, talk about the importance of community support to NYSP and his goals for the camp.
NYSP’s life began nationally in the 1960s as a way to quell social unrest and expose under-represented and under-privileged youth to college campuses. The administration of the program eventually fell to the NCAA and became a fixture at WVU thanks to Brooks’ grant and the efforts of a dedicated staff.
“I remember going to a national meeting with the project administrators in Washington D.C.,” Wilmoth said. “All the people there had been running camps for around 15 years. I thought, ‘Gad, are we going to be around that long?’ “
In its first few years, WVU struggled to meet rigid NCAA-mandated participation requirements that favored camps set in big cities, not college towns surrounded by rural areas. But WVU continued to grow its effort through word of mouth and a continuous tweaking of the camp’s formula. Essential to the formula is community involvement.
Two of NYSP’s most valuable partnerships are on display every day. To help increase opportunities for students from rural areas of Monongalia County, WVU partnered with the Mon County Board of Education, which agreed to provide free busing to and from the camp each day. Through a grant from the USDA, WVU is able to offer the campers daily lunches and healthy snacks.
Several others operate mostly behind the scenes: National companies have donated sports equipment and local business The Book Exchange has donated books, backpacks, shirts and money. Literacy and a love of reading are themes of the camp: WVU Libraries also gives away books as does former Libraries dean Frances O’Brien. WVU’s School of Medicine offers free physical examinations for all campers. Through its board of directors, the camp has gained financial support and is building a cache of scholarships for students who may not be able to afford college.
“I can’t say enough about the people who have supported us,” Brooks said. “It’s truly a community based program and a program that gives a lot of value.”
NYSP stands as a daily exhibition of WVU’s land-grant mission at work as grateful families route their children – either by bus or of their own means – to WVU’s Shell Building. Along with physical activity and receiving books, campers engage in academic pursuits like building and launching model rockets and listen to messages about social issues such as bullying, the dangers of drugs and alcohol and other health and hygiene tips.
The campers and their families are also invited to attend a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game each year, including free tickets and transportation.
Click to hear Rob McIe, an elementary school teacher and group leader at WVU's NYSP talk about the benefits the camp provides for families.
For the campers, the value is as obvious as the smiles on their faces.
“I like meeting new friends, seeing old friends and getting a nice workout during the summer,” Dashon Thomas, who is in his third year at NYSP and who will be a freshman at Morgantown High in the fall, said.
Click to hear Loren Bane, former NYSP camper and current staffer, describe the benefits of WVU's NYSP summer camp.
“I like to swim and hang out with my friends,” Jonathan Gill, also a third-year camper said. “I get to hang out with some old friends who I don’t get to go to school with.”
David Hanselman admitted not knowing what to expect when he first came to the camp as a 10-year-old.
“I was kind of nervous because I didn’t know a lot of kids going here,” Hanselman said. “I was coming here on the bus and didn’t know what it was going to be like. Now that I’ve been here for awhile, it’s really fun.”
Like many of the other campers, Hanselman likes meeting new friends and re-connecting with old ones. He also appreciates the variety of activities that are offered.
On one of the camp’s first days, Hanselman was running 40-yard dashes while other campers, divided into age groups, were involved in sports and games of all manner.
One group was playing softball at a nearby field. Inside, the Shell’s spacious floor accommodated groups playing basketball and hockey. Another group was at the natatorium receiving instruction on safety and pool rules before being let loose in the water.
“You get to learn new sports,” Hanselman said. “I learned how to play soccer better, I learned new skills I could use.”
Perhaps the best testament of David’s excitement comes from a mother’s perspective: “It’s summer and he’s 14 years old,” Lisa Hanselman said. “But every morning he’s showered and ready to go by 8:15. It’s amazing.”
The excitement surrounding camp isn’t confined to those currently at NYSP.
Kevin Luo, a 22-year-old recent graduate from WVU’s Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, fondly recalls the games of “Knockout” he participated in as a camper and as a group leader for three years. Knockout is an elimination game in which participants shoot baskets. Those who make baskets continue to face a new challenger while those who miss are eliminated from the competition.
“As a kid it was this giant competition and you wanted to prove you could shoot the ball and score. You always wanted to be the guy who made it to the end,” Luo said.
As a group leader, Luo livened up the competition with good natured jabs at the shooters.
“I made sure they didn’t get a big head if they won,” he said.
Although he’s in an internship with General Electric this summer, Luo says he’ll miss being around NYSP.
“It’s just a fun experience,” he said.
It can also be a valuable one for NYSP’s employees who are school teachers from the area. Teachers can not only supplement their incomes but hone their classroom skills or engage with youth in a more relaxed atmosphere.
“I look forward to it every summer,” said Rob McIe, a physical education teacher at Brookhaven Elementary School who has been with NYSP for more than 20 years.
McIe and other group leaders oversee a contingent of kids and lead them to their activities each day. Instructors await the groups and provide performance tips on each sport. Andrew Simpson, a recent WVU grad from Buffalo, N.Y., advised runners like Hanselman how to get off to a better start. He timed each camper running two dashes, urging them to improve on their first times.
Many of the employees who aren’t teachers use the camp experience as a springboard into careers in education.
Suzzie Bane was a group leader as a CPASS grad student at the inaugural NYSP camp and eventually moved to an instructor. Along the way, she became a teacher and coach at Morgantown High.
“It was really cool,” Bane said of her 15 years with NYSP. “A lot of the group leaders were college kids and they influenced the directions and choices of a lot of the kids at camp. I think some of kids saw the group leaders and thought, ‘He grew up like me, he came from a farm and is going to college. I can do that too.’ “
Bane’s influence extended to her own family.
Her daughter Loren, a former camper, is a group leader this year and is studying to be a science teacher at WVU’s College of Human Resources and Education.
“Every year my mother was here and sweating her butt off but she loved it,” Loren Bane said. “I think it’s a great thing for teachers to do.”
WVU will hold a 25th anniversary celebration from noon to 1 p.m. Tuesday, July 17 at the Shell Building. All former campers, staff, board members and sponsors are invited to attend.
Cake will be served. The ceremony will also include awards and recognition for staff and there will be presentations from some of the campers.
For more information, see: http://nysp.wvu.edu/25years.
By Dan Shrensky
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