Kaleb names all the drills, saws, and other hand tools used by his group at Gator Wilderness Camp School. They use the tools to build tents where they live in the woods east of Punta Gorda. Aidan calls out the orange trees and other plants just starting to shoot up from the ground next to the new sleeper tent he’s helping design and build.
The two boys are “Cowboys” in the youngest group at the camp, which is a Title I private school tucked away in rural Charlotte County. The camp provides an alternative to traditional school structures for boys ages 10 to 15 who are struggling in their classrooms, with their families, and in their communities. On a 250-acre property, they learn to chop wood and cook over the fire, plan their own hiking and canoe trips, and build better relationships.
“The reason I came here is for running away, sneaking, lying, and not taking no for an answer,” Kaleb said, sitting on a log bench where the boys hold “Pow Wow” each night, evaluating their day — what worked and what didn’t, what they would change if they could do it over again.
An 11-year-old from Port Charlotte, Kaleb lives with his grandparents when he’s not at camp. He says he lives with them because his mom “did bad things” and he never saw his dad. Though he entered with behavioral problems, the support and encouragement from seven months at camp have changed him.
“I changed by not lying, being more trustworthy, being honest,” he said. “Camp is helping me live with people, and my group is encouraging me to solve my problems.”
Boys are referred to Gator Camp by behavioral health centers, schools, therapists, law enforcement, or simply word of mouth. When parents or guardians call the school, the first person they speak to is a family worker like Jackie Brucker.
“Families call expressing desperation,” Brucker said. “By the time they call us, they’ve usually exhausted all their other options.”
The boys go through a screening process to make sure they’re a good candidate for the school, including a written application and a home visit where a family worker hears his side of the story. If he feels he wants help with his struggles, he has the opportunity to visit Gator Camp with his family and meet the other campers and “chiefs” who oversee the boys’ daily activities.
The boys’ curriculum focuses on experiential learning and hands on activities. They recently sifted for fossils in the Peace River and cut and pressed sugar cane which they boiled into molasses in a 125-year-old kettle. The campers submit plans for their own hiking and canoe trips and are responsible for researching where to go, the natural history of the area, budgeting for fuel, and making their own menus.
“It’s about boys being empowered to take ownership,” said camp director Greg Kanagy.
Boys at the camp are split into three groups based on age, with about 10 boys in each group. The groups each have their own campsites with areas for sleeping, washing up, cooking, eating and schoolwork. Five days a week, all the groups eat together in a mess hall, and two days a week, they cook their own food over a campfire.
Kanagy said many of the boys haven’t had the opportunity for something as simple as sitting down for dinner together as a family. Thirty percent of them are being raised by grandparents, great-grandparents, or aunts and uncles. Many come from single-parent homes, with generational wounds.
“A big part of this is a message to our boys: You’re accepted and you belong,” Kanagy said.
At Gator Camp, boys who haven’t been successful in the classroom or sports learn to play instruments like the guitar, drums or ukulele. They design and build structures to live in. A washing up area built by the Cowboy group includes a station for each boy to brush his teeth, covered with a canopy roof made from thousands of palm fronds they cut themselves.
“It represents some huge successes,” Kanagy said. “It might not be youth soccer or Little League, but it’s as significant as that for our boys.”
For most boys, Kanagy said, the hardest part of camp is problem-solving. Whenever conflict arises, the boys stop what they’re doing to work it out. Sometimes it’s within minutes, but sometimes it can take much longer. The process teaches boys that problems are meant to be talked about and solved, not run away from.
While the boys learn the value of responsibility and relationships at camp, the same values are instilled in the boys’ families, who also agree to be involved in the process and make changes. Family workers regularly meet with parents, giving them homework assignments and helping them make goals.
Brucker said one goal might be spending quality time together as a family. Watching a movie in the same room together doesn’t count as quality time. Instead, when a boy comes home for a monthly visit, the family could go fishing together for a day.
“We encourage them to get back to basics,” Brucker said. “A simple meal with no phone, internet, or tablet.”
It can be difficult for parents who come in with their arms crossed, not wanting to listen to their family worker, but over time, with the right support and encouragement, positive change happens. Many families whose boys have gone to camp now have their own fire pits at home where they end each day evaluating what worked and what didn’t, Brucker said, just like the boys do at camp.
Gator Camp graduate Jacob Wittz now lives and works in South Carolina, but he comes back to visit Gator Camp whenever he can to help with building projects or fundraising events. Wittz said before Gator Camp, he was getting D’s and F’s in his middle school. He was frequently written up for discipline and suspended, and he struggled at home, with no respect for his mother.
Then, as a 12-year-old, he made the decision to come to camp.
“I felt I needed the change,” he said. “I was going nowhere good and didn’t want to continue down that road any longer.”
Wittz said the routine provided at camp helped keep him in line and out of trouble. His favorite memory was a 26-day trip paddling the Suwanee River. Planning for the trip taught him and the other kids to take responsibility and not just rely on others, he said.
In 2017, Wittz graduated from Charlotte High School in Punta Gorda. After Gator Camp, Wittz said he took what he learned and applied it to the rest of his life and “did just fine.” He graduated with a GPA around 3.3, he said.
Without Gator Camp, he’s not sure he would have graduated at all.
“It definitely changed my life for the better,” he said.
SUN PHOTOS BY SUE PAQUIN
Kaleb, 11, and Director Greg Kanagy at the “Cowboys” campground, where the youngest group of boys lives at Gator Camp Wilderness School.
SUN PHOTOS BY SUE PAQUIN
Top: Kaleb checks out chocolate cake cooked over coals in a Dutch oven. Above: The lake area “where boys will be boys.” The boys have time to fish and swim in the lake.
Entrance to Gator Wilderness Boys Camp
Toothbrushes and cups await at the wash stand. The entire washing up structure was built by the boys using only hand tools.
The camp’s mess hall, where the boys eat five days a week.