Out there where the shell piles define Punta Gorda’s skyline, there is a haven for boys seeking sanctuary.
Gator Wilderness Camp is a 250-acre spread five miles north of Bermont Road and State Road 31, the intersection of wayward wanderers. It is a place where boys 10 to 15 years old can go to get away from whatever–a broken family, a scrape with the law, a left-of-center learning curve–and make things right for themselves.
At the camp, they receive education, direction and a place to mature without the pressure of having to try to fit in with a crowd that demands normal from them.
Take Casey Cusick, for instance. He’s 15 and has been there two years – a little longer than most but he’s autistic and has come a long way since his days of running away from anything that upset him. He just finished a gig as an auctioneer at a fundraiser. The bidding started at $5 and closed at $3,000. The item was a checkerboard he had made himself.
Or Cameron Smith, 13, an angry kid with enough insight to perceive that anger as a negative force in his life.
“I just wanted to make changes in my life, and leave all the bad stuff in the past,” Cameron said.
Or John Blount of Englewood. He stole a car and was caught days later by the woman from whom he lifted it. He went to the camp a couple days after his 15th birthday and graduated from the program a little more than a year later.
He went on to graduate from Lemon Bay High School. He’s 19 now and an intern at the camp.
“I just wanted to change,” he said. “I was going down a pretty dark path with drugs and breaking the law. I saw that I shouldn’t be doing it, but I didn’t know how to get out. Camp was the way out.”
Overall, the camp has served about 160 boys since accepting its first camper in September 2009. Twenty-five boys currently reside there.
“All of our boys have to choose to be here,” said Greg Kanagy, its director. “A parent can’t ever pull into Gator camp and say, ‘Take my son.’ Every boy has to have a place where he knows where home is. If they don’t have moorings of where home is, and if they haven’t had a choice in the decision, the motivation and desire to learn is drastically different.”
It is a faith-based, home-school community. The program follows the “fresh-air” approach to youth rehabilitation–giving boys structure, direction and discipline in a natural, outdoor environment. There is no timetable on the program, but the boys usually take part for a year to 18 months. The boys are referred to the program by mental health agencies, schools and families.
Kanagy was an ordained pastor in a Mennonite Church in central Pennsylvania before starting the Punta Gorda camp, but the program is nondenominational. He answers to a board of directors. Funding comes from a variety of governmental sources as well as corporate sponsorships and individual donations.
The boys are divided into three groups, roughly along age lines. They live and work in the woods. There are indoor facilities, but their life is spent largely outside, where they sleep–they sleep in multi-bunk tents they built — eat, perform assigned chores and attend an evening “pow wow,” where the conflicts of the day must be resolved before they turn in.
If they build something — a covered wagon canopy as an entrance to their encampment, for instance – they use material provided by nature and work with hand tools. Power tools are verboten.
They share the camp with about a dozen horses and other animals. They learn to ride and drive the horses. They can swim in a 12-acre lake equipped with a giant rope swing. One wall of a large indoor dining hall is lined with guitars for the boys to mess with–or learn how to play.
They are required to set goals. They tape them to the inside of their footlockers.
“It’s about change,” Kanagy said.
The very first goal Casey set was “if I get angry I won’t run away. I’ll stay with my group.”
Over time, more goals were added.
“I’ve reached all of them,” he said, the pride in his voice audible.
He’ll be graduating soon.