By the time these words are in print, June will have come and gone, and with it another summer of fun at Camp Kiwanis. Summer camps have been a rite of passage for generations and these days there are more types of camps than ever. Day camps and overnight programs abound and many have themes, such as music, science and sports. Camp Kiwanis remains much as it always has, a week of fun with friends that is just a bit nostalgic.
The modest collection of buildings arranged around a courtyard and flagpole next to Mill Dam Lake in the Ocala National Forest started as a Civilian Conservation Corps camp for workers during the Great Depression of the 1930s. There were cabins and a mess hall but not much else for the men employed on local building projects.
During World War II, the camp was converted to a quarantine hospital for patients recovering from infectious diseases. After the war it sat vacant until 1947, when the Kiwanis Club of Ocala leased the land from the U.S. Forest Service with the intent of turning it into a summer camp.
The first campers arrived in 1948 and, with the exception of 2020, it has run every summer since. The camp, now in its 74th year, offers five-day sessions for boys and girls ages 7 to 13. While the buildings have been replaced with more modern air-conditioned facilities, the overall feel remains unchanged. There is a playground under stately live oaks, a large dining hall, a swimming beach, dorms with bunks in a row and piles of shoes on the porches of each cabin.
The camp offers swimming and canoeing, archery, arts and crafts, field games, skits and even a dance on the last night. Lasting friendships are made, and summer crushes come and go. The thrill of victory and the sting of defeat are felt on the battle ball field. There is nervousness on the first morning and tears on Friday because it is time to return home. There are no televisions, video games or cellphones. Just kick balls, bows and arrows, and the coolest teenage camp counselors you ever met (who are carefully selected to be the best role models for younger kids anyone could ever hope for).
By the 1950s, most of the adult staff were Marion County Public School teachers or coaches and, at some point, the school system began running the summer program. The Kiwanis Club and school board now partner to maintain the camp and the club rents the facilities out for private functions during the off-season.
In a critical service to our community, the Kiwanis Club provides scholarships for kids from families who are struggling financially .
Camp Kiwanis remains a place where kids can just be kids. It is fun, safe and a wonderful Marion County tradition that remains a summer rite of passage. OS
Scott Mitchell has been the director of Camp Kiwanis since 2004. To learn more about the program, go to marionschools.net/Page/50753. Mitchell also is a field archaeologist, scientific illustrator and director of the Silver River Museum & Environmental Education Center, located at 1445 NE 58th Ave., Ocala, inside the Silver River State Park. To learn more, go to silverrivermuseum.com