Black Mountain Home launching new program at former 4-H camp

Fred McCormick

The Black Mountain Home for Children, Youth and Families is breathing new life into the historic Swannanoa 4-H Camp.

During the summer, former Gov. Pat McCrory signed the 60-year lease that grants control of the camp to its neighbor, the Black Mountain Home. As work on the old camp has progressed, its role in the home's 113-year old ministry is coming into focus.

Tom Campbell talks about the expansion of Black Mountain Home for Children, Youth and Families while overlooking what's now known as the West Campus, previously the Swannanoa 4-H Camp.

With more than 239,000 participants, the state-run 4-H Youth Development program is the largest youth organization in North Carolina. It operates as an extension program of the N.C. State University and N.C. A&T University.

The state closed four of its six 4-H campgrounds in 2013, citing infrastructure and financial challenges. The Swannanoa campground, which opened in 1929, was the oldest of the state’s 4-H camps. Its closing gave Black Mountain Home president Tom Campbell an idea.

“When I came on board, we set two goals as a ministry,” Campbell, president for 12 years, said. “One was to develop a true continuum of care that could serve infants all the way up to college graduates, for children who needed out-of-home care.

“Our second goal was to be able to continue to decrease our dependence on government support,” he continued. “We still want to partner with them, but we don't want our ministry to be dependent upon those dollars.”

The former 4-H site could support both of those goals, he reasoned.

In 2008, the home opened its Ray Campbell Independent Living Village for children who wanted to continue their education after high school. Teenagers in the program have done well in the program.

“Of the 90 kids who could've graduated high school, 76 have graduated high school or received their G.E.D.,” Campbell said. “That's an 84 percent rate, which compares to a national average of 54 percent.”

But college isn't an option for all Black Mountain Home residents, given the challenges many faced before arriving there. Now called the “west campus,” the 90-acre former 4-H campground will be used to develop four apprenticeship programs on-site.

The west campus of the Black Mountain Home for Children, Youth and Families will offer apprenticeships in culinary arts, hospitality and housekeeping, maintenance and outdoor leadership and recreation, according to president Tom Campbell.

“What we want to do is utilize the west campus as a site for weddings, day camps, corporate events and for 4-H to rent the facility out to continue to use the site,” Campbell said. “To support those, we will have apprenticeship tracks for our young people." They will include a culinary arts program, a hospitality and housekeeping track, an outdoor leadership and recreation track, and a maintenance track that will eventually include automotive and landscaping tracks.

Campbell would like to see the home team with community partners in the Swannanoa Valley and beyond to teach children the vocational skills needed to earn a living wage. "Our goal is for them to be able to support themselves when they leave here," he said, "without depending on another adult or government services to live in the community."

The facility would allow children who age out of the foster care system - a demographic the home calls an "overlooked and under-served" - access to potentially life-altering education.

The camp offers a glimpse back into time in the Swannanoa Valley. It was used to house German prisoners of war in the 1940s; what is now a functioning game room with a pool table served as an officers club. The rustic beauty of the land, which features multiple structures in various states of renovation, makes it an ideal venue for large groups, according to Campbell.

Black Mountain Home hopes to raise money for a large activities center on the west campus, which would feature an indoor lap pool and a full-sized basketball court. Such a facility, which would cost an estimated $2 million, would appeal both to visitors to the camp and the surround community as well,  Campbell believes.

"That would tie in with our outdoor leadership apprenticeship program," Campbell said. "One of those areas of training would be for lifeguards, so if a group wanted to use the pool we could staff it with a lifeguard. And a service like that not only generates income, it increases awareness about our ministry."

The ministry served 119 children from 15 Western North Carolina counties during the 2014-15 fiscal year. Many of those children spoke about what they were grateful for at the home during an open forum in February. Minutes from the forum reflect the impact the home is making on the lives of children.

Speaking at an Black Mountain Home open house earlier this month, Hezekiah, who graduated high school in June 2016, is currently in the independent living program at the Black Mountain Home for Children, Youth and Families. He's continuing his education and holds a job on-campus.

"Several youths expressed their appreciation for staff," according to the minutes. "Staff treat youth like family. They help provide guidance as youth try to make decisions. Staff really love youth; it's not a game."

The home's mission is "To glorify God by caring for children and families," and it's one that Campbell takes seriously.

"We want to make sure the kids that come here are treated like we would want our kids or grandkids treated," he said. "Those are not just words; that's what we feel in our heart."