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Camp S.A.L.T. celebrates 10 years: ‘If they can do these challenges at camp, they can meet challenges in life’

For 10 years, Camp Save A Life Together (S.A.L.T.) has been teaching youth about teamwork, courage and responsibility at their three acre property in Kill Devil Hills just west of First Flight High School.

The camp, which is funded and run by the Dare County Sheriff’s Office, started out as a wilderness therapeutic program created by Deputy Bill Morris. Troubled kids were sent by the courts to participate in five-to-seven-day camping trips. In the early years of Camp S.A.L.T., about 40 kids would spend the whole summer together hiking, swimming, fishing and climbing the famous 75-foot Alpine Tower. “They got to be a whole lot like family,” said Dare County Sheriff Doug Doughtie.

“It mushroomed. Kids kept coming through and parents were really appreciative. Their kids were coming home from camp worn out, ready for supper and bed and then ready to go again the next day,” said the Sheriff.

Currently, Camp S.A.L.T. runs three, three-week sessions each summer, from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. led by camp director George Bowman, Sergeant Greg Padilla and Corporal Ed Cottrell. It’s open to all boys and girls in the county aged 8 to 14, free of charge, though donations are accepted. “We realized we could reach more kids and not just the kids that were in trouble,” said Cottrell, who works as SPO at First Flight High School during the school year and at Camp S.A.L.T. during the summer.

The camp teaches individual skills, but it also teaches youth to rely on each other and how to extend encouragement. “They learn how to be a friend to each other, how to talk to each other,” continued Doughtie. There is time built into the day where the kids just sit together on picnic tables with nothing to do but talk to each other. Though the entire day is planned and structured, there’s enough down time for the kids to form authentic friendships with each other.

Those friendships forged extend to the camp staff, providing inroads for good relationships in the future. “It’s another way to talk to kids and parents and build community. The police want kids to know us and love us and talk to us. It’s a building block. It’s a very good way to touch a whole lot of lives,” Doughtie said. He estimates approximately 1500 boys and girls have gone through Camp S.A.L.T. in the last decade, not including the Boys Scouts, Girl Scouts and church groups that have used the facilities.

Though Camp S.A.L.T. does exist to provide fun, structured activities for youth in the summer, the goals are long term. “We are here for the community. What we can do is ensure our future citizens of Dare County are learning skills to become good productive citizens and are not afraid to try new things,” Cottrell said. “If they can do these challenges at camp, they can meet challenges in life.”

“There was one young man years ago – back when we did tent camping ­– he’d never been off the beach,” recalled Cottrell. After going through the program, “We saw a huge improvement. Years later – and I hate this part – I arrested him. On the way to the station, all he talked about was that camping trip.” Cottrell left the area and became a United Nations International Police Officer in Kosovo, but he never forgot that boy. And the boy never forgot the impact of Corporal Cottrell or Camp S.A.L.T.

“When I moved back to the area, I ran into that same kid in the grocery store. He came up to me and told me about how good he was doing. He had worked himself up to where was a professional firefighter. He had to run up and tell me how much better he was doing.”

Life changes happen at Camp S.A.L.T. Doughtie recalls, “Parents say, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing but he’s not the same kid.’” Teamwork is central to the camp’s values.

The 50-foot climbing pole is a team effort. One student climbs with a harness while a camp counselor belays from the bottom and other campers help to hoist the climber about 10 feet to the start of the climbing pegs. The record for climbing the pole had been held for two years by a female camper at 16 seconds.

Week before last, with Cottrell clocking the climb and all the campers looking on and cheering, Aristeos “Ari” Kiourtzidis made it to the top in a record 14.2 seconds. “You just saw history being made,” said Cottrell.

It’s a kind of rite of passage for Camp S.A.L.T. participants to ascend the Alpine Tower – the most revered obstacle at camp – with its rope ladders, rock walls and the “ladder of success” as they say at camp. There are a lot of ways to climb up and each one is more challenging than the next.

“Some kids are scared to climb the tower, but the other kids encourage them,” Doughtie said. Even though all climbers are securely harnessed and belayed by a staff member or a trained, mature camper, it’s a tall tower. The climbing activities teach the students that they can do hard things, that they can achieve things they never thought possible.

Expectations are high for respectful behavior and a positive attitude, but campers rise to the occasion.

Camp S.A.L.T. follows the golden rule to love your neighbor as yourself. The camp teaches about manners, respecting one another, even littering if needed. One morning staff marched the kids around the camp to look at the empty water bottles and wrappers left lying around from the day before and said, “This is your camp. Do you want it to be trashy? Then you have to clean it up.”

In military style, bad behavior is punished with push-ups. “We start at five and work our way up,” Cottrell said. “They know, it’s actions and consequences. When they grow up it’s the exact same thing. Jail is time-out for adults.”

Campers are rewarded, too, for hard work and good attitudes. Each session, Mike and April Dinkle with Island Snowball Company treat campers to snowballs.

Last fall during COVID-19 school closures, Camp S.A.L.T. volunteers stepped up and provided a place for students to go. The district helped bus students to the camp where they could connect to wifi and do schoolwork if their parents were working. “Our volunteers, they love the kids,” Doughtie said.

That love, Doughtie believes, comes from God.

“The good Lord has blessed it,” he said. Before breakfast and lunch, campers volunteer to pray for the meal. About the faith aspect of the camp, “If you want to be a part of that you are,” said Doughtie. “Kids will pray and thank God for the day, that nobody got hurt. It’s amazing to hear what these kids actually pray for. They pray for each other – that’s the amazing part. They know what’s going on, they pray about health, even at the young age that they are. It’s incredible how much they think of one another,” he said.

Like many organizations, COVID-19 has impacted the camp. In an ordinary year, the camp would take a variety of field trips to places like Jennette’s Pier or Soundside Beach, or take campers kayaking and bike riding. The restrictions related to the virus have limited travel and the camp has seen fewer volunteers due to the financial burdens caused by COVID-19. Without adequate field trip supervisors, they have relied even more on the activities on site. There is a kickball field, a 50-foot rappelling wall, a volleyball court and several obstacle courses that encourage balance and coordination. Campers have a 30-minute required reading time and can select from books donated by the school and individuals.

In the last several years, the community has come together to contribute to repairs, supplies and some much-needed refreshing for Camp S.A.L.T. “We’ve worked to clean it up. We’ve made a lot of progress to make it nice,” said a volunteer.

Through grants from the Outer Banks Community Foundation and the Dare Community Crime Line provided a new roof on the cabin, a first aid station inside the cabin and a new 12×16 storage shed. Lorelei Costa, Bob Muller and Elisabeth Silverthorne helped with the grant process and Major Jeff Derringer helped procure the shed. The Beach Food Pantry has donated food and supplies to the camp and counselor Meris Duprey did extensive organization of the cabin.

So many local business owners have quietly offered materials, expertise and manpower to support a cause they believe in. Brady McPherson of McPherson Tractor donated time for several projects to help clear the site and remove debris. Brian Parrish with ELS electrical company donated a gas grill, outdoor solar flood lights, light poles and new LED lighting for the cabin and the sheds. Ted Moseley of OBXLP donated the gas bottles for the gas grill that the camp uses for weekly cook outs. Last September, because of hurricane damage, Brandon Little Roofing put a new roof on the cabin as well as donated a new door.

Som To, manager of the Lowe’s KDH store has been a source of generosity and kindness for the camp. She has donated a 10×12 shed, pop up tents, chest coolers, water, an air conditioner, a chest freezer, a refrigerator and supplies. Just last week, a Camp S.A.L.T. volunteer approached To with a need for shade trees and she graciously offered to provide them.

Campers don’t see all the effort that goes into keeping the camp, they just see a world of excitement and adventure tethered by leaders who care. For recent camper Abigail, who has autism, as soon as camp was over she was already talking about the next one.

Ten-year-old August Bell said, “This camp is very special to me. The instructors have had a big impact on my life.”

That’s not an accident. For Doughtie, it’s the whole point. “They know we are family. We make every effort to make their lives better,” he said. “This world is like a firework, it explodes. Camp S.A.L.T. brings people together.”

For more information about Camp S.A.L.T., contact Padilla at gregp@darenc.com or call 252-216-6595.

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