Camp Corral a fun time for children of those who served, sacrificed

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Camp Corral a fun time for children of those who served, sacrificed

MONTICELLO — When Josh Bushart's mom announced she had signed him up for a week of camp, the 11-year-old from Mattoon was excited — and a tad nervous.

Sure, he would have 4 days to swim, fish and explore the grounds of the 4-H Memorial Camp at Allerton Park, on the outskirts of Monticello.

He would get to try new things like climbing a 30-foot rock wall.

But it would be his first time away from home on his own. And as a first-time camper, he wouldn't know anyone.

What if he didn't make any friends?

"It was awkward at first," Josh recalled with a smile.

Then he met a fellow camper named Xavier.

"We just kind of clicked," he continued, adding they enjoyed hanging out at the waterfront, swimming and participating in a host of activities with other friends. "By the end of the week, I knew I wanted to come back."

Now 16, Bushart was back this past week for his fifth year at Camp Corral, a special summer camp program for children from military families — this time as a counselor.

"The campers are just like me," said Bushart, whose dad — Army Pfc. Damian S. Bushart, 22, of Michigan — was killed in November 2003, when a tank collided with his vehicle in Baghdad when he was serving during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"I wanted to give back and give the campers the same experience I had. I understand some of the things they may be going through. If they need to talk, I want to be there to support them."

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Since Camp Corral was launched in 2011 by Golden Corral restaurant founder James Maynard, the program — funded by the restaurant chain and donations — has served more than 17,000 children at 22 locations across 19 states.

The majority are children of wounded warriors and members of Gold Star families, where a parent died in battle, in a training exercise or from a service-related illness.

This is the sixth year the University of Illinois-operated 4-H camp has hosted the program, said Director Curt Sinclair.

"When Easter Maynard (James Maynard's daughter) came to visit us in 2012 as potential host site, she looked at the place and said, 'We love it ... and the camp's reputation is outstanding,'" Sinclair recalled.

"We jumped at the chance to be a part of it," he continued, adding the program's mission fit perfectly with the camp's origin.

In 1946, philanthropist Robert Allerton donated 250 acres for the camp. The next year, state 4-H officials dedicated it to the organization's members and alumni who lost their lives in World War II.

During the war, 4-H members salvaged rubber, paper and other materials for the war effort, Sinclair said. They also planted victory gardens and raised money to buy ambulances for the American Red Cross.

"When the war ended, they were organizing bake sales and car washes to build this place," Sinclair said. Although the dining hall and cabins have been furbished, the look and feel of the grounds haven't changed, he added.

"This camp has always had a military spirit to it. The mission fits the Illinois 4-H camp's mission. It was a perfect marriage."

This year, the camp hosted 162 campers, ages 8 to 15, from 13 states, mainly in the Midwest but as far away as Texas, Sinclair said, adding one military wife whose husband is stationed at Fort Hood military base brings her kids each summer when she returns to Illinois to visit family.

Sinclair said about half are repeat campers.

All have faced unique challenges that come with being in a military family, such as losing a parent or having a parent who suffered an injury during service or having one or both parents deployed, sometimes multiple times.

"Or they've had to move around, as military families do," he said, adding those experiences have made them grow up faster. "Here, they can come to camp and swim and canoe or kayak, climb the rock wall, do arts and crafts and be involved in one of the 15 to 20 clubs we have out here. They can be a kid and have fun.

"And when they're here with other kids who've shared the same experiences and can relate to them, there's a bond that forms."

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For 12-year-old Skyler Anderson of Gifford, that bond formed shortly after she stepped into her cabin Monday morning and met Taylor, an 11-year-old from Schererville, Ind.; Makenzi, 12, of Alexis; and cousins Katie, 12, of Auburn, and Alyson, 11, of Highland.

"We just met Skyler this year," Katie, a fifth-year camper, said when the group sat down to a lunch of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and double chocolate chip cookies. "It feels like we've been friends for years, but it's only been a week."

Skyler said she and her friends enjoy many of the same activities, including swimming and going to the trading post, where they can buy candy, soda, ice cream and beef jerky. They also were super supportive when she opened up about her dad.

Retired Sgt. Garrett Anderson, with the Army National Guard based in Urbana, suffered a brain injury and lost part of his arm in a roadside bomb explosion in Iraq in 2005. Anderson, who's active with the Wounded Warrior organization, served as grand marshal of the Champaign County Freedom Celebration parade on July 4.

Audrey returned to camp, excited to reunite with a number of fellow campers and counselors Meghan Droege and Dafne Tapia, a former Camp Corral camper. While she spent much of the week having fun and doing different activities to qualify as an "ultimate camper," there also were some serious moments.

"One time in our cabin, I said, 'Guess what, guys. I'm moving,'" said Audrey, whose family will leave Dyersville, Iowa, and move to Washington, D.C., before the summer's out so her Army dad can begin an assignment at the Pentagon.

Some of the girls climbed into her bunk to give her a hug or pat on the shoulder.

"Except my friend Breanna," Audrey said. "She doesn't hug, so I gave her a fist bump."

Tapia, who's had to move across the country due to her stepdad's military job, advised Audrey to smile and be open to making new friends.

"It made me feel better," Audrey said of her friends' support and advice, before linking arms with 9-year-old Kristen of Naperville and skipping off toward a group of campers who were doing planks, push-ups and jumping rope.

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The calisthenics were part of Hero Day, a special day for campers to honor their parents and get a taste of military life. They also got to weave paracord bracelets, learn drills, climb into military vehicles, put on camouflage face paint and sample MRE (Meal, Ready to Eat) pouches — labeled chicken pesto pasta, pork ribs and vegetable lasagna — at a picnic table by the dining hall.

"Is my chicken supposed to look like throw-up?" Kristen asked, scrunching her nose at the orange substance on her plastic fork before tasting it.

"Nuh, uh! It's chunky," she said, after spitting it into a trash can.

"The chicken stew tastes good," Jaylen, a 10-year-old from Decatur, told her.

During a break at their cabin, cousins Katie and Alyson reflected on the activities they and their friends had done.

"These are the things our parents get to do," said Alyson, whose dad was in the Army for 18 years and did a tour in Iraq.

"It makes you proud to be military kids," added Katie, whose dad is an Army vet and whose mom was a Marine and now serves in the Army Reserve and goes on training exercises one weekend a month.

Alyson said one of her favorite activities was making a poster for the Wall of Heroes. The posters — featuring pictures of moms and dads both in uniform and at home with their families; American flags and star-shaped stickers; and handwritten notes — decorated one wall and part of another in the dining hall.

"My service member parent works tirelessly to protect the country. He makes us proud every day," a camper wrote in purple marker.

"My entire family is heroic because almost everybody in my family was in the Air Force, and I want to be in it, too," another note said.

"Dear dad. I love you because how you supported the army. You are the best because you loved me as a baby. I'm sorry that you died by a bomb," wrote Colin Owen Penrod, whose dad — Army Specialist Justin Owen Penrod, of Mahomet and formerly of Danville — was killed by a bomb in Baghdad in August 2007, when he and his fellow infantrymen were chasing a sniper. Colin was 8 months old.

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On a covered patio by the dining hall, Jackson, 10, of Springfield and a group of boys traded pieces of candy. Then they headed to a nearby air conditioned building for an activity on decoding secret messages.

Jackson said his favorite activity was climbing the rock tower.

"The rock wall is kind of challenging, but I like doing challenging things," he said. "It helps me get stronger."

Friends Braydon and Mikey, both 10, said they think Jackson is already strong. Jackson's father, who served in the Army National Guard, passed away in September 2013, when he was 5.

Jackson said he doesn't like to talk about his father's death. He'd rather remember other things.

"He fought, and he was really nice to me," he said. "When I tell my friend that, they say, 'That's cool.'"

Jackson said he was looking forward to the ice cream social later in the afternoon and the dance in the pavilion that night. He was going with friends.

While Thursday would be his last night and his mom would be at the camp to pick him up around noon Friday, Jackson said he wasn't ready for the week to end.

"I'm coming back next year," he said.

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