'They can come out here and have fun and just be a kid'
MONTICELLO — It's close to lunchtime, and the aroma of barbecue chicken wafts through air at 4-H Memorial Park, making campers' stomach growl.
Ashley Audo sits on a picnic table outside the dining hall with 19 other 11- and 12-year-olds. She's hungry.
But the Oakwood girl wrinkles her nose when a man dressed in Army fatigues offers her a Meals Ready to Eat ration to try. He says it's chicken fajitas, but Ashley isn't convinced.
"Pass," she says, handing the shiny silver pouch and its contents to the girl next to her.
She is glad she didn't pass up the chance to come to camp this week. When her mom told her she'd signed up her and her brother, she wasn't sure if she'd like it.
Now, "I don't want to leave," Ashley says, shaking her head and echoing other kids at the table.
The camp, called Camp Corral, is being held on the 250-acre 4-H grounds in Allerton Park near Monticello this week. It gives the children of military service members who have been wounded, disabled or killed and those who have been deployed multiple times a chance to experience traditional outdoor camping activities at no cost to their families.
Since being launched in 2011 by Golden Corral restaurant founder James Maynard, Camp Corral has grown to 20 sites in 16 states and served more than 4,000 children. This is the second year it's been held at the 4-H camp, according to Director Curt Sinclair.
"They've been having a wonderful time," Sinclair said of the 185 campers, who range from 8 to 15 and come from at least seven states. About half returned from last year.
Campers have been swimming and canoeing, hiking and fishing, rock climbing and zip lining and making arts and crafts. They've also learned about movie-making, outdoor cooking and producing a camp newsletter, among other things, through different club activities.
As part of a military family, the kids have faced challenges — from having a parent deployed to losing their mom or dad — Sinclair points out.
"They can come out here and have fun and just be a kid," he said. "And they share a similar experience. They get to share those experiences and support each other."
Thursday is Hero Day — a day to honor the kids' military parents and experience small pieces of military life through 10 stations, staffed by service members. In addition to the MRE taste-testing station, campers learn about first aid, practice military drills and put on camouflage face paint.
After sampling the military version of chili mac, au gratin potatoes and salt-free crackers, Ashley and several other girls retreat to their cabin, where they've talked about boys and shared secrets. At 2 a.m. Monday, they had an impromptu twerking contest.
"You want a tattoo?" 11-year-old Olivia Clemons, of Jacksonville, asks Ashley, who has climbed up on 13-year-old Nya Liverpool's top bunk. Olivia has drawn a heart with a smiley face and wings with a black marker on several people's hands.
The girls have been trying to do special things for Ashley since learning that her father, Army Maj. David Audo, was killed in action in Iraq in 2009. Maj. Audo, who attended St. Joseph-Odgen High School and graduated from the University of Illinois, was awarded two Bronze Stars for meritorious service during combat in Iraq and Afghanistan and numerous other medals and awards.
"We give her a lot of piggy-back rides," 11-year-old Aspen Foster says, when Ashley is out of earshot.
When she wanders outside to see where Ashley is, she finds her standing on a picnic table with a group of girls. They break into a song they learned this week.
"Bananas unite. Bananas split," they shout. "Peel banana. Peel, peel banana."
"I'm having a lot of fun," says Ashley, her ponytail bouncing as Nya gives her a piggy-back ride to the dining hall. "I can forget about my dad (being gone) and get a lot of pressure off my shoulders."
Inside the dining hall, Ashley sees her brother, Austin, 14. A "trotter," he carries a tray of chicken drumsticks, potato salad and sugar cookies to a table.
Like his sister, Austin wasn't thrilled about coming to the camp. He planned to spend the week preparing for a sailing camp put on by the Navy Special Forces in Rhode Island that's coming up.
The first couple of days, Austin kept to himself. Then, he started talking to other people, including a counselor who knows one of his favorite teachers at Oakwood Junior High School; a cute brunette named Grace, who he asked to Thursday night's dance; and a fellow camper, to whom he spoke about his loss.
"He was talking about his dad, saying how many times he'd been deployed," recalls Austin, who looks like a younger version of his dad. "I asked him if his dad was still alive. He said yes. I said, 'You better love your parents as long as you can because they might not be there one day.'"
Since then, Austin has made an effort to go up and talk to campers who are sitting alone. He asked one boy to play frisbee.
"The only way I can make myself feel better about my dad's loss is by giving ... and helping people," he says.
After lunch, Austin sees his sister at the Hero Wall, where every camper has hung a picture of their military parent and written something about them.
"My dad was in the middle of a firefight in Afghanistan, and he did get hurt, but he's alright. He's my hero," a camper wrote.
"He is going to be gone next year on deployment," another wrote in a red heart of her dad.
Ashley studies a picture of her dad in his dress uniform, several rows of ribbons on his chest.
"He was going to be a general," she tells her brother.
"No, he was too far away," Austin corrects her. They pretend to fight, then he pulls her into a hug.
Ashley breaks off and runs to her next station — decoding secret messages. There, she catches up with her friends.
"I already told my mom I'm coming back next year," she tells them.