COPPER HILL — Javontae Patrick recalled feeling a mix of trepidation and wonder as a 5-year-old boy, the first time he rode a school bus from Roanoke across Bent Mountain to Apple Ridge Farm.
“The route was so long. I didn’t know where we were going. You never would have thought all this was up here,” he said, scanning the lush landscape dotted with a renovated dairy barn and sparkling blue swimming pool.
Nearly a dozen years later, Javontae, now 16, still spends summers at the 96-acre Floyd County camp for inner-city Roanoke children. But nowadays it earns the rising William Fleming High School senior a paycheck.
Javontae leaves every morning from the apartment he shares with his mother and three younger brothers to be the first one on the bus to Apple Ridge. His job title is a camp supervisor but his role at the academic summer camp is more like big brother and mentor. When Javontae talks, the campers listen.
When he leaves Roanoke to attend college, Javontae said he intends to carve out time from college life to return to the camp.
“I am not giving up Apple Ridge,” he said emphatically.
What is it about the sprawling green getaway that grabs the attention of some of Roanoke’s most economically disadvantaged students?
Maybe it is the pool, the wooded hiking trails or rock climbing tower — the great outdoors. But much of the draw has to do with the commanding presence of camp founder Peter Lewis, known as “Uncle Peter” to the campers.
“What I am trying to do is bring out what was good about the ‘good old days,’ ” Lewis said. “I am trying to exhort these kids to do better.”
Lewis, the son of educators, said when he was growing up in Washington, children went to school to represent their families and achievement was expected. But that mentality has shifted in the past 40 years, he said.
“Some families don’t send their kids with the same expectations,” he said.
Lewis interrupted a Junior Achievement lesson last week to softly but sternly remind campers to keep their eyes on the person speaking, and to rotate their bodies in their seats to show they are interested in what the speaker is saying.
“Kids need to learn strategies that are going to enable them to get where they need to be,” Lewis said afterward.
In an adjacent room, Nicole Bellerice coached middle school students on how to behave when they visit college campuses. The 65 or so campers this week are slated to visit the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, National Business College and Virginia Western Community College.
“Hi, my name is … and I have a question for you,” recited Bellerice, who teaches at Westside Elementary School during the school year.
Raven King, a rising Fleming senior, is working as a junior counselor and racking up volunteer hours to pad her college applications. She said she gets as much out of camp as the middle school campers do.
“Most kids our age don’t get to see colleges until they are enrolled in them,” she said.
At the base of the camp’s 60-foot climbing tower, 13-year-old Chaunce Burrell rescued a fuzzy caterpillar from sneaking into another camper’s backpack. Aside from swimming, he said visiting the college campuses is his favorite part of camp.
“It lets me see how the campus is, what classes you can take,” said the rising James Madison Middle School eighth-grader, who said he would like to pursue a career training animals or making video games.
Lewis, a retired educator, purchased the farm land in 1975, and the first summer camp for Roanoke children was held in 1989. Students are bused daily from Roanoke’s housing communities for four two-week sessions, grouped by age. There is no charge to campers’ families. Janice Dunleavy, director of development for the nonprofit organization Apple Ridge Farm Inc., said it costs $550 to send a child to camp for a week.
The organization’s revenue for 2009 was about $538,000 and expenses totaled about $512,000. Those figures are from the most recent tax documents posted at guidestar.org, a clearinghouse of nonprofit groups’ tax data. Apple Ridge is sustained primarily by grants and donations, with a sliver of government support. Dunleavy said about 40 percent of the revenue comes from private donors, and grants account for 30 percent. The balance is split between bequests and fundraising.
Lewis stressed a number of collaborations between Apple Ridge and other community organizations. For example, transportation for the college visits is provided by the Spetzler Fund of the Foundation for Roanoke Valley. Apple Ridge received $25,000 from the Walmart Foundation and $10,000 from the U.S. Tennis Association, which will help fund this summer’s camp sessions. More than 550 campers are expected over eight weeks.
The camp’s basis is academics, but outdoor activities are staples. Every camper learns to swim.
“More children from the inner city struggle with water sports because they don’t have access to swimming pools and country clubs,” Lewis said.
The camp began in an old dairy barn that lacked indoor plumbing. The structure has since been renovated to include a commercial kitchen and classroom space. Other facilities have been built on the grounds, including a dormitory, pool, observatory and natural science center.
“Seeing it go forward every year, it’s like, ‘Whoa.’ It is amazing,” Javontae said.