Choctaw summer camps engage youth
Brenner Billy teaches the basics of passing and catching at the stickball camp in Tvshka Homma, one of 23 camps offered by the Choctaw Nation this summer.
By Larissa Copeland
Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma
Summer break is winding down and school will be starting back soon for most kids. For a lot of the area Choctaw youth, their summer break was spent attending the many sports and cultural camps offered by the Choctaw Nation.
Twenty-three camps, which are organized and operated by the Choctaw Nation Cultural Services Department, were held in numerous locations across southeastern Oklahoma beginning early this summer.
“We’ve been going since May 28 and just finished up our last camp on July 26, with different camps every week,” said Director of Summer Camps Kevin Gwin.
The two-day camps included cultural enrichment, stickball, baseball, softball, football, basketball, and golf.
“When it first started 18 years ago,” said Sue Folsom, Cultural Services executive director, “we had baseball only and it grew into what we do now.”
The sports offered at the camps today were chosen by what is popular in this area, Gwin said.
All the camps were day camps open to children between the ages of 8 and 18, except golf camp, which was open to those ages 10 to 18. Approximately 2,500 Choctaw youth turned out for at least one of the camps, though many of them attended several, all at no cost to the children or their families.
“It’s good for the kids because I think some of them wouldn’t be able to afford to go to a camp otherwise,” said Gwin. “If you were to go to a basketball camp that charges to attend you might be looking at $45-50 or more per kid, but these [Choctaw] camps are free. They are with us all day and they all go home with sports gear too.
“That’s the best thing, I think, that the kids get the benefit of a professionally ran camp for free and they also get something to take home, which is a benefit because they can use the items when they go back to school or when they’re playing in summer leagues.”
The free giveaways for each attendee to take home included items such as a basketball and bag at the basketball camps, a set of golf clubs at the golf camp, a baseball glove, and a football at the football camps, and more.
The camps are a great way to keep children engaged during the summer, Gwin says.
“The kids get to come and learn, and get to interact with other kids,” he says. “This gives them something to do and look forward to.”
According to Folsom, the camps align with the tribe’s vision of growing with pride, hope and success by giving Choctaw youth every opportunity to experience through the camps their identity of who they are as Choctaws.
“The pride of their heritage, the hope of courage, the success to persevere, and to sustain their family values,” says Folsom. “This is what makes them Choctaw.”
The focus differs for each camp, bringing exciting new learning experiences for the youth. The cultural enrichment camp provides an opportunity for the kids to learn more about the Choctaw heritage and culture, emphasizing archery, arts and crafts, storytelling and the Choctaw language.
Leading high school and college-level coaches from the area were brought in to instruct the kids at the sports camps on basic fundamentals of the respective sporting activities, plus provide each camper the proper instruction to help improve their level of play and decrease his or her potential for injuries.
Countless hours were required to put on these camps by not only the Cultural Services staff and the coaches, but also by volunteers, according to Gwin.
“In addition to my staff, the Outreach Services department, Choctaw [Community Health Representatives] and counselors have been a huge part of the camps,” he says. “If it weren’t for them we couldn’t do it. They’ve really helped us, especially with the bussing schedules, being chaperones and helping out at the camps.”
Gwin says the kids tell him they appreciate the opportunities the tribe provides by hosting the camps. “I think that the kids see that the tribe is doing this for them,” he says. “When they get older that’s when they’ll really understand what a benefit this was to them.”
The camps were held in towns across the Choctaw Nation including Durant, Tvshka Homma, Canadian, Kingston, Idabel, Spiro, Rattan, Tushka, Coalgate, McAlester, Soper, Wilburton, and Poteau.
“We’ve been welcomed everywhere we’ve held a camp,” he says.
It’s a rewarding job, according to Gwin. “I enjoy working with the kids,” he says. “We have a lot of fun. It’s nice to get to know them all. We see a lot of kids return year to year so I feel like I get to see them grow up,” Gwin says.