Young boys find a path to brotherhood at Respect Yourself Camp

Boys in the Respect Yourself Summer Camp respond to a question from co-director Sharard Saddler.
Photo by St. Clair Murraine
Boys in the Respect Yourself Summer Camp participate in a Q&A session on Black history.
Photo by St. Clair Murraine
Dianne Woods is an instructor who works with first and second grade participants in the Bethel Academy Respect Yourself Boys Summer Camp.
Photo by St. Clair Murraine

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook Staff Writer

Although more than 50 boys were attending summer camp with him, Kyran Mathis admits to having just one number locked in among the contacts in his phone.

The phone number belongs to one of his peers who he hangs out with while attending the Bethel Academy Respect Yourself Boys Summer Camp. Every other boy in the camp is a friend, though, Mathis said.

He actually considered each of the 60-plus boys who were in the camp part of a brotherhood. The bond they’ve built is strong and one that Mathis said he relied on.

“They help me when I’m down,” he said. “They help me with my work.”

The past six weeks have been somewhat of a crash course that organizers said is an effort to plant seeds to help the boys grown into men with decent characters. The character-building program has been going on for more than two decades at Bethel Christian Academy, but this is the first summer it has been an all-boys camp.

To say the camp offers something for everyone goes beyond being cliché. Consider that they start their days after breakfast with a session that includes prayer, affirmations, biblical and Black history facts. Add to that reading, writing, math, history and science.

Then, counselors make sure there is time for aquatics, touch football or basketball inside of the school’s gymnasium. As much as the camp offered, it was free for the boys.

Rev. Michael Fegins, co-director of the camp, said the curriculum is holistic because it has proven to be an effective approach.

The end goal is to make sure that when participants leave the camp they are “equipped academically, they know how to handle themselves in social settings, they are mentally (and) emotionally equipped and are spiritually developed,” Fegins said.

He added that the teaching seemingly has been resonating with the boys. Ashton Rivers, a rising second graders who is spending the summer with his grandmother, said he finds the days in camp similar to when he is at home attending school in Panama City.

What he is learning is an opportunity to “to be ready and get smarter” for school in the fall, Rivers said.

Keeping the attention of a large group of boys ages 4 to 12 “has been like an adventure,” said Sharard Saddlers, the other co-director. He and the counselors get the most out of the boys when there is an incentive that’s usually something that they like, Saddlers said.

“I’ve noticed that they work together a lot better than they thought they would when incentivized,” he said. “So, being able to capture and keep their attention has been one of those things I really didn’t expect to have the most success in because this is a technology generation. This is a generation stuck on social media.”

Cell phones aren’t allowed during camp hours that run from 8 a.m. to about 6 p.m. That has allowed counselors to have a profound impact on the boys, Saddlers said.

“It’s always surprising to see a little shy kid goes to being one of the most boisterous and sociable in week four of five,” he said.

The boys’ appreciation for Black history was obvious when Mathis said what he’s learned about the civil rights movement and segregation has left him feeling “a little wowed.”

As the camp concluded Friday, expectations were high that the last few weeks have been life-changing for the boys.

 “My hope for these young men is that they are empowered holistically so that weather it’s school, among their friends, in their family or when they get older and are aspiring for a career what they learn here will equip them,” said Fegins. “What they learn at this summer camp will be something they can take away no matter what age (or) what season they step into.”


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