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The YMCA's Camp Wakonda prepares to welcome around 700 kids over the next few weeks

A sign welcomes campers to Camp Wakonda in southwest Missouri (photo taken May, 2024).
Michele Skalicky
A sign welcomes campers to Camp Wakonda in southwest Missouri (photo taken May, 2024).

Camp Wakonda has been open since 1953 on nearly 100 acres not far from Halltown, Missouri.

Before long, a tract of nearly 100 acres near Halltown will be filled with the sounds of laughter and children’s voices. But right now, all you hear are birds and insects and an occasional car that drives by.

The YMCA’s Camp Wakonda has been on this site for 71 years. Kent Childs, who sits on the camp’s advisory board today, attended camp here from 1962-1973. He and his eight siblings grew up in poverty after their dad died, and their mom worked nights at Lily Tulip in Springfield to try to make ends meet. He learned later that a donation helped him attend Camp Wakonda for free. The experience had such an impact that Childs, who went on to become a successful businessman, has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years to help kids attend Camp Wakonda. That's "because I know that, had it not been for Camp Wakonda, I wouldn't have had nearly as a productive life," he said, "so just a whole experience with, you know, the socialization and just the mind, body and spirit aspect of the camp and just, I think, becoming a much better person, so it really really helped shape me."

He said he made friends with kids who came from upper middle class families but, at camp, it was a level playing field, and he wants others to have the same experience he had.

"These long term relationships with these high quality people," said, "have helped me become a more productive and I think probably a kinder person."

The dining hall at Camp Wakonda in southwest Missouri (photo taken May, 2024).
Michele Skalicky
The dining hall at Camp Wakonda in southwest Missouri (photo taken May, 2024).

About 700 campers will have stayed on the property by the time summer is over, having fun and making friends.

There are nine camp themes this year, including a superhero week, Night at the Oscars, a country hoedown and color extravaganza where campers are on a color team, and they compete all week long.

Camp director Myra Cassady said most kids go to camp for a week.

They can do typical camp activities like archery, swimming, fishing and hiking, but there are also out-of-the-box activities "like we do a clown club. We do drama, music. We have a swashbuckling club, which is, essentially, fencing with pool noodles, the kids love that one, so we get creative as well and work with what we have to have a good time," Cassady said.

Planning for camp starts a year before kids arrive. They start hiring in September and October and always hope to have everyone on board by March. And the off season is when camp facilities get upgrades – Camp Wakonda’s old bathhouses in the lower field, which haven’t been used in years, are getting a facelift.

The inside of one of the sleeping quarters at Camp Wakonda (photo taken May, 2024).
Michele Skalicky
The inside of one of the sleeping quarters at Camp Wakonda (photo taken May, 2024).

Cassady said they work to make sure the kids are safe when they go to camp. For one, the supervision ratio is one staff member for every five kids. They always move in groups of three at camp and don’t allow one to one interaction. There’s always a staff member and two kids in any activity, she said, including bathroom visits.

"So we always make sure that kids are being supervised, and we value privacy," she said. "When at camp, they do live together in the same building, but there's no changing in front of each other. We have changing stations in every cabin and then we have private stalls with our showers and our bathrooms."

Staffers go through background checks. And there’s a camper code of conduct that staffers go over with the kids.

"One of our values is honesty," said Cassady, "so we always tell the kids, 'if you see something, say something' or even if you make a mistake, just always own up to it and so we go through that orientation with them at the beginning of every week, so they know if they see something that doesn't feel right to tell another adult."

She said they want everyone to have a safe and fun experience at Camp Wakonda and to learn leadership skills.

"Starting this summer we're doing like a picnic where an older cabin takes a younger cabin off at a location on camp for a sack lunch and to just hang out with each other," said Cassady, "so that the older kids feel like they are role models for the younger kids."

There’s a youth committee whose members go to camp four times a year to implement new ideas. They learn about leadership and service and serve as role models for campers.

"There are kids that have been coming for a long time, and they believe in what we do here, and they know the impact of camp," she said.

There’s a leader-in-training program for 15-year-olds and a counselor-in-training program for 16-year-olds.

Cassady said they train staff to make sure every child feels safe and included regardless of religion, identity or other factors. Most staff members are young adults – from high school graduates to college students. And the YMCA hires internationally. This summer, there will be nine staffers from Colombia, Mexico and Zimbabwe.

"It's just really special to watch two people from different parts of the globe really connect and bond and just find commonality," said Cassady.

A small lake at Camp Wakonda (photo taken May, 2024).
Michele Skalicky
A small lake at Camp Wakonda (photo taken May, 2024).

One thing she loves about camp is that kids get a lot of opportunities to make choices.

"We want kids to make decisions for themselves and know that they're in a safe space to do that," she said. "And, you know, camp is a really safe space to make mistakes and try new things."

A camper who’s an athlete at home might feel secure enough at camp, she said, to try theatre or vice versa.

Cassady said YMCA camp has been a huge part of her life since she was a child in Kansas. Her goal, she said, is to give kids an even better experience than she had.

"Camp is where you plant seeds to make the world a better place," she said. "A kid can come here and just be a kid and learn how to respect others regardless of their background or beliefs or identity, and I think that's really special how a kid can come and get out of their bubble and their influences at school or, you know, outside of camp and just become friends with someone totally different than them and learn to spread that joy and love in their community and schools hopefully for the rest of their lives."

Camp registration is underway. Find out more atcampwakonda.org.

Michele Skalicky has worked at KSMU since the station occupied the old white house at National and Grand. She enjoys working on both the announcing side and in news and has been the recipient of statewide and national awards for news reporting. She likes to tell stories that make a difference. Michele enjoys outdoor activities, including hiking, camping and leisurely kayaking.