JAMES CITY COUNTY — When the COVID-19 Pandemic forced the world to shutdown in March 2020, the staff at the Jamestown 4-H Educational Center found themselves with a lot of extra time.
Not being the type of people to sit by and wait for life to resume, 4-H Center Director Sue Williams and her half-dozen year round staffers set about making improvements to the 90-year-old summer camp that sits on the James River a half mile from Jamestown Settlement. Some of the work that they dedicated themselves to included on painting and refurbishing projects that were previously on the backburners.
As important as upkeep and maintenance is to any facility, Sue and her staff saw that there was more they could do to help not only the grounds, but to the local community at large.
When the start of the 2020-21 school year started, the 4-H Educational Center went from a summer camp and conference grounds to a five-day a week educational support program for the children of essential workers.
“So we had 50 to 60 children here a day, Monday through Friday,” Sue remembers. “We hired local teachers that were taking leaves of absence from local schools. The kids were on zoom and working with other teachers while my staff ran the program.”
The program proved so successful that later in the year, it was opened to any family that needed the service. Even after schools went back to in-person learning, the program is still offered on weekdays that schools are not in session.
With the facility being as spacious as it is, the program was able to adhere to all COVID-19 safety guidelines resulting in zero cases since the start of the pandemic.
“We had a lot of 6 and 7-year-olds where that was there first year of school ever and this was there classroom,” Sue said gesturing to scenic view of the James River. “I am really proud that we did that. That we were able to stay open throughout the challenges of covid.”
As selfless as the staff’s work has been throughout the pandemic, it just scratches the surface of the 4-H Educational Center’s role in the local community and beyond.
The Jamestown 4-H Educational Center was originally built on Jamestown Island in 1928. According to the center’s website the camp’s purpose at its inception was, “…for the benefit of 4-H clubs and kindred organizations of the Commonwealth teaching better farming methods and domestic science.”
It is the oldest of six fully-dedicated 4-H Camps in Virginia. In 1946, the camp was moved a half-mile up the river to its current location after the Island was acquired by the National Park Service.
Over the years it has earned a reputation as an outdoor classroom that encourages kids to explore the wetland habitats and marine life that the James River has to offer. It also gives kids the opportunity to have classic camp experiences.
The center serves children ages 9-14 years old who participate in 4-H clubs from twenty-three different localities in southeast Virginia. It provides several different programs, most notably its week long overnight summer camps.
The summer camps are run by the year round staff, plus seasonal college-aged counselors who live on the property and assist the 4-H clubs throughout their week’s stay. Thanks to subsidies and donations, the center is able to take any child regardless of their ability to pay.
During a non-pandemic year, the facility serves almost 3,000 kids during just a summer. The count is around 7,000 when one includes conferences and retreats hosted during the other three seasons.
In the six years since Sue has been the director, the camp has been able to expand its services by offering a day camp as well as forming partnerships with local military organizations that allow for service members and their families to use the camp.
“There are so many installations near by,” Sue said. “So we really cater to those families and try to help them.”
Going forward, Sue and her staff are hoping for the best when it comes to their upcoming seasons.
“Our fall was pretty small due to programs being canceled because the Delta variant,” Sue said of bookings in recent months. “However our winter is completely booked and almost every weekend in the Spring is booked from February through when we start camp in June. We are really fortunate.”
Last summer, the camps were forced to operate at 47 percent capacity due to social distancing and other risk mitigation requirements. This year, while following current safety guidelines they are hoping to be able to serve about 100 kids per week in the day camp and 150 for the overnight.
Anyone who is interested in working or volunteering with the Jamestown 4-H Educational Center can find more information on the center’s website.