131st Bomb Wing members volunteer at Camp Guardian
By Maj. Brian Bowman, 139AW/PA
/ Published September 09, 2009
STEWARTSVILLE, Mo. -- To the uninitiated, it was a slightly bizarre sight to witness at a summer camp.
"Way to go! You shot the target in half!" exclaimed a camp volunteer, helping a special needs "camper" experience the thrill of riddling a target at the makeshift paintball range. Smiles, high fives and hugs commenced. And then it was time for the next camper to show their range skills.
Welcome to Camp Guardian.
The camp - which ran from July 20-24 -- is funded by a non-profit organization with a majority of the volunteers being members or veterans of the Missouri National Guard. It gives about 70 special needs individuals a camping experience filled with fishing, nature, marksmanship, swimming, arts and crafts and generally just about as much fun as you can pack into five days. The camp currently operates at Camp Farwesta, a church-owned facility.
"It feels like family here," said Julie Brenton, this year's Camp Guardian director. Mrs. Brenton has volunteered since 2005. Her husband, Master Sgt. Brian Brenton, 131st Bomb Wing, is in his 11th year volunteering. All three of their children worked the camps as well, and two of them continue on as adult volunteers.
"The last day of the camp gets very emotional," Mrs. Brenton said. "There is a real bond developed here, and many of our campers have been here several years."
Sometimes it is hard to tell who is having more fun, the campers or the volunteers. The volunteers - numbering more than 100 -- work extremely long days, but their work is certainly a labor of love.
"We are here for the campers," Mrs. Brenton said. "Not to entertain ourselves."
But watching Camp Guardian board director - and 29-year volunteer - Denny Howe dance through the cafeteria with several other volunteers with surfing attire to the Beach Boys' "Surfin' USA" did look entertaining for campers and volunteers alike.
Mr. Howe, a member of the Missouri Air National Guard for 40 years until his retirement in 2007, said the camp was a way to provide a week of happiness for campers who otherwise don't always have the best of circumstances.
Mr. Howe's message was something Sergeant Brenton wanted his children to understand when he started bringing them here to volunteer.
"Our kids were 14, 12 and 8 when we started," Sergeant Brenton said. "I wanted them to see what they have, and what could have been."
The ages of the campers range from 8 to more than 80. They include those with Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, Muscular Dystrophy, Autism and various other mental and physical disabilities.
The group received a special treat during the week, when Brig. Gen. Stephen Danner, Missouri National Guard adjutant general, swooped in by helicopter to spend some time with the campers. He was accompanied by Col. Mike McEnulty, 139th Airlift Wing commander.
"When you're out here and you see the looks on their faces, you see how much they thoroughly enjoy it," said General Danner.
"It just shows another side of service and the tremendous commitment to serving others that so many of our Missouri National Guard members have," Colonel McEnulty said.
And sometimes, a camper graduates to bigger things. Tanner Hrenchir, the son of former Missouri Guard member and current Rosecrans ANGB employee Jerry Hrenchir, is a high-functioning autistic who was a camper for several years, but has been a volunteer now for nearly a decade. This year he helped run operations at the pool.
"My job is to keep the campers safe so they can have fun," Mr. Hrenchir said. "I'm so happy they all came."
Master Sgt. Fernando Martins,131st Bomb Wing, is in his second year of volunteering. His 8-year old son, Andrew, is autistic and was this year's youngest camper.
Sergeant Martins had the difficult job of managing the younger campers, some of whom cannot do basic things for themselves.
"The first two days (in his first year) it was like, 'What have I gotten myself into?', " he laughed. "But by Friday there are tears in your eyes."
Plans are in place to buy 10 acres of land and build a permanent, first-rate home for Camp Guardian at the Lake of the Ozarks, which would also serve other recreation purposes for the Missouri Guard.
"I'd like to see it extended (beyond one week) and with its own facilities," said General Danner.