Corey Pitts was 10 years old when he arrived at his first National Youth Sports Program camp at Georgia Highlands in the 1990s. The college participated in the federally-funded program for 32 years, and influenced countless numbers of at-risk students to go to college and become influential leaders themselves. Some have become lawyers, others teachers or business leaders or law enforcement officers. Many lives have been transformed through the efforts of dedicated volunteers and camp counselors who have offered their services to children over the years.
In 2005 federal funding dried up for NYSP, which had hosted both boys and girls, ages 10 to 16. But GHC had seen too many successes to retire the program, held every July on the Floyd campus. With the help of private donations from individuals and the business community, plus the support of the GHC Foundation and 100 Black Men of Rome-Northwest Georgia, the camp continued in another form. Data showed that boys were more likely than girls to drop out of school so the new Foundation Camp focused its efforts only on boys. It began with 25 campers for one week, and they were provided breakfast and lunch, a variety of sports activities and lessons on life skills like meeting people, table manners and appropriate dress. This past July the camp hosted more than 100 boys for two weeks. Pitts was still there, this time as an adult.
Literally hundreds of children – many of whom come from challenging environments of one kind or another – have discovered they can create their own futures that may be entirely different from the situations from which they come. Some would never have considered college or beyond. Some of the children who arrive at camp come from desperate circumstances. Faculty and staff have rounded up clothing, furniture or other necessities to help out.
But the campers are energetic, high-spirited, optimistic. They are at an age where they may not have imagined going to college or living a middle-class life, but they are still open to possibilities. They may not necessarily expect to achieve greatness, but they nevertheless believe they can do anything. Their minds are open.
Just like Corey Pitts. Pitts came back year after year, and now returns as assistant director of the camp. He graduated from Rome High School in 2004 and from GHC with an Associate of Science in 2010. Now he works at Harbin Clinic as a personal trainer, but has applied with the City of Rome to work as a fire fighter. On Sept. 27, he learned he had gotten the job, so he will soon be helping people all over Rome and Floyd County.
“NYSP brought me a sense of family,” he said. “I learned how to be a better person, how to listen. I made friendships and developed athletic abilities. NYSP helped me become the person I am now.”
And what a person he is. He began giving back as a volunteer for all that he received at NYSP during the first year of the Foundation Camp in 2008. Then he returned as a director of basketball and group leader. Now as assistant director he helps plan the entire program and directs all events.
He calls himself the enforcer, because he says the boys need to learn self-discipline. They are rowdy and impulsive, so they need a presence who truly cares about them but also mentors and guides them firmly. He and the other counselors fill that role.
Pitts sees fairly immediate changes in the campers. They begin to understand that education is important, that it is a fundamental building block in being successful. The boys make wonderful memories at camp, and learn teamwork and camaraderie. That alone is a strong and lasting impression. The boys, who probably don’t even realize it themselves, are longing for strong role models. Pitts and the other counselors provide that model of self-confidence and respect. As Pitt says, “Even though camp lasts only two weeks, those two weeks can change a life.”
Pitts’s impact reaches further than Foundation Camp. One mentee he already knew from his neighborhood, Demaurius Morgan, was a freshman at GHC last year. While Morgan was in high school, Pitts mentored him, making sure he raised his grades and focused on his studies. He refused to let Morgan veer off in the wrong direction, and now Morgan is on track to graduate next spring. He plans to go on to a four-year college and major in physical education. His goal is to become a coach, offering his own mentoring skills to other boys. He sharpened those skills as a counselor at July’s Foundation Camp.
Pitts also guided camp counselor David Peery since he was in the seventh grade. They discussed personal problems, and Pitts helped him study to keep up his grades. He even came to Peery’s house to monitor his progress. And now? After graduating from Rome High last spring, Peery has enrolled this fall at GHC and is pursuing a general studies degree.
There are older counselors, too, who have been guided by mentors in one way or the other and want to return the favor. Chukwuemeka Nwokike, better known as Ike, came to this country from Nigeria as a teenager to get away from the violence taking place there. There was no one to meet him but a friend of his father’s, who helped him get an apartment and a job at a fast-food restaurant. Nwokike knew he wanted to go to school, but was unaware that scholarships or loans were available. So he saved money and took courses as he could afford it. Finally, an enrollment management specialist at GHC helped him learn about the options available to help with tuition. Nwokike graduated last spring with an Associate of Science in nursing. He passed his licensure exam on the first try and is now working as a registered nurse at Kennestone Hospital in Marietta. He is also exploring the possibility of medical school. He knows personally how many obstacles can stand in the way of achieving something that others take for granted, so he connects with the boys and shows them it can be done.
So many people come together to make the camp happen every year. There are three co-directors: Dr. Jon Hershey, dean of humanities; David Mathis, physical education programs manager and assistant athletic director; and Greg Shropshire, president of the GHC Alumni Association and member of 100 Black Men of Rome-Northwest Georgia, the community partner of the program. Hershey spends countless hours and often coordinates donations for campers who have special needs. Mathis plans and schedules all activities and helps the GHC Foundation solicit support from corporate sponsors. Shropshire helps recruit speakers for the camp and instructors from the community. He also teaches a course for the campers in life lessons—how to introduce themselves properly, how to shake hands, how to tie a tie. And he works the entire camp, as do all three directors, on a volunteer basis. A number of faculty and community members contribute their time to teach classes in any number of subjects, from anger management to music appreciation. Everyone works tirelessly to make the experience memorable and useful for campers – from the classroom experience to field trips to athletic activities.
And here’s the thing. This effort works. It changes lives. It saves kids. It deserves the support of the college community and beyond. Developing strong citizens improves our region as a whole. And not incidentally, it also gives something to those who work so hard to bring it off – the irreplaceable knowledge that they have made a difference in another person’s life. Pretty powerful stuff, that.