Luke Chase was initially skeptical when his father suggested volunteering at his place of work, Tonto Creek Camp (TCC) in Payson. Although the 18-year-old had fond memories of camp as a kid, it didn’t spark as much interest as his music or social media accounts. But something changed when the Scottsdale college student gave it a shot by disconnecting online and reconnecting with nature.
“I loved being on Instagram, Snapchat, etc. I don’t even check it anymore; it doesn’t matter,” he says. “[At camp], kids are getting their ‘likes’ from fellow campers, teachers and staff, just talking and having real conversations. They’re getting to know us [camp leaders] and by the end of the week, we’re not total strangers; we’re best friends.”
According to Tom Fraker, CEO and founder of Tonto Creek Camp, the nonprofit camp is primarily dedicated to providing youth in underserved areas, including those in the foster care system, with opportunities to explore the outdoors. The 36-acre property was originally known as Camp Tontozona, which was owned by Arizona State University and served as the pre-season training site for the college’s football team for nearly 50 years. Around 2011, TCC took management of it and since then, has welcomed more than 65,000 campers and raised approximately $1 million through educational partnerships to cover costs through donations, grants, and scholarships.
“I’ve had kids say, ‘This camp was the best day of my life,’ ” Fraker says. “You can’t create an environment for kids to say something like that unless you do it intentionally and outdoors.”
Today, TCC is branded as a Pathways to Learning program with camps running the gamut from the Outdoor Adventure Camp that includes archery, hiking, horseback riding, kayaking and mountain biking; to the Imaginarium Entrepreneur Camp, where campers explore and learn the facets of being a successful entrepreneur and leader. Fraker continues by stating,
“Basically, we’re taking an academic approach, but putting it in the outdoors where students are engaged more than in a classroom.”
Students are also drawn to the STEM Camps, which revolve around four specific disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics that meet state standards. So far, 25,000 campers have participated in these camps.
In an effort to make the camp experience inclusive for campers and their families, TCC launched a family camp program this past summer. Lodging and activities took place at TCC, as well as affiliated camps nearby, including Camp Colley in Happy Jack, Chauncey Ranch in Mayer, and Camp Tontozona in Payson.
According to the American Camp Association, the camp experience builds skills necessary to prepare campers to assume roles as successful adults. A recent independent study at 92 randomly selected camps—with more than 5,000 families across the country participating—showed parents, campers and staff reporting growth in areas such as self-confidence, independence, making friends, exploring and learning new activities, and spirituality, as well as growth experiences for youth that can benefit them through adulthood.
“It’s not like getting lectures in class, but rather, it’s getting hands-on experience. It’s a great space for schools to unplug.”
Chase continues to say that he’s witnessed this growth. “Most of the kids have never been in a nature setting; some of them were so excited to just see a squirrel,” he says. “But some don’t want to be here. As the week goes by, however, they start to trust you and by the end of camp, they don’t want to leave.”
Since graduating from TCC volunteer to employee, Chase says the best part of his camp experience is how it’s come full circle in his own young life.
“My best memories of camp as a kid were sitting out on the deck, hanging out with my friends, and talking about life and the future,” he says. “Some of the parents I’ve met had never been in the wilderness or slept with their children in cabins. It’s so great to see those bonds—mother and daughter experiences, as well as father and son experiences. It gives me chills.”
Story: Julia De Simone
Photos: Tonto Creek Camp