When Gobi-Kla Vonan served as a junior counselor at the Austin Sunshine Camps, he welcomed a 9-year-old boy on the first day.
“He had never been to Zilker Park,” says Vonan, now 21 and studying architecture at the University of Texas. “And he lived in Austin.”
Right away, Vonan filled in the new camper about Sunshine activities.
“We’re going canoeing and swimming,” Vonan said. “We’ll have big-group games and small-group games. And team-building activities like ropes courses. You are going to have a good time and learn a lot.’”
A similar welcome scene has been played out thousands of times since 1928, when the Sunshine Camps — founded by the Young Men’s Business League and the Travis County Tuberculosis Association — were first set up in the middle of Zilker Park.
Sunshine no longer focuses on bringing malnourished kids up to a healthy weight. Yet, as in the 1920s, the current summer sleepover campers at two locations — as well as the year-round, after-school participants — have never before been fully immersed in the natural world.
Most visitors to the park walk right past the half-hidden lodge for low-income kids, which recently was torn down and rebuilt, taller and roomier, on the same footprint. A beloved open-air pavilion nearby was retained.
Oscar Ortuno, another Austinite, became a counselor for the first time last summer after participating in a year-round, after-school program.
“As a kid, I looked up to the counselors,” says Ortuno, now 19 and studying environmental engineering at Texas State University. “They showed me how to have a good time, to be myself, to be a kid.”
The Sunshine difference
Even a casual glance at haunting black-and-white photos of early Sunshine campers — who first slept over at the Boy Scout Hut, now known as the Zilker Clubhouse — show that they were recruited because they were underweight and thus more vulnerable to diseases such as tuberculosis.
“Twenty-four children camped out for four weeks,” writes Helen Ridley Woodman in “Camping and Outdoor Education for Underprivileged Children,” her 1948 UT master’s thesis based on research at Austin Sunshine. “And gain in weight was considered a criterion for success. … The local newspaper carried the weekly individual and total gains of the children, and donors came out to see children who had made the most gain and to find out the cause for failure to gain in others.”
On July 15, 1934, for instance, an American-Statesman headline announced that “30 Children Average Gain of 4.8 Pounds” as the Sunshine Camp neared its finish. Then, yes, the paper published the names of each child, who gained between a quarter pound and 10 pounds apiece.
In 1932, the association and the league put up the first part of the lodge that was recently replaced with a handsome, gabled home. A key: a big working kitchen and two hired cooks. As today, donations sustained the camps.
For the period of Woodman’s study from 1937 to 1947, Austin Sunshine provided camping and outdoor education to more than 40 needy children annually for six weeks. By compiling data from application forms, Woodman found that the average weekly salaries of the kids’ mothers was $17.20; their dads brought home $21.98 a week. At home, parents paid an average monthly rent of $14.27, or about $185 in 2016 dollars.
Almost exclusively Anglo at first, they came from South and East Austin, but also from the west and north. They often had school records of irregular attendance and low grades as well as behavior problems. Some of the children talked about members of their families ending up in prison or training school.
Upon arrival, the campers were often given new clothes and haircuts. Early on, they were clumped in large groups, but leaders quickly learned that it was easier to socialize campers when they were in smaller troops. Woodman details their rigorous schedule of activities from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., with “quiet hours” between 1 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.
Tiers of help
When Tommy Wald, now 57, moved to Austin in 1978, he looked for a way to get involved. He found the league and, at first, volunteered for the Schlotzsky’s Bun Run, which formerly raised money for the camps.
“I lunched with a member,” League alumnus Wald reports. “I enjoyed what they were doing, signed up, got involved and never looked back.”
Like other league members who have helped out at the summer camps, Wald tells stories of picking up the children for the first time.
“That’s where you get to meet the kids and get to know them,” says Wald, now a semi-retired investor. “Then you see them at lunches and carnival nights. I did that until I became too old to be involved (in the League). When you turn 40, you go from the Young Men’s Business League to the Old Men’s Business League.”
He repeats that 100 percent of the money that they raise during the year goes to the camps.
“You see campers come through, they graduate, become counselors,” he says. “There’s a long tradition of camaraderie. Sure, it helped me to build local business connections, but they are still some of my best friends today.”
Ortuno was in middle school when a counselor recommended a Sunshine retreat with a challenge program.
“From that point on, I loved this camp,” he says. “I came to more events. Got involved in community service, like working at a food bank or painting stuff. The old building had a lot of good memories for me.”
Almost immediately, Ortuno says, he felt he was acquiring leadership skills.
“You learn patience,” he says. “That was a big thing. You have to be able to follow people as well. Take advice from them. Trust everybody and know your mistakes. Mom would say: ‘Why aren’t you at home?’ I’d be here all year long.”
When Vonan joined the year-round program, also at the urging of a school counselor, it was completely new to him.
“Most of the others had been connected to the camp before, not me,” Vonan says. “It was their second home, and quickly that became the case for me. The camp helps so many people out, but it’s helping yourself to help others. I really miss it. Over the summer, I volunteer and set up for carnival night.”
Like other volunteers, counselors and residential campers — who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch programs and whose participation at camp is absolutely free — Vonan keeps up with his Sunshine friends.
“At school, the focus was on education only,” he says. “But a big part of education is getting to know your community and how to live in it.”
Why do we camp?
Native Americans and early settlers in the area camped for survival, not recreation or education. By the Victorian era, however, one strain of opinion had turned against outdoor activity — associated with pioneer days — as uncomfortable, unrefined and possibly dangerous.
During the Civil War, William Gunn, an abolitionist and educator, took his charges on long hikes near the Gunnery, his school in rural Connecticut. He thereby became known as the “father of recreational camping.”
In 1893, Judge A. S. Gregg Clark, a former Gunnery camper, established the popular Keewaydin Camps “to better occupy boys during the summer.”
“It was a regular camp,” writes Helen Ridley Woodman in “Camping and Outdoor Education for Underprivileged Children,” her 1948 UT master’s thesis based on research at Austin Sunshine. “Time was spent, not in studies, but in recreation and general training.”
Woodman identifies a more advanced outfit that appeared as early as the 1870s: “Planned camping experience to help boys realize the value of money and the dignity of work and to give them skill in swimming and in minor activities such as singing, carpentry, canoe building, baseball, cooking, correspondence, races, water fights, cruises and liberty days without rules.”
In 1887, Life’s Fresh Air Camps provided similar activities for needy kids, followed by Catholic and YMCA camps in the 1890s. These were established for sick and well children, especially in urban areas, to build up weak bodies and, notionally, characters. The Boy Scouts, Girls Scouts and Campfire Girls marched in line behind these initiatives.
More suspect — in a time when child labor was being phased out — were experimental “harvest-camps,” which put youths to work on farms.
All this effort turned more systematic in the early 20th century, when the forces of sociology, psychology and “mental hygiene” were brought to bear on the movement. Dozens of guidebooks organized camping goals under rubrics such as “health, command of fundamental processes, worthy home membership, vocation, citizenship, worthy use of leisure and ethical character.”
— Michael Barnes