Eckerd camp
Eckerd Youth Alternatives staff members Margaret Bloomer, left, and Rob Standland stand with a camp shelter that was under construction when the photo was made in August 2004. Staff and campers stay in these shelters.

Three of the four remaining Eckard Youth Alternatives “wilderness” camps for troubled youths in North Carolina, including the one in Boomer, are scheduled to close this month, said an Eckerd spokesman.

Eckerd’s 600-acre Camp E-Ma-Etu on the western end of High Rock Road in Boomer and EYA  camps near Henderson and Elizabethtown would close by April 22 because the DJJDP wasn’t renewing its $11 million annual contract with Eckerd after June 30, said Karen Bonsignori, EYA vice president of communications.

 “In these difficult economic times, the N.C. Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (DJJDP) is transforming its system of care to include more community based services and less reliance on residential care for troubled youths,” said Ms. Bonsignori.

She said that according to a written notice from the state, DJJDP was seeking proposals for one residential program and one community-based program to replace the current contract with Eckerd. She said “community-based” in this instance referred to non-residential. Ms. Bonsignori said Eckerd’s understanding from the DJJDP was that this shift was an effort to reduce state spending.

“Eckerd is submitting bids for both, but since our contract is ending June 30, we have no other choice than to close these programs,” said Ms. Bonsignori, explaining that Eckerd couldn’t wait to see if it was awarded one or both of the two new contracts because of its responsibilities with youths currently in the three camps.

She said Eckerd officials were waiting on decisions with the two new contracts before deciding whether to close the fourth camp, which is in Candor near Pinehurst. Currently, she said, it is scheduled to close by mid-June.

 “It’s not that we are not looking to renew our contract with Eckerd,” said Jean Sandoire, legislative office program director for the DJJDP .

“The State Office of Purchase and Contract is requiring that we advertise for Requests for Proposals…. They are requiring that we put it out for competitive bids for these services,” said Sandoire. He said bids must be submitted within a 30-day period that started a week ago.

Rep. Shirley Randleman of Wilkesboro said she believed the DJJDP intentionally caused Eckerd officials to believe that the state funding for the Eckerd camps in Boomer and the other three locations would end to protect state funding for state-owned youth development centers, even though the youth development center cost considerably more to operate.

Mrs. Randleman is co-chairman of the House Justice and Public Safety Committee, which oversees DJJDP funding. She said a provision in proposed House legislation actually tries to protect  funding for the type of services provided by the four Eckerd camps.

“We have been doing everything we can to protect programs like the (Eckerd) wilderness camps,” she said, adding that two of the state’s youth development centers would be closed under proposed House legislation to cut costs.

According to a state legislative report on the Eckerd camps, it cost DJJDP $134.95 per day to house a youth at one of the four Eckerd camps in 2009-10. The report said it cost the DJJDP $190 per day to house a youth at a secure detention facility and $224 at a youth development center in 2008-09.

Since fiscal 2009-10, only youths with juvenile complaints filed against them or in DJJDP-funded programs have been allowed in the Eckerd camps. That year, 66 percent of youths in the camps were referred by DJJDP sources, 23 percent by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, 8 percent from mental health officials, and 3 percent from other sources.

The four camps are an outdoor therapeutic program for boys and girls ages 10-17 who have had difficulty functioning in social, family and school settings.

Youths live in tents on wooden platforms and are provided with individualized academic and behavioral treatment that includes fully accredited education, group and individual counseling and outdoor adventures.

They also participate in community service projects. Youths from the camp in Boomer have been involved with everything from collecting rubber turtles that got hung up on rocks and brush during a Yadkin River Greenway fundraiser to helping with MerleFest at Wilkes Community College.

Started in 2001, Camp E-Ma-Etu in Boomer has a capacity of 60 male and female youths ages 10-17. It has a staff of 40, including counselors and administrative people.

“We are saddened by having to close these highly effective programs which have helped thousands of youth turn their lives around − especially for the youth and staff involved. We understand tough times are forcing some very tough decisions,” said Ms. Bonsignori.

“We are working diligently to help ensure a smooth transition for the youth and staff involved. Each youth is being assessed by program staff and recommendations are being made to the youth and their families,” she said.

“Youth nearing graduation are being transitioned back home or to their community. Youth with continuing need for services are being transitioned to other appropriate placements as determined by DJJDP. Staff are being assisted in applying for other open positions in Eckerd’s system of care.”

Ms. Bonsignori said Eckerd officials are still discussing future plans for the Camp E-Ma-Etu property, which Eckerd owns rather than leases.

The camps emphasize experiential education, with counselors living with youths in groups of 10 that focus on group dynamics for planning, problem solving and conflict resolution. They are licensed by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services as “Foster Care Camps.”

About three youths from Wilkes were at the camp in Boomer within the last year.

The state legislative report on the Eckerd camps submitted last month said the camps emphasize the importance of individual roles within a group to promote an understanding of cause and effect relationships, personal responsibility, communication skills, self-discipline and self-esteem.

Each youth’s individualized treatment plan is linked directly to his or her needs. As treatment goals are mastered, new goals are set with input from the youth, family, referring agency worker, and EYA staff.

EYA education services follow the N.C. Department of Public Instruction course of study, and the camps provide 30-33 hours of instruction per week. Each camp is budgeted for four certified teaching positions, one education coordinator and one teacher certified in special education services. EYA educational services are accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Council Accreditation and School Improvement (SACS/CASI) as a special purpose school.

Youths can earn credit for all coursework completed while in the program and, in most cases, are able to improve by one or more grade levels during their camp stay, the report stated.

According to a report submitted by the DJJDP to the legislature in March, 88 percent of youths completing the program in fiscal 2008-09 were attending school, working, or both at 12 months post-completion.

“The data indicate that the EYA Wilderness Program is successful in helping youth continue their educational pursuits and develop necessary vocational skills,” the report stated.

In fiscal 2009-10, there were 399 exits from the program. Of these, 270 (68 percent) successfully completed the program. Fifteen percent were terminated from the program and 14 percent withdrew prior to completing.

The average length of stay for successful completers was 10.5 months and 3.7 months for youth who were unsuccessful or withdrew.

For youths successfully completing the program in fiscal 2009-10, results show an average increase in reading scores of 1.0 grade levels and an average increase in math scores of 1.1 grade levels.

According to the report, among 406 new admissions into the four camps in 2009-10:

• 17 percent were female;

• 48 percent were white, 40 percent were African-American and 12 percent were Latino/multi-racial/Asian;

• the average age at admission was 14.6 and 83 percent were 14  or older at time of admission.

• 41 percent were from single parent homes, with only 23 percent from a two-parent home.

• Wake County had the highest number of admissions with 60 youths and accounted for 15 percent of all new admissions.

• 86 percent had either a criminal or status compliant filed against them prior to entering camp and 14 percent of the new admissions were admitted into camp without any previous court involvement. Person offenses (30 percent) and property offenses (28 percent) were the most common offense types admitted into camp.

A youth at Camp E-Ma-Etu
named Adam made this statement about the program, “Camp is what you make of it, so make sure you make the best of it. You will do community service, backpack trips, river trips, ropes course and build tents. You will also go to baseball games, visit parks and travel to different states. I chose to come to camp because I was fighting in school, doing drugs, having trouble with my relationship with my family, had poor self-esteem and my school situation was really bad. I feel like the first four months have really done me a lot of good. I am now working hard on my master treatment plan goals, and I am doing 100 percent better on everything. I know camp will do me a lot of good if I take it to heart.”

Eckerd still has other programs elsewhere in the state, including intensive family preservation and reunification services in Anson, Hoke, Johnston, Cumberland, Harnett, Lee, Montgomery, Moore, Richmond and Scotland counties.

Eckerd Youth Alternatives announced in late 2000 that it would invest over $3½ million to es tablish Camp E-Ma-Etu (Muskogee Creek Indian word for “their gift”) in the property on High Rock Road, with a goal of serving Wilkes and nine other area counties.

The price included the land, purchased from Fred Jennings of Mount Airy but known as the Old Vance and Tom McGhinnis farm.

The first youths in the program helped build living shelters at the camp by cutting trees for post and beam walls and roofs covered in heavy-duty canvas. In the winter, insulation and an extra layer of canvas is put over the frames. Each shel ter has a wood stove.

As part of their wilderness ex perience, youths don’t have TVs, radios or other similar conveniences.

There is electricity and other utilities at the central camp building, called the Chuck Wagon Building, which has a kitchen, dining area and administrative offices. The edu cation center also has elec tricity and other utilities.

Eckerd Youth Alternatives was founded by Eckerd Drugs founder Jack Eckerd.

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(6) comments


This is terrible news. I have to say that, as being someone that went to one of these camps as a troubled youth, camp e-mun- talee, I know from first hand experience how successful these camps are to helping. I probably wouldn't be alive today if it weren't for the experience and I certainly wouldn't be as well off. Just what is this country going to?


[sad][sad][sad][sad] That picture brings back some great memories of when I helped my group, the Backwoodsmen build tents at camp E Mun Talee. Going into the place, I never thought that I would appreciate the experience. Now I'm 43 and have nothing but fond memories. Even the bad memories were good ones, if that makes sense. Marching up the snow covered mountain in the middle of the night just to sit in a huddle for a couple of hours so that one kid can work out his problems. Yep, that kid was me. It was really tough at times and worth every single bit of it. The thought of losing these programs really and truly brings tears to my eyes.

Robby Lundy

I think it's sad that a program that has helped so my young boys like me to make a better life for themselves is closing down. That means so many kids are missing out on a lifetime experience that's helped me to become a 42 year old husband, father of 4, and grandfather of 2. I was a member of the falani's. The camp counselors were great. One in particular who helped me was David Simpson. Without this program I don't believe I would be here today.

Jesse Hudson

It is a real shame to close a program, that for many, could be the way back from a troubled youth, to a productive future.
I can say without a doubt, the expierences I personally shared, and the things I learned about myself and others, were some of the most defining moments in my young adulthood.
Without this program, and the newly instilled outlook I gained during my time at E-Mun-Talee, My life would surely have taken a much less desired path.
I was a member of the Watagas in 82' and deservedly nicknamed the Wingouts at that time, I look back with no regrets, and only great memories and fantastic expierences, that came along with difficult learnings and positive challenges.
The saying that "A man must walk a mile to see a mile" to appreciate the full journey, is is the greatest gain I will remember.

All that had the opportunity to have been fortunate enough to have transitioned thru the Eckard Wilderness Program, will always owe a debt of gratitude to the Eckards, and to The staff who selflessly spent their time, making a difference in a young persons life, when others would not.

I am 47 yes old now, a father of 4, successfully employed as a Plant Manager, and happily married.
None of which would have been possible without this wonderful program.

Thank You

Keith Lamb

I was there when you were Jesse. I know your name and if I remember correctly you had a shoulder length mullet at the time. I also remember big Bill as well, the wing out I was a craftsman and our campsites were side by side off the service road. If it weren't for Jack and Ruth Ekkerd, I never could have gone to E-mun-talee and I never would have met Chief Barry Lemmons,who changed my life. I would have been dead before my 16th birthday. I have no doubt of that. I will always remember the trips and especially the Indian test of manhood that you and I were the first campers to experience. I hope that stayed years after we left. Trading this program for community based ones will not work. The component that was successful, is that you were going somewhere with no bias against you. This allowed you to grow unimpeded by people who thought we were a lost cause before even starting. Camp offered a truly fresh start to learn. I weep for the ones who will never experience what we did.


This type of place should be shut down. I have made a successful name for myself despite my time at this terrible facility. Nearly fifteen years later, I can only reflect on the trauma that came from my experiences. This type of program should be reserved for the worst of the worst cases. I still have nightmares of the physical, mental, and sexual abuse that occurred during my time at this "camp". If you care at all about your child, please save them from the lifelong trauma that will result from this type of "treatment".

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