NC trend: Salute to summer

 In NC Trend

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Stanley Cornelius, a diesel mechanic in the 82nd Airborne Division, was stationed at Fort Bragg when he suddenly developed spinal meningitis after a training accident. Just two days before doctors removed Stanley from life support, his wife, Laura, discovered she was pregnant. Stanley Jr. was born Oct. 1, 2001, just three days before Laura’s birthday, joining an older brother, Charles. “I always say [Stanley] was the last birthday present from my husband,” Laura says. “He is the spitting image of his father.”

A decade later, when Laura saw a poster in a Golden Corral restaurant about a summer camp for children of fallen or wounded soldiers, she thought it would be a good opportunity for Charles and Stanley Jr.  — then 12 and 9 — to meet other military kids. That summer, Charles and Stanley Jr. joined 150 other military kids for Camp Corral’s pilot camp at Millstone 4-H Camp in Ellerbe near Rockingham. Since 2011, Camp Corral has hosted more than 10,000 children at 21 camps across the U.S. at no charge. The Raleigh-based nonprofit does not own any camps but partners with 4-H, YMCAs and other groups that have sites.

The idea was conceived when Golden Corral founder and chairman James Maynard and his daughter, Easter, were searching for a new way to give back to members of the military. The chain opened its first restaurant in 1973 in Fayetteville, near Fort Bragg, and hosts an annual Military Appreciation Night at its 500 restaurants. “At first, the camp was intended to be a fun time for kids and give their parents some respite,” says Camp Corral CEO Mary Beth Hernandez. “But data has since shown that it has a profound impact on coping levels in children from military families.”

Camp Corral has all of the traditional summer camp experiences — fishing, swimming, arts and crafts, ropes courses and paddleboards — but  it works with a unique group of kids who are under enormous physical and emotional stress, Hernandez says. “These kids have huge responsibilities at home and have been through a lot. But at summer camp, they can just be kids.”

It’s something Laura Cornelius appreciates. “Counseling is available if they need it,” she says. “But it’s not forced down their throats. The main focus is for kids to have fun with other kids like them.”

The camps are so popular, waiting lists for the organization’s largest camps, at YMCA Camp Flaming Arrow in Hunt, Texas, and Camp Timpoochee in Niceville, Fla., can stretch to 3,400 children. Hernandez says there are plans to add new camps in both states.

Last year, Camp Corral spent $2.6 million to send kids to camp. Funding is provided in part by drop-boxes at Golden Corral restaurants, which raised more than $1.7 million in 2015, enough to send about 3,200 kids to camp. These funds are combined with backing from Investors Management Corp., the parent company of Golden Corral; Child Trust Foundation, Golden Corral’s corporate foundation; and the Disabled American Veterans. “It is really great that we don’t have to pay for anything,” Laura says. “We even get a gift certificate to pay for gas to and from camp.”

Stanley Jr. just finished his fifth summer at Camp Corral. After his first year at Millstone 4-H Camp, Stanley has attended Camp Hanes in King, near Winston-Salem, the last four years. He is already planning to return next summer. “He wears his Camp Corral shirt all the time,” his mother says. “When people ask him where he got the shirt, Stanley always replies, ‘It’s from a summer camp for cool military kids like me.’”

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