Youth get a great chance to learn about the world, themselves in just four days
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Life’s lessons come in a variety of ways, but Al Davis likes it when they come a little old school.
That’s one reason why he likes the American Royal’s Ranch Camp, a four-day adventure in which more than 70 children learn about college, agriculture and a few things about themselves.
“It’s getting out of your normal neighborhood and seeing there are other people and other things that are bigger than that,” said Davis, the American Royal’s manager of education. “When you go to camp, you know just a handful of people, but over a few days you’ve become a healthy community. You can’t help but want that around you. You want to keep that.
“With today’s social media, they’ve been able to extend that beyond the four days they’re at camp. They communicate all year long, and they have positive role models leading them.”
The program was established 13 years ago when Davis served as a 4-H Extension agent. Starting as Open Camp then Cabins 4 Kids, it had the goal of working with inner city youth and designed in the 4-H model to offer support, education and instill youth with agrarian and 4-H values. In the years that have followed, Cabins 4 Kids and the Royal Ranch Camp have blossomed. As children mature in the program, they become more involved.
That foundation has been a key ingredient in the teaching and training of the region’s youth. Youngsters from ages 7-12 are campers. Those 13-15 are involved in Leadership 101, which provides training and practicum to assist the teens in taking the next step in the hierarchy of the camp’s program. Those that are 16 and older are counselors and oversee a big portion of what happens over the four days.
“It works because little kids look up to big kids, and big kids like to boss little kids,” Davis said. “They all learn positive life skills. They learn whether to lead, how to follow, how to teach. They learn how everything has a consequence. We take all those things and teach through activities.”
This year’s camp took place in mid-July. The students left Kansas City on July 13, with stops at the University of Kansas and Kansas State University. The caravan’s final stop for the day was at Rock Springs 4H Center near Junction City, Kan. So why detour through Lawrence, Kan., and Manhattan, Kan.?
“We want these kids to see a college campus and get a feel for it,” Davis said. “As a first-generation college graduate, I was not scared to go to college it was a matter of where. I had been on college campuses so much as a youth because of 4-H and sports camp, it was not scary to me. The kids who see a campus like that are more likely to go to college. The fear is gone. The kids that don’t want to go to college have never been to a college campus or have had a college experience.
“A lot of those kids come from the inner city, where they don’t get those opportunities. The reason the kids that have been involved in 4H and FFA have been so successful is because they have a lot of activities on college campuses. They’ve stayed in the college dorms, so they’ve been able to have the college experience. That’s what we want to give all the kids.”
It’s working, but Davis knew it would. He was involved in 4H as a child and saw just how special programs like the Royal Ranch Camp can be.
“My dad died when I was a little kid, and my mom was always looking for opportunities for me to be involved,” he said. “I was 12 years old involved in 4H, and they didn’t have enough counselors. The first year, I watched, but I saw that it could be so much better. As a 13-year-old, I was basically running camp. I was teaching, setting up workshops.
“I know what it did for me. I was told that I had an opportunity to do something really big, that I could make a difference in other kids’ lives. I think it’s something kids need to experience.”
It’s come full circle, too. Davis has seen others who have followed suit.
“I look at that original group of counselors, and a lot are following their calling,” Davis said. “They’re teaching or working for non-profits. I know one who is working for the state department for poverty-stricken countries.
“For their lives, they’re saying they want to make a difference. Yes, we have some kids that are engineers or are successful in their own ways, but we have so many that are involved. Those first 7-year-olds are now sophomores in college, and they still continue to volunteer. It’s bigger than any one person.”
It’s fairly incredible that just four days can make that much of a difference in youngsters’ lives.
“We have kids from all different races,” Davis said. “We have kids that are fat; we have kids that are skinny; we have rich kids and poor kids. You can’t tell any difference.
“I guarantee they’re going to give back. They’re going to be great parents.”
That’s what makes the American Royal’s commitment to youth and education so special. The American Royal is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) charity for children that does several activities like the Royal Ranch Camp. It’s why Davis has worked to build the Royal Ranch Camp into what it is today and what he hopes it becomes in the years to come. Whether it’s learning about a college campus or learning to ride a horse, there are many pieces of the puzzle that make the camp worthwhile to so many.
“It’s been a great program, because we know we’re reaching kids and teaching them things they didn’t even know about themselves,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, every kid should have this experience.”