This free camp is helping military kids who've paid the highest price learn to be kids.
For years, 9-year-old Miriam Gaston watched her dad Shafer leave home for months at a time to serve as an officer on a submarine.
Last July, she left home for the first time herself. She was going to summer camp.
"It was sort of scary because it was my first sleepaway thing for over 24 hours, and so I was sort of freaking out," she explains.
Miriam Gaston gets her face painted at camp. Photo via Tara Gaston.
For Miriam's mom Tara, the experience of sending her child away to summer camp was both totally completely new — and distressingly familiar.
Just like when her spouse was away, Tara wouldn't see her daughter when she woke up in the morning and when she went to sleep. She wouldn't know if Miriam was sad, got in trouble, or missed home.
For eight days, her 9-year-old would be on her own.
"I had to walk away slowly," Tara recalls, of dropping Miriam off. "And I went to my car and sat there for a second. But then I drove away."
Welcome to Camp Corral.
As she headed off to the dining area to make a name tag, Miriam became one of over 3,000 military kids each year who experience a week summer camp provided free of charge for children of injured, ill, or fallen service members or veterans.
It's a group that includes Miriam's dad — who was medically discharged from the Navy after a multiple sclerosis diagnosis in 2015 — and the parents of over 90% of her fellow campers.
The Camp Corral program, established in 2010 by Golden Corral restaurants founder James Maynard and his daughter Easter, takes place at 22 partner camps across the country.
The restaurant chain provides partial funding for the camps. Organizations, including Disabled American Veterans, and individual donors provide the rest.
A Camp Corral camper climbs a ropes course. Photo via Camp Corral.
Some camps have zip lines and ropes courses. Others have rock walls or lakes for boating.
For many campers, the particular activities are less important than the bonds they form with their fellow campers who share many of their same life experiences.
"Everybody there in their cabin, everybody there in their camp, is coming from a similar situation to what they are," explains Leigh Longino, Camp Corral's chief operations officer.
Campers at Camp Corral participate in a flag retirement ceremony. Photo via Camp Corral.
While thousands of organizations support military and veterans in the United States, few exclusively serve their children.
Longino, along with her small staff and a few dozen volunteers, works to provide a safe, healing, fun environment for the thousands of kids who were "drafted" into service, especially as America's overseas conflicts continue to evolve deep into their second decade.
"We are 16 years post-9/11, and this is our population. These are children we’ve got to take care of," Longino says.
The camp gives campers, especially those who have taken on the role of caregiver to a younger sibling while an able-bodied parent takes care of a disabled one, a place to "just to be kids," Longino explains. For Miriam, that meant writing a theme song for her cabin, kayaking, decorating her bunk, and covering her counselors with oobleck.
But it was a dance that was the highlight of Miriam's week.
"Everybody was clapping and jumping, and I’m pretty sure across the lake or river or whatever, the people in the city could hear us," she says.
For military parents, particularly those who have dealt with trauma, sending a child to sleepaway camp can trigger a host of fears, which the camp works to address.
"A parent who obviously has seen their spouse go away to war and come back differently, so now you’re saying, 'You want me to send my child to camp and are they going to come back differently?'" Longino says, of the fears she hears from parents. "We say, 'They’re going to come back better.'"
That means training staff, from directors to counselors, on handling issues that can crop up among the children of wounded, ill, or fallen service members and veterans — including separation anxiety and more severe homesickness.
Photo via Camp Corral.
It also means building in time for older siblings — who frequently take on a quasi-parental role at home — to spend time and counsel their younger brothers and sisters.
Even at camp, however, older brothers, like Miriam's, who also attends Camp Corral, will still be older brothers.
"Every time I saw him, I tried to hug him, but he’d shove me off to go hang out with his friends. Typical older brother stuff," Miriam says.
Camp Corral is also designed to give parents, who have spent many months apart over the course of their relationship, valuable time to reconnect.
"With submarines, it’s not so much the distance, it’s that there’s a lot of time that you can’t talk to them," Tara says.
Tara and Shafer spent Miriam's week at camp helping their in-laws clean out their apartment and preparing to move north to Saratoga Springs. For a family in transition, the camp's lack of a price tag gave them much-needed flexibility to plan the rest of their lives together.
"At that time, we weren’t sure what our income would be, where we would be living, what’s going on. It was very helpful to be able to give them that and not have to worry," she says.
Like most kids, Miriam's last day of camp was the exact opposite of the first.
"She and her friends were hanging out, and she was like, ‘Do we have to go now?'" Tara says.
It was a decision Miriam didn't want to make.
"I was sort of torn. Because if I didn’t leave, I would probably be abandoned by everybody, and there would be storms and I would probably starve," Miriam laments. "But if I did leave, I probably wouldn’t see anybody at the camp again."
As with any camp, Camp Corral is more about about friendships than archery — and more about transforming shy campers, who have already shouldered heavier burdens than most of their peers, into independent young adults.
Photo via Camp Corral.
"A great camp can run a camp in a parking lot," Longino says.
Camp Corral is much more elaborate than a parking lot. And it's free. But it doesn't come at no cost for families like the Gastons, who, for years, sacrificed their stability, health, and childhoods in service to their country.
They've already paid for it.