Camp Colley near Payson offers disadvantaged kids the stars

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When a chance to buy a 30-acre property 50 miles north of Payson on the Mogollon Rim came up, Jim Colley jumped on it to give disadvantaged kids a chance to connect with nature. Photos courtesy of Camp Colley.

Ask Sam Poppen what he liked about Camp Colley last summer, and the list is long: “Mountain biking, hiking, sleeping in tents, the archery … and we’d get free time to explore!” says the 12-year-old sixth grader from Orangewood Elementary School in north-central Phoenix. “Oh, and the food is delicious.”

Although some families take summer-camp experiences for granted, sleepaway camp is financially out of reach for many kids. That’s where the Camp Colley Foundation comes into play.

“It provides the badly needed resources to allow thousands of children who would otherwise not be able to enjoy the outdoors in a camp setting a chance to do just that,” says Dale Larsen, the foundation’s president.

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Mountain biking is one of many summer activities offered at Camp Colley.

Jim Colley, the late former director of the Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department, had the idea to create the camp in the 1990s. When a chance to buy a 30-acre property 50 miles north of Payson on the Mogollon Rim came up, Colley jumped on it. His goal was to give disadvantaged kids a chance to connect with nature through camp.

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For years, it worked. But in 2008, in the midst of the Great Recession, the camp was slated for closure. That’s when the foundation stepped in, taking on the role of fundraising.

“Today, it’s a three-way relationship,” Larsen says. “The city of Phoenix, which owns the property, our foundation and the Arizona Parks and Recreation Fellowship, which hires the camp director and does the scheduling.”

Audrey Encinas, another Colley camper from Orangewood, says she loved being closer to nature and all the “new adventures” during her three-day stay.

“I really liked it when we went to a pond and went crawdad fishing, because we got to see life in the water. It was really cool!” she says. Not as cool as eating those little critters afterward, the 11-year-old acknowledges, but a learning experience just the same.

Orangewood Elementary is a Title 1 School, which means many students are at a financial disadvantage. Dianna Bonney, a gifted-program teacher who organizes the Camp Colley experience for Orangewood students, says money from the Heritage Foundation pays a portion, and the school and the students come up with the rest.

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Each year, about 800 children get to visit Camp Colley.

“As they say, you need to have a little bit of skin in the game, and even in the poorest families you find money in the washing machine. I’ve often taken money for Camp Colley in quarters,” says Bonney, who believes in the camp experience for several reasons, including the educational aspects and the positive emotional impact for kids.

At a Phoenix budget meeting, Orangewood student Maritza Lopez made it clear to City Council members how important such a camp can be to a kid.

“I liked going to Camp Colley because I got to get away from the city, and in Phoenix you don’t see a lot of stars,” the 12-year-old said. “When you go to Camp Colley, there’s a lot of stars.”

Maritza added that those stars reminded her of her father, who used to take her family camping — something that hadn’t happened since she lost her dad in 2014.

Larsen worries about keeping the funding going for children like Sam, Audrey and Maritza, and hopes the foundation can continue Jim Colley’s dream. Each year, about 800 children get to visit Camp Colley. Dozens of Valley organizations that serve kids in need also rely on Camp Colley to make that experience happen.

Learn more or donate: Camp Colley Foundation, 216 W. Portland St., Phoenix. 602-262-4872 or campcolley.org.

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