Ohana is Hawaiian for family, and for camp counselor Nataevia Dowling, that family includes the students and staff at Brookstone Schools in Charlotte.
“What I love about Brookstone is the feeling of being connected to a big family,” said Dowling, who started attending Brookstone in the fourth grade. “Here, everyone knows one another. It’s an environment where students care for each other and everyone loves each other.”
That love and sense of belonging are the irresistible forces that have drawn the rising senior at Charlotte Secondary School back to Brookstone for the past four summers to serve as a camp counselor. She began immediately after graduation from the K-8 program in 2016 as an apprentice, followed by two summers as a junior counselor. Now, she is a full-fledged counselor, a role she welcomes as it has given her more responsibility. She works alongside the classroom teacher and helps manage a class of twenty fourth graders.
Brookstone Schools, which opened its doors in 2001, is a non-denominational Christian school incorporating a biblical worldview into quality education for under-resourced families in Charlotte. The goal of the school is to equip urban students spiritually, academically, and socially for lives of future leadership and service. The camp will provide six weeks of fun, games, learning, field trips, and continued support during the summer months to 150 children in uptown Charlotte.
“I think the summer camp is incredibly valuable,” said Suzanne Wilson, Brookstone’s director of advancement. “Research shows that students lose two to three months during the summer, and that learning loss is cumulative over the years they are in school. However, summer camp keeps their minds engaged and keeps them reading.”
The Mebane Foundation’s involvement with Brookstone Schools began in 2012 when the school was awarded a 3-year grant to launch this summer learning and adventure camp. Since then, the foundation has invested more than $315,000 in Brookstone. This year, the foundation provided a $25,000 grant for the camp. The funds were used to subsidize the program, as well as to provide technology, materials, and professional development for teachers.
“Our Brookstone relationship has been a long-standing one. As I’ve said to Suzanne on so many occasions, they seem to have the ‘secret sauce’ that ensures families and their children are afforded the opportunity to succeed at Brookstone Schools and then in life,” said Mebane Foundation President Larry Colbourne.
Camp begins each day at 9 a.m. and ends at 4:30 p.m. with before- and after-school care available. Mornings are spent practicing math and reading skills to help students stay on target for the upcoming school year, as well as practice specific skills at a slower pace. Teachers use Summer Success: Reading, a six-week summer school reading program, to provide engaging instruction in reading, vocabulary, and writing.
Afternoons offer enrichment and fun as local churches provide Vacation Bible School and a wide range of activities including arts and crafts, tennis, soccer, kickball, and other outdoor games. Campers enjoy field trips to the Cane Creek Park, Ramsey Creek Park, Niven Park, and Lazy 5 Ranch.
The summer camp is equally beneficial for Brookstone graduates who serve as counselors. Beginning the summer after eighth grade, they can apply to serve as junior counselors, volunteering their time the first summer and getting paid for subsequent ones. Some, like Dowling, have younger siblings attending camp. Others are simply excited about the opportunity to return to the school and serve. This year, there are 27 Brookstone graduates involved with camp, 16 as paid counselors and 11 as volunteers.
The use of these former students as counselors is one of the camp’s most unique features and a win for everyone, according to Steve Hall, Brookstone Schools’ head of school.
“Three or four summers ago, three of our recent graduates were hanging around because they had younger siblings attending camp, so we decided to put them to work as volunteers and it worked out great,” said Hall. “Initially, our policy was to hire only college students as counselors, but it has been so neat to have our former students here. They do a fantastic job! They already understand the Brookstone culture and expectations and their level of leadership and responsibility sets a wonderful example for our campers. Having our graduates serve as counselors also allows us to stay connected to them and to provide a continuum of care beyond eighth grade.”
Wilson agreed, adding, “Our mission statement is to equip urban students spiritually, academically, and socially for lives of future leadership and service, and that includes now.”
Dowling is a perfect example.
“Nataevia has a quiet confidence about her that far surpasses her age,” says Judy Brooks, the classroom teacher she assists. “I was shocked when I found out recently that she is only a senior in high school. The students, understandably, love Ms. Nataevia. She is kind, compassionate, and understanding. She is able to maintain a healthy balance between fun, maintaining order, and keeping the kids on task. She always has the kids’ best interest in mind. This positive young woman is a role model and treats students as the unique individuals they are.”
Dowling says that serving as a counselor has been a way to reconnect and give back to the school that means so much to her.
“I enjoy working with the kids and helping them have the same sense of family and loving care that I always had at Brookstone. Brookstone invested so much in me and made me the person I am today. That’s why I want to give back here,” she said.
She credits the school with giving her the study skills and discipline she needed to succeed. She learned to challenge herself. She has taken AP classes in math, English, biology, and history.
If she maintains her high GPA, Dowling can apply for a college scholarship through the Beta Club. Her life’s ambition is to major in biology and pursue a career in veterinary medicine.
“I’ve always loved working with animals — dogs, frogs, fish, and pets of all kinds,” she said.
She also enjoys seeing fellow graduates who serve as counselors because they attend many different high schools and don’t get to see each other regularly.
“Most of my friends come back as counselors, too. For six weeks during the summer, we get to be together and be a part of the Brookstone family once again,” she said.
Editor’s note: The Mebane Foundation support the work of EducationNC.