Shaker Village welcomes Gross Out campers in exploration of outdoors

Taylor Isaacs, 6, MaKayla Sizemore, 6, and Roxanne Hensler, 7, searched for crawdads, salamanders, and fish at the Gross Out Camp at Shaker Village last Wednesday.
Taylor Isaacs, 6, MaKayla Sizemore, 6, and Roxanne Hensler, 7, searched for crawdads, salamanders, and fish at the Gross Out Camp at Shaker Village last Wednesday. Herald-Leader

It was quiet — peaceful even — at Shaker Village until 25 kids rushed forward, magnifying boxes in hand, speeding through a cold, clouded creek on a mission to collect creatures of all kinds: crawdads, salamanders and water striders, to name a few.

Earlier that morning, the kids learned how to classify the creatures they would find.

Gross Out Camp director Amanda Clark explained the terms pelagic and benthic — words usually found in high school biology textbooks. She explained the terms in a simple fashion, using Patrick Star from the children's television show SpongeBob SquarePants as an example of a benthic creature.

Gross Out Camp, a science camp for children in first through seventh grades, is all about learning. Even the kid running around the creek showing a dried crawdad to the girls in the camp will tell you that when asked what he has been doing all week.

"Learning," Finn Strand, 6, said. He grinned, running off to show more fellow campers his discovery. A collection of "ewws" would soon follow.

From June 22 to 26, parents said their goodbyes to their children at 9 a.m. in a dimly lit, 194-year-old basement. For eight hours, the camp combined education and entertainment from bug-catching to roly poly races.

On the two-mile hike to the creek last week, children would stop along the gravel road and kneel to pick sourgrass, an edible plant they had learned about previously in the camp.

Wilderness was the teacher at Gross Out Camp. In every moment, a lesson could be learned.

"Shhh," Clark said, pressing a finger to her lips. "Listen."

All 25 kids stopped in their tracks; some cupped their ears with their hands in hopes of hearing better. It was a shriek, a song of sorts, from a bird. Camp staffer Jim Kurtts, 63, was able to identify the bird by its call; the learning never stopped.

It was the first time Gross Out Camp crossed the Alabama state line and traversed to the Bluegrass State.

Gross Out Camp is one of the more popular activities of Fresh Air Family, a nonprofit organization founded in 2006 by Verna Gates. After seven years of success in Alabama, Gates decided it was time to expand the award-winning program. After discovering the beauty of Shaker Village, she decided to expand to Kentucky.

Fresh Air Family offers more than 400 outdoor activities including hiking, camping, canoeing and more in hopes of getting families outside and active.

The idea for Fresh Air Family began when Gates realized that she was the youngest person in her local wildflower society.

"I thought, 'This is not right,'" Gates said. "We need to be having young people."

Since the organization began, Gates has shared the beauty of nature with families and children in an effort to promote wildlife preservation, family bonding and healthy lifestyles.

Shaker Village was eager to welcome Fresh Air Family, Shaker Village creative services designer Rebecca Redding said. Hosting Gross Out Camp was a first for Shaker Village. Among its usual activities are hikes, stargazing, yoga, owl prowls, riverboat rides and workshops, but a day camp is new territory.

"This is something we are trying out," Redding said. "We were really excited to do it. I think it's what we want to get into."

Redding said Shaker Village will most likely plan or host more such events, and she would like to have the program back next summer.

Clark, in her third year with Fresh Air Family and her second year as camp director, said she notices the enthusiasm when kids are out in the field learning rather than sitting behind a desk.

"Science is a growing field," she said. "It is an area where we are always going to need people exploring. At this age, they are most impressionable. You plant a seed."

Gross Out Camp is about instilling a love for science; growth in character is the icing on the cake.

Over the course of the week, Clark said, she witnesses a change in every kid: from shy to outgoing, from cautious to courageous, from selfish to sharing.

However, not every child falls in love with the outdoors during the camp.

"I think I like video games better," said Maddox Hill, 8. "I can play online with my friends in real life."

Maddox said his favorite part about camp was searching the creek for critters, but virtual reality was where he felt comfortable. That sedentary lifestyle is common practice among young children, Gates said. Gross Out Camp is just one way to unglue the remotes from a child's hands. Encouragement to care for the environment must stem from family, Gates said.

"I want to see the beautiful places I love preserved, but you will never love what you never see," she said. "We need to share the world."