ZEPHYRHILLS — Sport camps can be a great way for kids to stay busy during the summer, but not all families can afford the expense. This week, though, a local church offered an alternative.
True Life Center staged a free weeklong sports camp for economically disadvantaged children, coached by college and high school athletes from the area. With sessions on baseball, soccer, football and golf, the camp aimed to expose kids to sports they may not normally play.
"These are kids that spend a lot of time indoors and have never had this type of experience," camp director Sara Jo Lawrence said. "Many of them have very little skill with these sports, but they have great attitudes, and our coaches are doing a nice job of encouraging them. You never know, maybe the next (golf's U.S. Open winner) Rory McIlroy is right here."
Getting attendance from outside the nondenominational church was an issue for Lawrence. She approached the local schools for a list of kids who received free lunch and went to the YMCA looking for kids who might need such a camp.
She got the best response by simply placing a sign on the side of the road.
"My mom and dad were going to have me go to a camp at our church, but it was really expensive," Travis Gainey, 12, said. "Then we were driving and we saw a sign that said 'free sports camp.' I've played a lot of these sports before, but I didn't know how to do a lot of the stuff that goes along with them. The coaches are teaching us a lot here."
Lawrence got the idea last December as she looked to reach out to kids in need. She approached the church about staging the event, not knowing what kind of response she would get. The church gave her $1,000 and the True Life facility for the week.
Most of the counselors are associated with the church. Whether they're scholarship athletes, lifetime enthusiasts or former high school standouts, each of the counselors offers an advanced perspective on the sports covered.
For Duke Morrison, who recently accepted a scholarship to play football for the University of Pikeville in Kentucky, it was a chance to do something good in his hometown for the summer.
"I just wanted to come out and do something positive," Morrison said. "It's important to keep kids off the streets and away from drugs.
"A lot of people say kids now are lazy, but once you get them out on the field with something fun to do, they're not lazy at all."
In the days leading up to the camp, Lawrence had 16 kids enrolled, but on the first day more than 40 showed up. It was a pleasant surprise that required an adjustment in her planning.
"They're tearing through the food so fast I had to make a store run to get more than what we had originally planned for the five days," Lawrence said. "There's been a lot of work that's gone into this, but it's exceeded our expectations. You look around and the kids are having a great time."
The camp started Monday and ends today, but could inspire future camps, Lawrence said.