Camp Neyati: Serving youth for 70 years

Thousands of young people, adult volunteers and professional leaders have enjoyed Camp Neyati each summer since 1938. In 2009, two-hundred-sixty-five young people, ages 8 to 14, enjoyed a week at camp.

Neyati was the youngest son of an Indian chief of the Potawatomie tribe, known to live in the vast north woods of Michigan. Neyati and his new bride, White Feather, paddled down the Shiawassee to the Tittabawassee and up the Tobacco River. They crossed Crooked Lake and found a natural clearing where Camp Neyati* now lies. There they lived and died, and the mounds containing their remains can still be found behind the pines on the property. Obviously, that is how the camp acquired its name.

Thousands of young people, adult volunteers and professional leaders have enjoyed Camp Neyati each summer since 1938. The summer of 2009 was no different. Two-hundred-sixty-five young people, ages 8 to 14, enjoyed a week at the camp. All were 4-H members from Midland, Gladwin and Clare Counties. “Even some of our staff members are mature teenagers who have enjoyed the camp for several years,” noted Sally Wietfeldt, MSU 4-H program associate for Midland County.

Camp directors Ben Bennett of Grand Rapids and Dana Willsie of Midland help keep things on schedule. Bennett, a former 4-H member with many years at Neyati, says, “We plan logistics for games, etc., do bed checks at night and keep things on schedule.”

Willsie, with a similar resume, adds with a chuckle, “We also work with the younger ones who sometimes get homesick.

With all the activities planned, there is never a dull moment. Outdoor activities include shooting sports (archery and air rifle), outdoor cooking, dozens of outdoor games, survival skills, raft building, nutritional foods in the wild, basketball, volleyball, swimming and fishing. Inside activities include leather crafts, fused glass jewelry ceramics and woodworking.

“Each year we try to add new options for activities,” says Beverly Przystas, MSU County Extension director for Gladwin County. “This year we added jewelry making and woodworking and enhanced the archery and rifle range.

Inside the main building is Jim Hall, a restaurateur from Merrill, who has been doing the cooking for 4-H for 11 years. He prepares up to 700 meals per day to feed the hungry pre-teens, teens and more than two dozen volunteers and paid staff members. “It’s a labor of love,” he says. “These people are so great,” he adds with enthusiasm.

Going into a nearby barn, one hears the sound of hammers on metal. It is the sound of 4-H youth punching holes in leather to make belts and other items for practical use. Assistant camp nurse and instructor Marge Neeb mentions, “It would be nice if we could get some money to repair the roof.” She points up and daylight can be seen as, on this rainy day, buckets were placed in various spots to catch the water.

“While other camps are struggling in these tough economic times, we are volunteer driven,” stated Dave Thomas, 4-H youth educator for Midland County. “Because of that, our costs are less than many camps in the state. We receive monies from grants we write and from generous people in the community, simply because they believe in what we are doing for young people.” Thomas states that the profits from the 4-H Cafeteria at the Midland County Fair are also a source of funding.

“Basically, Camp Neyati is run by young, mature adults who have camped here as youth. They make the best better, and the kids sell it to other kids,” stated Wietfeldt. “We also have excellent role models for youth.”

Michelle Neff, Clare County Extension director, says it all when she adds, “By turning the leadership over to the youth, they get a better idea of what life is about.”

Observing the enthusiasm and optimism of these youth for only a few hours, this writer is convinced that the future of our world is in much better shape than the media would have us believe.

*Camp Neyati was purchased from the Jackson YMCA in 1938 for $6,500, with $3,500 coming from the Midland Kiwanis Club and $3,000 from the Midland Welfare Association. The camp is owned by the Midland County Camping Commission.

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