Outdoor oasis

A gift of land lets Kiwanians help underserved kids spend time in nature.

By Lydia Johnson

Kiwanians in the Missouri-Arkansas District believe all children deserve a safe place to camp and experience the outdoors, regardless of individual and family circumstances. So when a generous benefactor gave the district a gift of land with instructions to use the acreage for a children’s camp, members enthusiastically embraced the idea.

“Our mission is to serve children, especially underprivileged children,” says Jim Wiltgen, a member of the Conway Kiwanis Club in Conway, Arkansas.

The Beatrice Johnson Kiwanis Youth Kamp became an official nonprofit in 2011, three years after Johnson County, Arkansas, resident Beatrice Johnson bequeathed the 160 acres of land and a year after it was legally deeded to the district. During that three-year period, the Kiwanis Club of Russellville, Arkansas, which has primary guardianship of the camp, led the hard work of forming a nonprofit organization and creating the project from scratch. 

The camp’s mission: To fulfill the need for kids to connect with nature through hands-on activities in a primitive environment to equip them with skills and abilities to thrive.

Just how primitive? Until a recent project wrapped up, the camp did not yet have electricity. That same project introduced accessible restroom facilities. But even simple surroundings can be filled with fun. Amenities include hiking trails, a mountain-bike trail (added by the River Valley Ozark Outdoor Recreational Cyclists Organization) and a disc golf course.

The sale of the land’s timber- and gas-income royalties funded the construction of a 50-by-30-foot pavilion that includes running water, as well as the creation of three campsites outfitted with five tent pads each. Eagle Scouts contributed campfire chairs and mapped out interpretive wildlife paths.

Today, scouting groups use the campsites for primitive or day camping and cook meals in the pavilion. Local children, preteens and teens (including Key Club members) visit the site for school field trips or extracurricular activities.

The camp’s board of directors includes Wiltgen and members of his Kiwanis club, members of the Russellville Kiwanis Club and other Kiwanians from Arkansas and Missouri.

As funding allows, they plan to make more additions so kids can enjoy new outdoor adventures.

“It’s 160 acres — not super large,” Wiltgen says. “But it’s large enough that you can really feel like you’re out in nature.”

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