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'A gamechanger': Valley Youth House breaks ground on Camp Fowler recreation center

Olivia Marble
Various stakeholders break ground on the upcoming Carter Family Center at Valley Youth House's Camp Fowler.

NORTH WHITEHALL TWP., Pa. — Light rain and frozen earth didn't stop a local nonprofit from breaking ground on a new project Tuesday.

Valley Youth House held a groundbreaking ceremony for a new recreation center at Orefield-based Camp Fowler, where the nonprofit offers therapeutic programs.

North Whitehall Township officials approved the final plan for the center this month.

Camp Associate Director Mike Brady described the recreation center as "a gamechanger” for the camp.

Recent upgrades to the camp’s cabins make year-round programming possible, but other than the dining hall, there currently is not a place to gather indoors during inclement weather.

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Olivia Marble
The crowd at the groundbreaking ceremony. Remarks were held in the camp's dining hall.

“When the weather hits, there's not really anywhere to go,” Brady said. “So it's going to provide a really versatile space that is going to allow us to continue to run our programs even when it's raining or snowing, cold or hot.”

The weather hit the camp Tuesday — light rain drizzled on attendees as they watched Valley Youth House leadership and other stakeholders dig into store-bought dirt from Home Depot instead of digging into the snow and frozen earth.

Project Construction Manager James Hoolehan of Penntex Construction said the team likely will have to work around the weather through the winter months, but should be able to lay the foundation for the building before the spring comes.

“That excavator sitting over there — those things can dig through anything,” Hoolehan said.

The recreation center will be called the Carter Family Center. It will be about 5,000 square feet and have two multipurpose rooms, an office and storage space.

There also will be a dedicated art lab and a STEM lab with tools such as a 3D printer and a weather station.

Valley Youth House Senior Vice President of Advancement Christina Schoemaker said the project will cost $2.5 million. The nonprofit has raised all but $170,000 of that, she said.

What is Camp Fowler?

Camp Fowler offers therapeutic summer programs that use outdoor behavioral healthcare to treat at-risk children and teenagers.

During Camp Fowler's summer programs, youth do outdoor activities such as climbing and zip-lining, then have sessions with masters-degree-level therapists.

The camp’s programs are free for youth who are from low-income families, are in foster care or are unhoused.

“Kids who a teacher has identified as a ‘problem child’ in class — they come out here and they become a leader."
Associate Director of Camp Fowler Mike Brady

Brady, who has a master’s degree in Adventure Education, said youth who struggle in a classroom setting often thrive at camp.

“Kids who a teacher has identified as a ‘problem child’ in class — they come out here and they become a leader,” Brady said.

Brady said camp staff give out surveys to campers at the end of sessions, and the feedback is often “very positive.”

He said the primary limitation of using adventure education for mental health support is that not many youth can participate. The nonprofit aims to enroll 500 campers this summer.

Olivia Marble
Valley Youth House CEO Tom Harrington.

Valley Youth House Chief Executive Officer Tom Harrington said the organization also rents out the camp throughout the year to other organizations.

He said the new building will be used by those groups and will allow the nonprofit to expand the programs it offers.

“This will allow us to have children connected with nature year round, and learn things in an alternative experiential climate that maybe they don't get at home or at school,” Harrington said.

Construction is slated to finish by the end of the summer.