One year ago today, a tornado with 125 mph winds tore through Camp Hanes, uprooting some 12,000 trees, shredding buildings, and tossing 5,000-pound heating and air-conditioning units into the air.
The storm caused $1.5 million in damages at the YMCA of Northwest North Carolina’s camp located at the base Sauratown Mountain, about 25 miles north of Winston-Salem.
This week, the YMCA announced that it received a $1 million gift to help rebuild the camp. Former Wachovia Bank executive Bud Baker said he and his wife, Suzanne, felt compelled to donate because of all the good work the camp has done for children over the years.
“Our children went to Camp Hanes and two of them worked there as well, so we just have a lot of great memories,” said Bud Baker, who also had land damaged by the tornado. “We like that they’re one of the few places where children who can’t afford to go anywhere else can go to camp and have a good experience. Camp Hanes has done a fabulous job.”
The Bakers’ donation was among the money used to repair the damage from the tornado, which hit all 28 buildings at the camp.
In the past year, the buildings received new roofs and the dining hall and gym have new floors, just part of the many improvements.
A 5,700-square-foot center with a conference room, offices and patios is also being erected and is scheduled to be completed by July.
Named the Reynolds Center, it will also include mementos from the camp’s 90-year history, featuring award certificates from the 1930s and photos of campers throughout the years.
“Camp Hanes is a part of who I am. When I walked around and saw the destruction I cried,” said the camp’s executive director, Val Elliott. “But the work we’re doing for children is too important for a tornado to get in the way.”
The tornado damage has given the camp the chance to improve the amenities it offers, he said.
The camp’s rock-climbing wall, which used to accommodate two climbers at a time, was rebuilt overlooking the lake and will now be able to hold 30 climbers at a time.
The 30-foot wall has automatic belaying and a netted sky hammock at the top.
Fortunately, the tornado spared the original chimneys of the canteen building constructed in 1927, and the building is being rebuilt.
“The tornado had a bulls-eye on us, half a mile wide,” Elliott said. “I’ve never been in a war zone, but that’s what it looked like. It was like peeling back layers of an onion — everywhere we looked, there was new damage.”
Elliott was in the basement of the dining hall with 15 staff members when the tornado struck on May 24, 2017. He emerged to find picnic tables snared in trees and the camp largely destroyed.
The tornado came at the worst possible time, he said, just two weeks before the camp would open for its 19th summer.
“We were told there was no way the camp would be operational, so to have it safely up and running was nothing short of a miracle,” said Carrie Collins, senior vice president and chief marketing and development officer at Camp Hanes. “It was due to the dedication of staff and volunteers working around the clock that we were able to open.”
The repair and renovation campaign has come to be known as “Make Camp Hanes Even Better,” which is rooted in finding opportunity amid disaster.
In areas that were cleared of trees by the tornado, Elliott sees potential for new cabin development.
One particular area that was formerly dense woods will now become a full-size playing field for lacrosse, football and soccer.
“We thought, ‘How can we make it even better?’ We have a field space we never had before, let’s put in an athletic field,” Collins said.
“We’re finding the opportunity in the crisis to make the camp even better.”
In the coming years, camp leaders would also like to put a boardwalk around the lake and build 22 more miles of trails.
The camp accommodates 15,000 people a year — mostly summer campers, but also church groups, school groups and corporate retreats.
“Kids are on their screens seven to eight hours a day, so they need camp today more than ever before,” Elliott said. “We really saw how much the community loves what we do and believes in us after the tornado. It was heartwarming.”
The camp is seeing its highest enrollment in its 91-year history this year, with nearly 1,600 children signed up and only 100 slots remaining.
Collins said it was all made possible through the community’s labor and passion, the Bakers’ gift and the generosity of other donors.
“A lot has changed since the tornado,” she said, “but what hasn’t changed is the reason we’re here: to impact a child’s life for the better.”