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Sandlot Sports summer camp helps at-risk youths learn to survive
Pastor Ricky Bright gives his baseball team a pep talk before playing a championship game at Roper Park that marks the end of the "survivor" summer camp hosted by Sandlot Sports, a nonprofit group. During the camp, the children learn through field trips and activities, including a trip to the jail and advice on what to do if you get lost in the woods. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

In most recreational baseball games, kids are separated by age, sex or skill level. But at Sandlot Sports Camp’s championship baseball game Sunday, everyone had fun playing together, whether they were 16 or 6.

Now in its seventh year, this year’s theme was "survivor," said Kim Johnson, founder and director.

In addition to a fun summer experience, this year’s camp focused on survival skills — from how to survive a fire or getting lost in the woods to surviving spiritual or emotional emptiness.

The camp caters to kids from Hall County who have a need for mentoring or guidance. Johnson said some of the kids have parents going through tough divorces. Others have behavioral problems, and some come from poor families.

Johnson said she will talk to counselors at local schools and ask them to recommend kids who might benefit from the camp.

"The mission of this camp is really to show these children that they matter to the community," said Robert Johnson, who co-founded and runs the camp with his wife.

"And matter to God more than that," Kim Johnson said.

"Some of these kids feel like they’re invisible," Robert Johnson said.

The weeklong camp is free, and children get to camp out, play sports and go on field trips. The nonprofit camp is funded by community donations.

"We’re taking them out of a bad place and putting them in a better place for the summer," Kim Johnson said.

This year, the camp was sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 772. Some of the members volunteered to teach campers about the wilderness and how to build a shelter and survive if they get lost.

The kids camped at the Sportsman’s Club for the week. They got to visit the new Hall County Jail, play sports, learn about fire safety, canoe and go to an Atlanta Braves game.

The Johnsons said they would like to see Sandlot Sports Camp extended to a yearlong after-school program.

"They need it every day," Kim Johnson said. "We’re pushing it forward."

She said she thinks the camp can help children who are at risk for going down the wrong path.

"We’re trying to prevent instead of rehabilitate," she said.

Though the camp is not affiliated with any church or denomination, Robert Johnson said the camp is "Christ-centered in its leaders," with two pastors working at the camp. Kids have the option of being baptized at camp, with the permission of their parents, if they are interested.

Many of the campers have returned summer after summer, and some have brought younger siblings along.

And some campers, like Marquette Mack, 15, enjoy meeting younger kids that they can take under their wing like a little brother or sister.

This summer was Mack’s third, and his counselors are proud of the positive role model he has become.

"It’s been so cool to see how the big ones take care of the little ones," Kim Johnson said.

Emon Baker, 16, also has been to Sandlot for three years.

"I love it," Baker said.

His favorite things about camp are "going to the lake, just chilling. Just the whole camp, the love and getting away from home."

Heather McGarey said her favorite part of camp was going to the Braves game, because the Braves won and she got to see fireworks.

Carlos Nogueda, 8, said his favorite part about camp was swimming, canoeing and making new friends.