Police youth camp celebrates 70 years

Police youth camp celebrates 70 years
This summer the new zip line was in place and ready to be used by all interested campers (Photo Credit: Mike Antonio)

By Louise Krafft

Once in a while, you get it right the first time.

Alexandria Police Department Sgt. Henry F. Grimm, who co-founded what is now Camp Kekoka (Courtesy Photo)

Alexandria Police Sgt. Henry Grimm did just that 70 years ago. It all started in the summer of 1936.

Then-Lt. Grimm, Lt. Robert Brenner and Alexandria Gazette Sports Editor Jack Tulloch decided that the city’s children would benefit from a summer camp.

The D.C. Metropolitan Police had just opened Camp Ernest W. Brown in St. Mary’s County on the Potomac in Maryland.
The Virginia camp would be modeled after it.

Unfortunately, World War II slowed down their plans. In 1946, the three men with the support of the Alexandria Police Association resumed planning.

Since promoted to Sergeant, Grimm found land just south of the town of Kilmarnock, Virginia. It was 97 acres on a point surrounded by water on three sides, a few hundred yards away from the lower Chesapeake Bay and the mouth of the Rappahannock River.

The APA put up $2,000 toward the land purchase and sanctioned a loan of $10,000.

The loan was backed by local businessman Ashby Redmon, President of the Old Mutual Ice Company.

Redmon told Norman Grimm, Sgt. Grimm’s son, “Henry, if you can’t make the payments, just pay me the interest.” He was only charging 1 percent interest. The land was purchased in June 1946 with a mortgage of $10,500.

The APA started a campaign to raise money to build and operate the camp. They set a goal of $35,000. Local businessman Nicholas A. Colasanto took over as campaign chairman for the drive and Alexandria Police Lt. George Everly came on as treasurer. Donations came in from numerous local businesses, lodges, clubs, civic associations and local residents in support of the summer camp.

A year later, seven screened-in cabins had been constructed.

Camp Kekoka campers stop with an APD officer for a selfie (Photo Credit: Mike Antonio)

Existing structures were renovated and a dining/recreation hall, a bathhouse, a dock for boats and crabbing and a baseball diamond were constructed.

The U.S. Coast Guard presented the camp with a 52-foot boat similar to the craft used by the Sea Scouts.

At a meeting of the APA and the camp committee, it was decided that the camp would be named in memory of Sgt. Henry Grimm’s son, Charles Herbert. Charles Herbert served with the Fourth U.S. Marines in the South Pacific during World War II and died during the landing on Iwo Jima. The camp officially opened on Saturday, July 5, 1947.

Twenty-six boys were staying at the camp and attended the ceremonies. A local reporter, Harriet Cargar of the Alexandria Gazette, interviewed a few of the boys to get their impressions of the new camp.

Richard Simms, age 13, had this to say: “The thing I like most about camp is getting up early and seeing the beautiful sunrise,” according to the story.

Wayne Robey, 9, said, “I like everything, nothing could be improved.” Wayne’s older brother, Paul Roby, liked to go boating the best and next was eating. He commented that “there was sure plenty of food.”

A friend of Paul’s, William Harlow, who at 16 was the oldest camper, said, “I enjoy swimming and boating with Paul about the best of all. Camp’s a swell place and it’ll improve every year I know.”

Eight-year-old Bobby Wells replied that, “Sgt. Grimm is the best thing around camp but I like to play baseball and checkers pretty well, also,” according to the story.

Seventy years later, the camp is still thriving. In 2005, the Alexandria Police Youth Camp partnered with the Peninsula YMCA of Newport, Virginia. In 2006, the YMCA began operating the camp under a new name, YMCA / APYC Camp Kekoka.

Campers pose for a photo at Camp Kekoka (Photo Credit: Mike Antonio)

New cabins that sleep 10 campers and two counselors have been built, and more are planned. The cabins are climate-controlled and are equipped with toilets and sinks. The old cabins were moved to the perimeter of the main field and are now used for storage.

A new dining hall has been constructed and the old dining hall, known as the “Rainforest Café” because of the leaky roof, is now the Arts and Crafts Center. This year, a climbing tower, a zipline and high- and low-ropes courses have been added.

Two years ago, an archery course and rifle (pellet gun) range was added. The community hall bears a plaque at the entrance thanking former Alexandria City Councilman David Speck for his generous contribution that enabled the hall to be renovated in 1998.

“The Alexandria Police Youth Camp is a positive setting that only helps to improve community relations,” Speck said. “It is brief encounters like the camp that have the ability to change people’s lives.”

The APA is still closely involved with the camp. During the summer, APD officers take time off and volunteer at the camp for each weekly session.

Officer Carl Stowe Jr. volunteered at the camp during the first week of August. Stowe said one of the best things about the camp is that he too was always learning new things.

That particular morning, he was shown how to get the campers in and out of their safety gear for the climbing activities at the new zip-line and ropes courses.

Stowe has been volunteering at the camp for the past 17 years. Over in the Arts and Crafts Center, Camp Director Cassie Leichty and volunteer Mary Ragland were busy screening the camp name onto T-shirts for the end-of-session party later that week. Ragland donated the professional silk screening equipment to the camp.

“The volunteers like Mary Ragland are the backbone of this organization,” Leichty said.

The APA raises funds for the camp and for scholarships for children who might not attend otherwise.

The annual Christmas tree sale next to Alexandria Union Station is their largest fundraiser. In September, the annual Send a Kid to Camp golf tournament is held.

Finally, there is the Polar Bear Plunge that is held at the camp in January.

Seventy years young, the original mission to help campers develop character values of caring, honesty, respect and responsibility remain intact. Two campers from a session in early July this year, Jamaya, 10, and Jordan, 12, spoke about what they liked about the camp this year. Jamaya, who was attending camp for the second time, enjoyed the different activities they could choose from every day.

Each camper selected two land and two water activities they would like to do. Jamaya chose cooking and archery and kayaking and fishing. Jordan also chose kayaking and fishing for water activities but found that the only thing pinching at her line were blue crabs.

The water was so clear off the point, one could see the bottom in places and watch crabs race sideways across the creek bed.

While the girls were out kayaking together one morning, the counselor leading the group reached down into the grasses in the shallow water and pulled out a lined seahorse. This five-to six-inch seahorse is native to the lower Chesapeake.

How does it get any better than this?

This story is part of an oral history project. The interview was conducted by Pam Cressey.