MADISON — Florida 4-H Camp Cherry Lake sits in the northernmost reaches of Florida, dotted with grand moss-covered trees and overlooking a sweeping waterfront.
The camp has been a summer haven for thousands of children over generations. Between archery and canoeing, youth test their limits and learn independence and camaraderie – forming bonds that last a lifetime.
But there’s a problem: The camp isn’t living up to its potential right now because there’s not enough room for many campers to stay overnight and the camp needs accessibility modernizations.
Betsy Barfield, former Jefferson County commissioner and Florida 4-H Hall of Fame inductee, hoped to change that when she presented a $10,000 check to Florida 4-H during her Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Aug. 3. Her donation kicks off a fundraising campaign to rebuild and reimagine what campers will need for the future.
Barfield said the camp, one of three Florida 4-H residential camps, is a lifeline to underserved children in her county and surrounding areas.
“I need everybody in the region that has ever been touched by 4-H to come forward. It is just so important for these kids,” Barfield said. “We can’t have Camp Cherry Lake out of reach to our youth for any longer. The children of this region are being underserved by not having this accessible to them.”
Camp Cherry Lake was previously home to 14 historic cabins that were built when the camp was constructed. During the 2020 pandemic, while the camp was closed, the decision was made to remove the aging cabins. One was kept for historic and archival purposes and will not be used for housing.
Florida 4-H is aiming to raise $3.5 million for the construction of five new cabins to provide room for up to 168 campers.
So far, $251,000 in private donations has been raised, according to Stacey Ellison, state 4-H program leader. Barfield’s donation gets 4-H that much closer to their goal.
Barfield donated the funds through her 8th annual Dirty Pecan gravel cycling event, which has donated more than $100,000 over the eight years to 4-H programs. Many of those donations went to scholarships for Camp Cherry Lake, she said.
Ellison, who attended the camp as a child, said Camp Cherry Lake is a place where all children can gain life skills in the outdoors while practicing resiliency and grit, which contribute to improved mental health.
“We talk a lot about mental health for young people and how important it is for the whole child,” she said. “4-H camp gives every young person, regardless of where they come from, a place to belong and an opportunity to engage in healthy skill building and outdoor activities.”
She said part of the vision for the camp is to be a hands-on learning lab for youth from across the state to practice agricultural workforce skills. Camp Cherry Lake will offer a program called Florida 4-H Work Ready that allows youth to earn agricultural workforce certifications when the camp is revitalized.
Sandra Davis Quicke, a retired teacher in Taylor County and a Camp Cherry Lake alumna, said her earliest memories of the camp are when she was 5 years old, tagging along with her parents. Her father was the county extension agent at the time and coordinated with the camp to bring his 4-H youth there for a week.
When she was older and attended as a camper, she remembers, she felt such joy at being able to be independent.
“It was the first time I was able to make decisions for myself and decide what I wanted to be a part of,” she said.
For some of her students, Camp Cherry Lake was the only summer getaway available to them, but at camp, everyone was treated with the same enthusiasm and dignity.
She remembers campers telling her years later how the summer session gave them the spark they’d been looking for – how one child realized that college was possible for him, and others found lifelong mentors.
“One camper told me ‘I had somebody that believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself,’” she remembered. “In looking back now, I see how important the camp experience was. Everyone came to camp as equals. What a gift for some of our youth to be on a level playing field with their peers—possibly for the first time in their lives. It opened many young eyes to the possibilities this world holds and the realization that they could make a positive difference.”
For more information about supporting the campaign for 4-H Camp Cherry Lake, please contact Caylin Hilton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 352-392-5432. There are many opportunities to participate, including naming and legacy giving. Gifts can be made online at https://tinyurl.com/4HCCLcabins.