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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

A century of Camp Gifford: Salvation Army site next to Deer Lake offers children fun-filled summer days of activities

Ten-year-old Dawson Lester jumped off the steps of a Salvation Army bus this past Monday ready for his first summer camp experience.

Ethan Stevens, 10, watched Lester’s exuberance from a few feet away as both arrived at Camp Gifford at Deer Lake. After greetings from their counselor, both boys said they expected to have a fun week.

Mostly, they’re hoping to meet new friends.

“It seems fun; I’m just going to be sad that my mom had to leave,” said Lester while waiting for lunch in the dining hall. “I feel like it’s going to be fun, and I might be able to make a couple more friends. He (Stevens) is my only friend I’ve got right now.”

Camp Gifford has offered a century of such chances for friendships while enjoying outdoor activities. On 140 acres, the site today hosts children ages 7 to 17 to explore swimming, sailing, hiking, a giant swing, archery, a ropes course, zip line, campfires and a three-sided climbing tower dubbed “Goliath.”

The campers also have arts and crafts, chapel time, games, three meals a day and free time to choose an activity.

Spokane Salvation Army Major Ken Perine said the site has served as its residential summer camp since 1921. Next year, a formal centennial celebration is planned to mark the organization’s official 1922 purchase of the property located about 35 miles north of Spokane.

The camp’s focus also remains to serve the many children in the region whose families can’t afford to send them to a residential summer camp, as well as youth in foster care or residents in the Salvation Army’s family shelter.

With increasing costs to run the camp, this is the first year of the organization’s “Send a Kid to Camp” campaign running until the end of this month. Six weekly camp sessions started June 21 and go through July 30.

About 90% of the children who attend each year do so on some scholarship amount, Perine said. The scholarships are offered on a sliding scale based on USDA Child Nutrition Program Income Guidelines.

“Right now, most of the camp weeks are full, so we’re hoping the COVID restrictions go away so we can open it up more,” he said. “It’s hard to tell a parent there’s no room.”

Under COVID-19 restrictions, 88 campers arrived at Gifford this past week. Normally, the camp has about 164 campers per week, with 130 in the main camp and 24 teens in its wilderness camp. A goal is to have close to 200 children per session by next summer.

“What happens every year is the teenage camps fill up the fastest,” Perine said. “Pre-COVID, we’d planned last year that we were going to have a purely sail camp for fifth grade through senior kids, and that would add 20 kids. I actually want to have a Spokane sailing team so we can compete, but that’s the future.

“Then we want to split the wilderness camp into two sections, so junior high and senior high, and that would add another 20 kids.”

The organization’s cost per child at camp is $460, but many families pay about $60 on average because of those scholarships mainly supported by private donations and a portion of dollars raised in its Red Kettle campaign.

Counselors encourage the children at camp to explore new adventures along with following in a team and leadership.

“For sailing or for all our different programs here, it’s really about teaching kids to overcome fear, learn how to be a good follower and learn how to be a good leader,” Perine said.

“Non-COVID, we actually do a learn-to-sail course for teens. In sailing, the first thing they do is they tip the boat over so they get used to it because it’s going to happen, and they can self-recover. When out on the water, we have two sailing instructors with them.

“We want camp No. 1 to be safe and also fun.”

Younger children in first through sixth grade stay in the main camp closer to the lake, while teens are in a more wooded “wilderness camp” area.

The property has multiple A-frame cabins. Each sleeps 14 children with up to three counselors in a loft. There are separate spaces on the grounds for where the girls stay overnight, with seven cabins, and then for the boys’ eight cabins.

After arrival and lunch, the first action of the day is to have each child get an assessment of swimming skills. It’s not unusual for children of different ages to be learning to swim for the first time.

“Today when I was asking all the kids if they know how to swim, there’s a good percentage who said they don’t know how to swim,” Perine added. “We definitely teach them how to do that.”

The facility also has 13 kayaks and 11 sailboats. Campers can do a sailing orientation this summer, he said, absent a certification sailing class under COVID-19 restrictions.

On weekends and other times of the year, the Salvation Army opens up the camp for group rentals, which also brings in income for the camp, he said.

Families interested in finding out more about Camp Gifford can visit or call the Spokane Citadel Corps office at (509) 325-6810.