It’s a dream that started when Tom Read was just 12 years old. His friends were away at summer camp and he was left at home because his parents could not afford to send him to camp. From that summer forward, Read was determined to build a camp for other children whose parents are not able to financially support it.
After trying and failing to start two other camps, Read and his wife Joan opened Deerfoot Youth Camp in Magnolia in 1978.
“Some people dream dreams when they’re young and never do anything with them. He did. He held on to that dream and was able to provide the money for it. He was able to provide for all these kids that have come through here and changed our lives,” Joan explained.
Deerfoot is a three-week camp for disadvantaged boys, ages 10 to 13. Through team sports, the boys are taught discipline, respect, teamwork, trust and accountability. Unlike other youth camps, the boys that attend Deerfoot do not have to pay for anything out of pocket. After attending camp for four years, the boys also get financial help to attend Texas A&M.
“Mr. Read’s biggest component was he wanted our camp to help create and help promote and develop better citizens - kids that can go back and be better citizens in their community, in their school and in their home. When we have a kid that leaves our camp program and becomes contributing in some way – that’s our primary focus. They do that by going to college, going into the military, getting a job and raising a family,” explained Dr. Mike Thornton, executive director of Deerfoot.
Soon after creating the camp, the Read’s became involved with Texas A&M University and the Department of Health and Kinesiology. Dr. Leonard Ponder, then head of the department, became the camp’s first director. He worked to provide Texas A&M students to serve as coaches.
“I spend my semesters looking for young men that I think meet the expectations that we have. There’s no open application process. We are very specific and direct about the young people we talk to about working here,” explained Dr. Thornton.
In 1994, Dr. Thornton, clinical assistant professor of kinesiology, began working at the camp. He currently serves as general manager of Read Youth Charities and executive director of Deerfoot.
One of his recruits is Chad Nelson, the camp’s newest director. Dr. Thornton brought Nelson in last summer to serve as a coach and assistant director. This year, he was brought on full-time and is working to make an impact on the lives of the campers. Part of that work involves his graduate studies at Texas A&M, where he is pursuing a doctorate in youth development.
“Having a better understanding of the youth will only make their experience better. I think this Ph.D. program is going to allow me to make the experience for the kids and the coaches better. I’m not only making an impression on the young boys, but I have 11 young men in their 20s who are interested in coaching or wanting to just prepare themselves for fatherhood – I’m molding them.”
Nelson’s main priority at Deerfoot is instilling values that the young men can carry throughout the rest of their lives. Nelson will be the first to say that it is not always easy.
“Displacing a kid from their comfort zone and to this area can test the nerves and patience of everyone. One thing we really try to do, especially the first few days, is to make them feel comfortable. We want them to have a good time,” said Nelson. “We try to tie in life values and life lessons, learning moments as I like to call them. We pull them aside and we talk to them like the young adults that they are. We tell them what respect means. You might not like somebody but you need to respect them. You shouldn’t push them and you shouldn’t pick on them just because they’re different.”
One of Nelson and Dr. Thornton’s favorite moments is also one of the campers’ least favorite – the mailbox run. After a light breakfast, a couple of times a week, the campers run to the mailbox at the end of the drive to drop letters in the mail. For many, the one-mile run is a real struggle.
“It gives me goosebumps every time to see that one kid that might be struggling and the rest of the camp running along with them and encouraging them. That’s one thing I love seeing – every time we do the mailbox run the kids get stronger as a camp,” Nelson added.
Returning to Make a Difference
Deerfoot has served close to 3,500 campers since it was created. Each year, the camp sees former campers returning to serve as coaches because of the impact the camp had on their lives when they were younger.
“When I came to camp I was a little wild kid and I straightened up. I want to teach them how to respect everyone else and show them that there are other things in life that you have to get through and camp is where it starts. If you get through camp, you’ll be a better person later in life,” explained Sherman Wilder, Deerfoot coach and electrical engineering student at Texas A&M.
“Coming to camp, I learned a lot about integrity and hard work and it’s something that’s really kept me going in every aspect of my life. If you give everything your best effort, you can get better every day. Maintaining integrity keeps you on the right track to success. That’s what I want the campers to see,” added Nicolas Juarez, Deerfoot coach and computer science student at Texas A&M.
“We want to continue impacting as many kids as we can. We’re not going to get all of them, but we’re providing that opportunity and that’s all you can do,” said Nelson.
“Next year will be our 40th year. It will be great to see all of the beginners that came through here. Tommie would be so proud,” added Joan.