Schuylkill Youth Field Day going strong in 20th year


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FRIEDENSBURG - One never knows what will hold up over time, but the span of 20 years provides a legitimate test.

For instance, in the spring of 1993 film fans were abuzz as they anticipated the release of the mega, special-effects dinosaur epic "Jurassic Park," which went on to become the highest-grossing film at the time with $914,691,118. Now, 20 years later, many of those same fans, including some who own copies of the film on DVD, are going back to theaters to see the re-release of that same "Jurassic Park," but this time in 3-D.

On a somewhat smaller scale, there was no T-Rex or a Brontosaur, heck, there weren't even any lizards or snakes, when the inaugural Schuylkill County Youth Field Day was launched by the Schuylkill County Sportsmen's Association. None of the organizers knew for sure how the free outdoors-educational event for youth ages 10-15 would be received.

Well, 20 years later, no one within the organization, including some who were among the original founders, have doubts about holding the event. Even with the time demands of youth now multiplied many times over since that first event, interest in learning and honing outdoors skills through hands-on participation has remained.

As a result, the youth field day has become an annual event at Friedensburg Fish and Game Club, with this year's Saturday, May 18, beginning with group assignments at 8 a.m. For the last several weeks, Schuylkill County Conservation District education specialist "Porcupine Pat" McKinney has been taking reservations at his office and will continue to accept them through Wednesday, May 15, if space is available.

"Youth field day has introduced many young people to outdoors recreation opportunities so much so that we now find parents who had experienced it years ago who bring their own children," McKinney said. "What made the event possible over the years is the benevolence of our volunteers, and especially the support of Friedensburg Fish and Game and the Schuylkill County Sportsmen's Association in cooperation with the Schuylkill Conservation District.

"Our ultimate goal has been to provide an outdoors experience for young people as they are the future. They come to have a good time and along the way develop an interest in the outdoors and promote stewardship, as they are the future voters who vote on policy that affects the environment."

Among those who credit youth field day with helping expand their interest in the outdoors is Blue Mountain graduate Sarah Gaffney. A former teacher in the Pottsville Area School District and instructor at youth field day, Gaffney now lives in North Carolina, where she works in the outdoors industry and does outdoors writing.

"I was 10 years old when I went to my first Schuylkill County Youth Field Day in 1996, and I really loved having the opportunity to learn different types of outdoors activities with kids my own age," Gaffney said. "Since this was something I grew up learning with my family, being with friends made it even more fun.

"Years later, I found it to be an even greater experience and more satisfying coming back as an instructor and seeing the reaction of the kids as they came through this incredible program. Not every kid gets the chance to grow up in a family like mine, so having the chance to pass on some of great things I learned at youth field day was truly humbling.

"Seeing things like being able to watch a little girl catch her first fish or hear a young boy ask his dad if they can go buy a bow are the moments that the program is all about. In today's society, youngsters are involved in so many after-school activities and things that didn't really exist when I was that age that their free time is really restricted, and youth field day helps them develop and maintain an interest of the outdoors."

For camp organizer Dennis Scharadin, one of the biggest challenges has been to continue providing events that are popular year after year while mixing in new events. He also said that requiring a parent or adult to accompany each child helps reinforce their confidence if they are unsure about trying a particular activity.

This year's activities are archery, fishing, canoeing, trapping, stream restoration, turkey calling, muzzleloader shooting and clay bird shooting. Participation in all programs is voluntary, and lunch is included as part of the event.

"I love to watch the faces of the kids when they get to a new program," Scharadin said. "At first they're usually a little anxious, especially if this is a new activity for them, and sometimes they may be a little scared and don't want to look foolish.

"Then, after they try it, no matter if it's hooking their first fish, sticking an arrow in a deer target, hitting the target with the muzzleloader or turning a clay bird into a cloud of dust, their whole attitude changes. A big smile appears and all of a sudden they are ready to conquer all these new activities."

And, for the last 20 years, kids, and now the kids of some of those kids, have been doing that at youth field day.

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