EUSTIS, Fla. – May is Mental Health Awareness month and this week’s Getting Results Award winner is making a difference for kids dealing with trauma following this past hurricane season in Florida.
Camp Boggy Creek near Eustis normally hosts kids with serious medical illnesses, but new leadership hopes to open the 232-acre property to more children in need, starting with a focus on mental health.
Located just off Highway 44 near the Seminole Forest Wildlife Management Area, Camp Boggy Creek is set among a forest of old growth trees.
On a typical weekday afternoon, the only sounds you’re likely to hear are birds singing and the wind blowing through longleaf pines.
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The quiet afternoon seems out of place for new Camp Boggy Creek President and CEO Dan Jurman.
“This space isn’t designed to be this quiet and peaceful. It calls for laughter and silly songs and kids cheering,” said Jurman, as he stood near the boat dock on Lake Jordan. “That’s what it sounds like on retreat weekends all summer long.”
Jurman would like to hear those sounds more often.
“When I was applying for the job one of the things the search committee kept saying is that, ‘We’re one of the best kept secrets in Florida,” Jurman recalled. “I think we’ve got to work hard to make sure that’s not the case anymore.”
Jurman started a program he calls Innovation Station, an initiative to expand beyond the 15 diagnosis groups the camp currently hosts.
“We’re going to challenge ourselves every single year to work with a new diagnosis group,” Jurman said. “This year we focused on children’s mental health. That’s a crisis across the nation right now.”
Jurman and the staff at Camp Boggy Creek began working on the project last September, just as Hurricane Ian hit Florida’s Southwest coast.
“It kind of gave us an easy answer for what our first pilot group needed to be,” Jurman said. “Children who had been traumatized by that hurricane and who were experiencing behavioral health symptoms as a result.”
Last month, families were invited up to Central Florida for a weekend away from their community, which is still recovering.
Jennifer Downes lives in North Fort Myers. Her home was flooded under two feet of water. She and her family were out of their home for 158 days.
“We literally lost everything,” Downes said. “Everything my boys have known since they were born, they had to witness taking everything to the curb. Their toys, their pillows and blankets. I mean everything.”
She traveled with her two boys, 7-year-old Brad and 9-year-old Josh to the camp in Eustis.
“Just getting into an area where they’re not seeing destruction and they can simply be kids,” Downes said. “They could simply get out and play. Their focus was simply play and heal. I think it came at the perfect time.”
Jurman said the camp leaders didn’t have to change what they do much with this new population of people coming in.
“It looked like a typical camp weekend, instead of adding volunteer cardiologists or oncologists to supplement our existing medical team, we brought in behavioral health professionals as volunteers,” he said.
Downes said her boys took advantage of the therapy dogs.
“The therapy dogs were there at the same time as the counselor, so they chose the dogs,” Downes said with a laugh.
Downes added that she and her family are finally back in their home but their roof still needs repairs. She said her boys have already asked when they can go back to Camp Boggy Creek.
“We know that there are other kids struggling with other illnesses who don’t get to have the experience that the kids we’ve been serving get to have,” Jurman said. “This was our way of saying, ‘We’re never satisfied. We’re always going to push ourselves to serve more children who need us.’”