For this nature-loving and friendly couple, it's all about providing unique and rewarding experiences and opportunities for personal growth.
by Mary Denny
Blake Smith went to camp and found his calling. It happened the summer before his senior year at Trinity when the pre-med biology major took a summer job as senior counselor at Camp La Junta, an almost 90-year-old camp for boys in the rolling Texas Hill Country 15 miles from Kerrville. "I fell in love with the opportunity to educate and see results in child development outside of the classroom environment," he explains. He added some education classes during his senior year, decided against pursuing medicine, and headed back to camp.
Meanwhile, Cheryl, whom he met on her first day on campus, earned her degree in geology and discovered that "1985 wasn't a particularly good year for a geology graduate." She worked briefly as an office manager for a leasing company, gaining valuable business and accounting foundations, then joined Blake at La Junta as a senior counselor and riding instructor. Sharing a love of the outdoors, country living, and children, Cheryl and Blake married and settled into new careers and lives as camp directors and, ultimately, owners. Since taking over La Junta, which is Native American for "the gathering place," they have made their home on the camp's 200 acres that front the Cypress-shaded Guadalupe River and raised their two now college-aged sons on the property.
In addition to traditional camp activities like horseback riding, swimming, and archery, the program at La Junta includes things like sailing, SCUBA diving, go-cart racing, mountain biking, and ropes. "It has always been a part of the La Junta experience to offer something, whether it is an activity or a program, that is not offered at home," says Blake. "We do not stress team sports, because that is a school year thing. We want our guys to get experiences that they can get only at camp: group living, outdoor activities, camping out, etc."
Toward that end, Blake and Cheryl work hard to provide a program that offers ample opportunity for self-growth and individual victories that build self-confidence. They refined the award system in which campers earn badges that reflect levels of achievement in the various activities. Among the innovations, Blake and Cheryl have introduced father/son weekends to allow dads to share in the life change that is camp and "DreamKamp," a nonprofit, free week-long summer experience in August for local kids who would not normally have an opportunity to attend camp.
While the summer season is by far their busiest time, overseeing 260 campers and 60 counselors over six two- or four-week sessions that run from June through July, running La Junta is a year-round job. During the academic year, Blake and Cheryl work "normal, but flexible hours" recruiting staff, marketing the camp to new families, making facility improvements, adding new program ideas, and updating themselves on the newest child safety standards and parental challenges and needs.
The flexibility allows them time to contribute to the Kerrville community where Cheryl is a member and past president of the Junior Service Guild, a school volunteer, and yoga instructor. Blake is a past president of Texas' Camping Association for Mutual Progress (C.A.M.P.,) a church elder, school board member, Upper Guadalupe River Authority board member, and high school golf coach. Both Blake and Cheryl are involved with teaching Sunday school and have served as gala chairs for Our Lady of the Hills High School.
Both were equally active and involved at Trinity. Cheryl played soccer, sang in the University choir, pledged Gamma Chi Delta, and has fond memories of professors Ed Roy, Bob Freed, and Walt Coppinger and the many hours she spent in the geology lab. Blake was a member of the inaugural Omega Phi pledge class, played on the golf team and intramurals, served on the IFC and Student Senate, and "loved professor Bob Blystone." Both have happy memories of Chili Cook Off, Tower parties, campus dances, air guitar in the Rathskellar, and dressing up for football and basketball games. "I still laugh about the crowd heckling John McEnroe at the Varsity tennis courts," says Blake.
Over and above the many fond memories and fun times, the couple says the most valuable thing they learned was "an appreciation of people from all walks of life and the power of community involvement." It was a lesson they took to heart, and it shows.
You can contact Blake and Cheryl at blake [at] lajunta.com.