From his 12 years in the U.S. Army, James Clark remembers one conversation above all others. He was in Bosnia, in the heart of combat, talking with his comrades about what they would want their kids to be able to do if the soldiers didn’t return home.
“If something were to happen to me,” he recalls saying. “I want you guys to make sure my kids get to go to a place like Montana, learn how to fish and set up a tent and do those things. It’s about having some dirt under their feet instead of concrete and asphalt.”
Now Clark, who has been coming to Montana to fish for 15 years, is making sure the kids of fallen soldiers get that chance with a program called Guide On that features a weeklong camp in the Flathead. The camp runs Aug. 14 to Aug. 21.
Guide On, powered by its Web site www.guideon.org, is a nonprofit organization that teaches kids who have lost parents in war leadership and skills training. Most importantly, it gives them a chance to spend time with other kids in the same situations.
“One thing is that they’re not alone,” Clark said. “There are other kids like them. No one is going to ask them where their dad is, like they might somewhere else.”
Clark thought about developing a program like Guide On for years after the conversation in Bosnia. It wasn’t until his best friend was killed in Iraq in May 2006 that he decided to turn the idea into reality. His friend, Matt Worrell, left behind two boys, who attended Guide On’s first camp in San Diego, where Clark lives, and will be at the one in the Flathead.
Camille Worrell, Matt’s wife, said she thought Guide On was a great idea when she first heard about it, but didn’t know if it would get off the ground.
“People try to start things all the time,” she said. “They don’t come to fruition. What’s amazing about this is not that it’s taken off, but how it’s taken off.”
“It’s so overwhelming, in a good way,” she added. “What a difference he’s made in (the kids’) lives.”
On Aug. 2, Tim McGraw had a concert in San Diego and mentioned Debbie Lee’s son, Marc Lee, who was the first Navy SEAL to die in Iraq, Clark said. Ms. Lee has gotten close to Clark through Guide On. After the concert and a radio appearance by Ms. Lee, somebody called in and donated a sailboat to Guide On. Clark works out of a donated office space in San Diego and has a long list of other donations.
Support has been amazing everywhere, Clark said, but Montana’s is particularly amazing. He told a story about chatting with a woman who had a soldier commemoration sticker on her car in the parking lot of Sportsman Ski Haus. At the end of the conversation she wrote him a check for the camp.
“Just right there in the parking lot,” he said.
The Flathead camp will feature 14 CPR-trained counselors and four volunteers. Planned activities include floating the river, archery with a donated 3-D target, lots of sports and anything else the kids want.
“It’s any and all things,” Clark said. “Just open your mind about how we can help these kids.”
Clark, who has been operating the project primarily on his own dwindling bank account, is prepared for 10 kids at the camp, as he prefers to keep it small. He had eight but two backed out because of scheduling complications. He would love to find at least two other kids who will benefit from the camp. Everything is paid for, he said.
Clark wants to set up a permanent camp in the Flathead starting next summer. His plan would call for 250 kids from around the nation throughout the summer. He said he’s confident that he’ll find somebody who will donate enough land, possibly 40 acres, for the project. Contractors have already expressed interest in helping out, and so have organizations like the Bigfork Fire Department.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “That’s the kind of support we’ve seen in Montana.”
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