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Seminole campers return to Camp Kulaqua

HIGH SPRINGS, Fla. – Nearly 200 Seminole kids had a blast at Camp Kulaqua where they stayed active, made new friends and had the time of their lives as they learned to live away from their families.

After a three-year hiatus, Tribal youngsters returned to the camp in High Springs, about 20 miles northwest of Gainesville, from Aug. 4-9.

Campers were divided into age groups of 7-to-12-year-olds and 13-to-17-year-olds, where they thrived among their peers.

Groups were divided even further by age and sometimes by gender, depending on the activity.

The schedule was filled with fun camp activities such as swimming, kickball, basketball, volleyball, go-karts and the wet and wild Seminole Olympics.

Being launched from the Blob and into the nippy waters of Hornsby Spring was one of the highlights of many campers at Camp Kulaqua from Aug. 4 to 9. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

On the last night, the campers put on a talent show for which they had practiced all week.

Activities also included STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) classes which focused on science experiments, Center for Behavioral Health interactive classes and daily culture lessons.

“Our goal was to stimulate the kids,” said Cathy Cypress, Seminole Recreation director and camp director. “Even if they only remember one thing, I’m happy with that.”

Cypress believes camp give kids a unique experience which can build great memories and relationships.

“They meet family members they didn’t even know were family,” she said. “Those relationships can last a lifetime. I love seeing them enjoy camp. The parents are also happy camp is back and have been posting positive comments on Facebook.”

A group of campers makes its way through the woods at Camp Kulaqua to the zoo and nature center Aug. 7. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

Camp was nonstop rigorous fun; each day began with a morning walk at 7 a.m. and ended with lights out at 9:30 p.m. Some of the teens had attended camp when they were younger and were glad to be back.

“I missed it,” said Patsy Veliz, 17, of Immokalee. “It’s so good to see everyone again.”

The teens stayed in the camp’s lodge, where they lived three or four to a room and “didn’t have to worry about spiders,” said Jahniyah Henry, 16, of Hollywood.

“We don’t get to see each other a lot, so this is good,” Jahniyah said about her friend Patsy.

Quite a few campers shared that sentiment and were glad to see people they don’t see very often.

The chilly 72 degree water can be a shock to the system as demonstrated by these campers getting into the tube at Ichetucknee Springs State Park. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

Some of the campers’ favorite activities included being launched high in the air off the Blob into the camp’s chilly Hornsby Spring and tubing down the Ichetucknee River.

“The Blob is scary, but it’s a lot of fun,” said Lola Veliz, 13, of Immokalee. “The rope swing is also fun. Every time I’m in the water it’s fun.”

Every night after dinner the Culture Department gave lessons under the large pavilion.

Kids learned to make beadwork, carve and sew. Instructors helped them along and shared Seminole traditions.

Canaan Jumper squeals with delight as she hovers over the Blob at Camp Kulaqua before hitting the 72 degree water below. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

“The most important rule is to take your time,” said Vinson Osceola, Big Cypress Culture instructor.

He also briefed the group about their culture, traditions and responsibilities as Seminoles.

“Some took it in, some are still processing it and some didn’t know what hit them,” Osceola said. “I briefed them on what is to come in life and told them they will all face challenges. Having this knowledge and traditions will be helpful.”

Hollywood culture instructor Tyra Baker also knew the importance of passing on the culture to the next generation.

Culture instructor Darlah Cypress shows Camille Billie, 7, how to make a beaded key chain during the culture activity at Camp Kulaqua on Aug. 6. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

“I want them to know how important it is to preserve our traditions,” she said. “They are eager to learn. Everything we tell them should be imbedded in their minds.”

Outdoor activities were plentiful and camp wasn’t immune from the daily summer showers or storms, but they were taken in stride.

The skies opened up for nearly an hour before the teens were set to compete in the Seminole Olympics at the River Ranch.

Their spirits weren’t dampened at all; they made their own fun as music played, they tested their knowledge of song lyrics, laughed and generally made their own good time until the all-clear was sounded.

Jayde Billie makes sure the beads on her key chain are lined up properly at the culture activity at Camp Kulaqua. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

“Camp is about developing relationships, meeting people from other reservations and learning to work together,” said Suzanne Davis, Integrative Health program manager. “These things are important traits in the adult world; sharing and being open to new experiences. Everything that is done here offer those opportunities to grow into positive, healthy young adults.”

Camp was also about living a healthy lifestyle, eating right and exercising. The dining room had salad and fresh fruit available at every meal, kids were kept moving all day and awakened at 6:30 a.m.

“I look at these kids as being the Tribe’s future leaders,” said Salina Dorgan, recreation coordinator. “This camp is about being fit, living a clean life and promotes a healthy lifestyle. If they do that, they will be the leadership of the Tribe and be able to continue its prosperity.”

Culture instructor Tyra Baker shows Ina Robbins the fine points of sewing a straight line. The culture activity at Camp Kulaqua included sewing, beading, carving and more. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

This was Darrel Tiger’s first time at camp and he enjoyed making new friends.

“It’s been a great experience,” said the 11-year- old from Hollywood. “We’re outside a lot and this is the most exercise I’ve had in a long time.”

The younger kids didn’t have access to their phones very often; some even left them at home. It was a real adjustment for these kids, but occasionally they were allowed to send a text to their family.

“I love camp,” said Destiny Cypress, 18, of Big Cypress. “I’ve been here a lot and I’m glad it’s back. I love that I’m constantly on the move and get to do a lot of different things.”

After a day tubing down the Ichetucknee River, a few campers reflected on the week at camp.

They agreed the Blob, the Ichetucknee, making s’mores and staying together at the lodge were some of the highlights.

Kids play a game of tube soccer during the Seminole Olympics at Camp Kulaqua on Aug. 7. (Beverly Bidney)

Carlise Bermudez, 15, of Immokalee, Ramona Jimmie, 16, of BC, Dacia Osceola, 16, of BC and Skye Stubbs, 15, of Hollywood had all been to camp when they were younger.

“It’s like bringing back old memories and making new ones,” Carlise said.

“I’m going to miss it when I get home.”

“It’s a good break from my family,” Dacia said.

“There are other kids from the rez, so it’s like having a home away from home,” added Ramona.

The campers were eager to share their feelings about Camp Kulaqua and how different it was from life at home.

Teens roast marshmallows for s’mores over a camp fire Aug. 7. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

“It’s fun without my parents here,” said Jeremy Urbina, 10, of Brighton. “I don’t get yelled at.”

“I don’t have to talk to anyone if I don’t want to,” added Yani Smith, 11, of Brighton.

“I like camp because there are a lot of people and a lot of things to do,” said Nigel Osceola, 14, of Tampa, who has been away from home before. “It’s not a school trip, so it’s a lot different. I met a lot of interesting people.”

It took a huge effort from a lot of people to make camp appear easy.

Adriana Osceola Turtle and Clinton Billie float down the Ichetucknee River with the rest of the campers on Aug. 8. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

Recreation staff, counselors, chaperones and Camp Kulaqua staff all came together to make camp memorable for the campers.

“I love what happens here, everyone comes together for one cause,” Davis said. “They are the lifeblood of this place, it is very inspiring. The experience the kids have here they will remember throughout their whole life.”

Nigel Osceola carefully roasts a marshmallow for s’mores, a camp classic treat of roasted marshmallows, chocolate bar and graham cracker sandwich during the Seminole Tribe’s week at Camp Kulaqua in High Springs, Florida. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
Kids ride the waves in the wave pool at Camp Kulaqua’s River Ranch on Aug. 7. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at