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Road Scholars at Camp Ondessonk

Throughout the school year, Camp Ondessonk is hard at work providing exceptional outdoor adventures to kids of all ages. For nearly 20 years, Ondessonk has been a host site for Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel), which offers unique adult experiences showcasing the great things we do at Camp and the incredible region that is Southern Illinois. Founded in 1975 and headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts, Road Scholar is a not-for-profit agency whose mission is “to inspire adults to learn, discover, and travel. Our learning adventures engage expert instructors, provide extraordinary access, and stimulate discourse and friendship among people for whom learning is the journey of a lifetime.”  The company has now grown to offer 5,500 adult learning adventures and educational tours in all 50 states and 150 countries serving over 100,000 participants annually (www.roadscholar.com).

Road Scholar at Camp Ondessonk

Ondessonk’s Road Scholar programs have evolved over the years, and have grown to currently offer four different programs over 11 weeks in the spring and fall. In 2018, Camp hosted over 100 Road Scholar participants from across the country—the most we’ve ever had. The “Hiking Through the Shawnee National Forest” program transports participants to the Jewels of Camp like Pakentuck, Phantom’s Canyon, and Hogg’s Bluff. Later in the week, we visit other great destinations in Southern Illinois like Garden of the Gods and the Cache River Wetlands. “Hike, Bike, Paddle, and Ride,” known as “The Shawnee Sampler,” gives participants a taste of everything and folks enjoy a different activity every day. Also, our “Horseback Adventures in the Shawnee National Forest” program has introductory and advanced levels.

The typical Ondessonk Road Scholars are much like many in our community who have grown up coming to Camp and enjoying the outdoors: active, high-energy, and able-bodied; possessing an inquiring mind, adventurous spirit, and the belief that learning and discovery are lifelong pursuits. Much like in summer camp and our outdoor education programs, we spend our days hiking, paddling, and horseback riding. Evenings are spent around the campfire enjoying the sights and sounds of the Shawnee nights, without the heat and humidity of summer, then settling down in the comfort of our St. Noel rooms. Occasionally, our more intrepid participants will take us up on our standing offer to spend the night in a treehouse!

Most of our Road Scholar participants are from out of state and are not previously familiar with Camp at all. This means that our Road Scholar programs help extend Ondessonk’s exposure across the country outside of our usual sphere. Many of our participants come back year after year to relive their experience or to try another program for something different. We are fortunate as outdoor educators to not only serve young people in the outdoors, but also the young at heart.

Our Road Scholars leave Camp Ondessonk with the same fulfillment and satisfaction as our youth. Deborah from Michigan said, “I encountered a beautiful and powerful creature [her horse], and with guidance and support, I realized he was a skilled, patient, and kind partner for the trail. I encountered my fears and found I was also a skilled, patient, and kind partner for the trail, my horse, and myself.”  Steven from Washington State commented on the Shawnee Sampler Program, “If you are looking for an introduction to hiking, horseback riding, and canoeing, then this is the program for you. The setting in southern Illinois is perfect for these activities. With the staff and facilities, you will be in for a fun and educational time.”  Judith, a Hiking Program participant from Illinois said, “This program was delightful. The hiking was challenging, but yet not so strenuous that I could not keep up with the group. I recommend this program for anyone interested in hiking through beautiful forests over difficult trails and viewing breathtaking scenery.” Moreover, one of our veteran returning Road Scholars, Rosemary from Alton, Illinois, loved our Horseback Riding Program, “The equestrian leaders are tops, the horses well cared for, the surrounding acreage magnificent, and the small group experience a bonus. This is my third (of 20 Road Scholar experiences) at Camp Ondessonk, and I recommend it highly.”

One of the reasons for the success of our Road Scholar programs is our amazing expert staff. Catherine and Emelyn in the Barn provide a top-notch experience. Dru serves up delicious meals you would not expect to eat at Camp. Lastly, Chris Benda, a biologist for the Illinois State Natural Survey, leads the hiking components of our programs and adds vast educational knowledge about the Shawnee National Forest, peppered with his signature jokes and puns.

Chris has been leading Camp’s Road Scholar hikes for over eight years and recently become an official member of our staff as Camp’s Naturalist. Our Road Scholars adore him, as one participant who attended this past spring said, “Chris is a fountain of knowledge and loves what he does. He is passionate about the outdoors. He teaches in a fun way. He is patient when asked the same question repeatedly because so many of our group members are aging seniors dealing with memory issues. Thanks to his answering questions repeatedly – by the end of the trip we were retaining so much new information. He keeps things lighthearted, and his positive, kind attitude made this experience quite enjoyable. There was a nice mix of easy/moderate/challenging hikes, informative and historical videos, interactive displays, lectures, and lots of fun. As a retired teacher, I would give Chris an A+.”  You can find Chris on Facebook and Instagram as the “Illinois Botanizer” and he leads many educational hikes at natural areas across the state of Illinois. We are thrilled to have Chris on board and look forward to our Road Scholar programs this coming fall, which are already nearly at capacity.

For more information and links to register for Camp Ondessonk’s Road Scholar programs, visit https://ondessonk.com/year-round/road-scholar/.

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