© 2024 Peoria Public Radio
A joint service of Bradley University and Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

At Camp Dallas, enjoying the outdoors isn't just fun. It's improving mental health, too

Dwayne Atherton, left, and Patty Atherton are redeveloping their Spring Bay lake property into Camp Dallas, a natural oasis for mental health wellness for young people. It's named for their son Dallas, who died by suicide in 2007.
Tim Shelley
/
WCBU
Dwayne Atherton, left, and Patty Atherton are redeveloping their Spring Bay lake property into Camp Dallas, a natural oasis for mental health wellness for young people. It's named for their son Dallas, who died by suicide in 2007.

A Spring Bay family is redeveloping their land into an outdoor oasis for kids. Their hope is that the healing power of nature can uplift young people struggling with mental health challenges and empower them.

Nearly every house on the rural lane flanked by sparkling lakes is owned by a member of the Atherton clan.

But this scenic drive isn't something the family wants to keep to themselves. Dwayne and Patty Atherton are opening up their property to the world in honor of their son Dallas, who died by suicide in 2007 at age 19.

Dwayne said Camp Dallas embodies two of his son's biggest passions.

"Dallas was in the Big Brothers program. Dallas mentored kids, so that's part of what we want to do. He was his happiest when he was outdoors and mentoring, and we want to continue that on in his honor of his name," he said.

Fishing will be a key part of Camp Dallas in Spring Bay, with more than 10,000 fish stocked in the lakes. Fish feeders will help even the odds a bit for youngsters.
Tim Shelley
/
WCBU
Fishing will be a key part of Camp Dallas in Spring Bay, with more than 10,000 fish stocked in the lakes. Fish feeders will help even the odds a bit for youngsters.

Patty said they've been working to reclamate the former gravel pits over the past few years in preparation for the camp's construction. Among other things, plans call for twenty all-season cabins, an indoor activity center, an amphitheater, and access to the two lakes for fishing, kayaking, and canoeing.

The lakes will be stocked with at least 10,000 fish, including bluegill, walleye, bass, crappies, and muskies. A closed off two-acre section will be equipped with feeders to give kids much better odds in snagging a fish.

Patty describes the approach to wellness Camp Dallas takes.

"We basically want kids to learn how to be happy and not know that they might potentially be working on their mental health or working through a depression," she said. "We want them to learn how to have these skills and to work forward. And you know, a lot of these kids have never even been outdoors in this kind of scenario."

Dwayne Atherton is friends with Carl Cannon, who leads the ELITE program for at-risk youth in Peoria. It was a visit from the group that showed the Athertons the potential impact Camp Dallas could have on kids.

Dwayne said some of the same kids who started out the day loathe to participate in a fishing tournament ended it by excitedly asking when they could come back. He recalls in particular one girl who refused to let her fish get away after her line got tangled. She jumped off the dock and swam out to nab it.

"It was one of the most enlightening things that really pushed us to know that we were doing the right thing," Patty said. "It was more of an amazing day for us than them. I'm sure."

A fish pops its head above water at Camp Dallas. Fishing is a key aspect of what the Athertons want to promote on their property, along with camping and life skills.
Tim Shelley
/
WCBU
A fish pops its head above water at Camp Dallas. Fishing is a key aspect of what the Athertons want to promote on their property, along with camping and life skills.

The Athertons aren't new to mental health advocacy. They've spoken around the Peoria area to raise mental health awareness, and held fundraisers for suicide prevention efforts. The idea's been in the works for the past several years, but the family feels now is the right time to take the next step.

"We're a little older, and that's what we want to do for our retirement, is just to teach kids happiness and how to deal with problems before they get older, and have to deal with the CILCO bill and everything that comes in," he said.

Dwayne quipped that he'd already be moving full speed ahead on knocking out landscaping work if his arm wasn't currently injured.

He said the plan is to begin with construction of the event center, and they hope to erect ten cabins by next July. He's recruiting Metamora Township High School students to help build those cabins, but he says he'd love to get other area high schools involved, too.

Dwayne says he hopes Camp Dallas makes a big impact.

"Our goal isn't if we can just help one kid. Our goal is that we can help all the kids, right? I like to shoot high, because why shoot low and succeed? You know? I want to shoot for the moon," he said.

A campsite rendering for Camp Dallas. It's located on Eichhorn Road in Spring Bay, just off Rt. 26.
Courtesy Camp Dallas
A campsite rendering for Camp Dallas. It's located on Eichhorn Road in Spring Bay, just off Rt. 26.

Camp Dallas is organized as a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization. An inaugural event is set for June 29 at Spring Bay Park at 3 p.m. It will feature a car show, bouncy houses, food from Sheets Creek Saloon, and wraps up with a fireworks show from J&M Displays.

Dwayne said the Camp Dallas mission seems to resonate deeply with a lot of the people he encounters.

"Almost everyone you talk to, this (suicide) has touched. And they want to help, you know, and they want this to happen. And we want it to happen," he said.

The Athertons want to establish a permanent source of funding for Camp Dallas so it can continue on after they pass away. Dwayne said that might involve building some rentals that can guarantee a source of revenue for the non-profit.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.