Connors State College’s Indoor Arena has been full of the sights and sounds of cattle, sheep and the enthusiasm of young people learning about the care of animals this summer.
Over 500 youth, from ages 9 through 18 came from as far away as Alaska, Massachusetts North Carolina and even Australia to participate in the Be A Champ Cattle and Lamb Camp on the Connors State College Campus during the summer.
The camp under the direction of Jerry McPeak started the camp with his wife Veda and members of the Connors State College agricultural staff.
It’s a camp that began on the Connors campus in 1982, when area youth needed a helping hand to learn how to show their animals and how to care for them, according to Blake Nelson, Connors’ farm manager.
“We started this camp in part due to our judging team here at Connors,” said McPeak. “We traveled all over the country. We learned how to groom, trim cattle and sheep. We would help our neighbors, help folks in the county and the next county over. It just kind of evolved out that. Just helping your neighbors and kids.”
This one-of-a-kind camp attracted 55 in its first year in 1982 and reached a peak of 700 youth taking part each summer at Connors State.
McPeak also said they have taken the camp on the road a few times to Louisiana, Mississippi State and schools in California.
“It got to a point where it took up our entire summer and just wore us down heading back into school,” said McPeak.
“This was the first camp of its kind in the world. It’s very unique, it made a great recruiting tool for Connors and it’s still a great recruiting tool for the school.
“The kids come here and have a great experience. They love it here and one of our goals is for them to return to Connors to attend school.”
Attending for a second time this summer are Sammy Barrett, 15-year-old from Lancaster, Mass, a small town north of Boston and her sister, Katie, who is 13.
How do two young people from New England hear about a camp in Warner, Okla., at Connors State College? It’s simple according to Sammy, “word of mouth.”
“I heard about it from a friend at a show on Cape Cod,” said Sammy Barrett. “I’ve always been interested in agriculture and animals. And I have really learned a lot about grooming, clipping and showmanship.”
Barrett admitted It’s been a tough camp, but she likes that, except one thing….”It’s hot.”
Barrett, who won best of show this summer in Wister County, Mass., showing steers and heifers, before traveling to Warner, said she will return home, sharing what she has learned and her adventure in Warner.
“We don’t have camps like this back home,” said Barrett. “We just have small beef camps in Massachusetts. You learn everything here.
“It’s been a lot of work, but fun. I plan to return, even with the heat. I’ve made a lot of friends here,” said Barrett.
Nelson, who was a camper himself as a youth said, “The kids basically learn the fundamentals of daily care for their show animals, showmanship skills, fitting and clipping.
“Most important thing they get out of Being A Champ is the motivation. Those kids come here and realize if I work hard, do what these guys tell me and I will be successful. It has been proven over the past 30 years. It’s as big as it has ever been. There is a reason we get kids from all over the United States,” said Nelson.
That reason, according to McPeak, who is also an Oklahoma State Representative and a former agriculture teacher at Connors State is “discipline and attitude.”
“Not only do they learn all the skills that are necessary for the care, showmanship and nutrition of their animals, but develop the right attitude to be successful in life,” said McPeak.
“We are awfully humbled that the moms and dads let their kids come and attend from across the country,” said McPeak. “We drive them pretty hard, it’s very disciplined.
“We had a Marine here attending our opening and said ‘”Man I like this’”. McPeak said the campers’ affectionally call it “Be A Champ Boot Camp.”
Campers learn to work with a partner and work in groups striving to become top notch.
“They are not competing against each other, but competing against how good they can be,” said McPeak.
“A positive attitude is the main thing. We are using livestock to give them life lessons. It’s not what happens to you in life, but how you handle those things in life.
“Very few here will go into agriculture, but they will be able to use the things they have learned here in other professions.”
Morgan Sheive, a former camper, first got involved as a third grader after being told about it by her teacher in Elgin, a small town in Southwest Oklahoma.
Sheive, who has attended the camp for the past 12 years, is now an instructor for McPeak.
She has one more year at Oklahoma State University, where she will earn a degree in Animal Science and pre-chiropractic, before entering Chiropractic school, said she “wouldn’t trade her experience at the camp for anything.”
“What attracted me here was the work ethic,” said Sheive. “You can’t beat the people. I got hook on it. The instructors here and the quality of the kids that you are surrounded with. This gives you hope that everything is going to be okay.
“That’s why I come back every year; it’s the kids, really. It reminds you that there are still good kids out there. Kids that know how to work and be respectful.”
Jack Rudnay, owner of a livestock supply company in Kansas City and a former All-pro center for the Kansas City Chiefs, has been involved in the program for 20 years, according to McPeak.
“Jack heard about our camp in the early years and came down to learn about it,” said McPeak.
“We didn’t know he was a pro football player when he first came down to learn about it. We just thought he was a city guy who owns a company.
“He was impressed with the kids. He saw how the kids handled themselves and wanted to be involved. He has sent us thousands of dollars in prizes every year to give away to the kids.
“I don’t write or ask for it. But every year he just calls and does it. He has done this for over 20 years,” said McPeak.
For many of the youngsters the day begins at 4 a.m. to exercise and groom their animals to beat the hot Oklahoma summer days and ends at 11 p.m. with lights out in the Connors dorms.
As Sammy Barrett said, “I love every minute of it, even the heat. Its lots of fun.”