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Ocean Ridge Garden Club member Britt Flanagan leads the club’s drive to send grade-school students to the Wekiva Youth Camp in central Florida. Eleven will go this summer. Photo provided

By Brian Biggane

An Ocean Ridge Garden Club program that started 25 years ago, designed to send local children to summer camp at Wekiwa Springs State Park, had fallen dormant until Britt Flanagan was asked to take the reins three years ago.

Putting to use her academic background (she has three master’s degrees in various areas of psychology), networking skills and, as she puts it, “a little Irish luck,” Flanagan revived the program that later this month will send 11 elementary school children off for a weeklong adventure of learning and fun at the park in the central Florida town of Apopka.

Her efforts were recently recognized when she received the Pillar of Pride award from the club. “It recognizes her significant help in getting Camp Wekiva regenerated,” said garden club President Sallie Howell.

Flanagan, who lives in Ocean Ridge with her husband, Skip, made a good first impression upon joining the club in 2021 while working at the Save the Seas program.

“As a result of that they said, ‘OK, this gal is going to work hard, so we need you to revive the Wekiwa program,’” said Flanagan, 79. “There were students who were interested but frequently never made it to the camp. So, if it was going to fly, we had to help the kids get to camp, not just give them a scholarship.”

Her first step was to identify schools to partner with. She ultimately decided on S.D. Spady in Delray Beach and Freedom Shores in Boynton Beach.

“We were looking for schools with good environmental programs and with kids who don’t get these opportunities,” Flanagan said. “At Freedom Shores 80% of the kids get free lunches, and at Spady, it’s 50%. The teachers helped us pick out the kids who love to learn and would treasure this experience.”

The remaining big hurdle, particularly in the financial end, was transportation. The club was committed to pay not only the sponsorship fee of $280 per camper, but also the cost of transportation and other amenities — including seven days of clothing, a backpack filled with supplies, snacks and water — that brought the total to close to $800.

As for the transportation, Flanagan said, “for safety and supervision a van was the best way to go.” The club rented a 14-seat van with an experienced driver and picked up the insurance to limit liability.

Once committed to the project, Flanagan spent time learning what the camp was all about. The Florida Federation of Garden Clubs has sponsored the Wekiva Youth Camp since 1974 and oversees its programs, which include nature hikes, swimming lessons, environmental programs and nighttime wagon rides through the woods.

“I aligned myself with a registrar there and learned every detail, and was very impressed,” Flanagan said. “It’s pretty special — a magical experience for the kids.”

Campers are not allowed any electronic devices such as smartphones or iPads, so there’s a focus on interpersonal communication. They are housed in cabins with four bunk beds, and each cabin has two counselors, one from high school and one from college, both of whom are former campers.

While the Wekiva Youth Camp is open to kids in grades 3-8, the local contingent is confined to grades 4, 5 and 6. The Ocean Ridge club restarted its program in 2022 when it sent eight campers; last year 10 were selected and this year there will be 11.

Delray Beach resident and Spady mother Raiko Knight, whose daughter Rockell attended the camp each of the last two years, said the experience was a life-changer.

“It was a completely different experience than anything she had ever had, and she loved it,” Knight said. “It opened up her world so much and you can see it made a huge difference in the lives of a lot of the kids.”

Flanagan said the program has gained enough momentum that its initial growing pains have largely disappeared.

“People understand now what it’s about, so last year and this year we’ve had a wait list,” she said. “We have a reputation now for providing a great opportunity and a wonderful week for young people.”

The Flanagans have two grown daughters, Heather Desmond and Amber Sweedler, and five grandchildren.

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