2012 Vohokase Leadership Camp A Success!
GREENVILLE — Asked if he was going to miss those Sunday afternoons in the NFL (where, until retiring from the New England Patriots in May, he’d spent the past 11 years as one of the league’s most successful offensive linemen), Matt Light had started to answer when he suddenly heard the shrill call of a distant bird come though the dense, surrounding woods.
He smiled a bit, then cupped a beefy hand to the side of his mouth, tilted back his head and gave the full-throated “hu-hoooo” of a male hoot owl.
The four teenagers trekking in front of him paid no heed. With bows and arrows and big bear in the distance, they had other thoughts on their minds. Plus they knew, as one said, “It’s just Matt being Matt.”
“It might sound like we’re just playing around, but it’s really to let the other guys know where we are,” Light said as he watched his group take aim at the likeness of bear that had been set up with various other archery targets in the woods. “While we’re shooting, we don’t want somebody happening to wander in where we are.”
Where he was was deep in the woods of Chenoweth Trails, the wondrous, 600-acre outdoor complex he owns some eight miles west of Greenville and a whole lot further from the NFL.
While he may no longer be protecting Tom Brady’s blindside, the massive left tackle with three Super Bowl rings and four Pro Bowl berths is still doing his best to keep trouble from finding others.
As part of his Light Foundation, he runs a unique outdoor leadership skills camp in the summer — part of a bigger year-round program — for at-risk teens from around the country. He calls it Camp Vohokase.
“That’s the Cheyenne word for light,” he said of the term he learned first-hand while doing volunteer work on a Cheyenne reservation early in his career.
This year the 14 kids being illuminated are from Providence, R.I., Nashville, Tenn., West Lafayette, Ind., surrounding Darke County. All represent significant connections to his football career. He grew up in Greenville, won All-Big Ten honors at Purdue, started all 11 years for the Pats, and the Tennessee link is through his former college line coach who is tied into a youth program in Nashville.
A lot of people are involved in Camp Vohokase. Matt’s dad is everything from the camp engineer to one of the more engaging instructors. His mom and his mother-in-law are the camp cooks. Several other family members, friends and community members are also instrumental, but the towering figure in this effort — be it with his physical size, financial investment or, especially, heartfelt embrace — is the 34-year-old Light. He’s a mix of Paul Bunyan, Mother Teresa and Jim Carrey.
“Oh yes, he’s a goofball,” his mom, Marilyn, teased.
Mostly he’s a guy with a very pointed view on how he can help.
“The government gives away things for free all the time as a way to help people out, but I think that has done nothing but deteriorate what we represent as a country,” he said.
“The Industrial Revolution was all about people with creative minds who were able to do things with their hands. They’ve muted that by trying to be generous and supportive and kind by handing people things, but that just creates a lot of vegetables so to speak. We’re all about getting kids out here and showing them how to do things the right way — how to be accountable — and how to actually learn something along the way and get some real fun out of it, too.
“A lot of these kids are looking for someone to say, ‘Hey, that’s not the way to do it. Here’s the right way.’ And they pick up on that. They’re all good guys who have committed to this program for four years. That in itself tells you a lot about their character.”
Light’s camp ends today with a special graduation ceremony for two kids who have completed the program. One is Dustin Waymire, a Greenville High senior.
“This camp changed my life dramatically,” he said. “When I first came here I was socially awkward. I was angry all the time. Just angry at the world. I’d get kicked out of school a lot — I flipped over a desk on a kid, cussed out a teacher, all bad stuff — and I ended up in youth services. It’s like jail.
“Then they took me in here. This camp built up my confidence and self-esteem. I’m making good grades and haven’t been in trouble for two years. I can’t say enough about Matt Light. He had faith in me even when I didn’t in myself.”
‘Leaders, not followers’
After she had cooked dinner for the group the other night, Marilyn watched Matt, flanked by his wife Susie and their own three kids, interact with the campers as they sat in the outdoor pavilion.
“It’s easy to live in a bubble when you’re in the NFL,” she said. “But from his very first year, Matt had this idea: ‘I am over the top blessed and I need to share.’ ”
Raised a hunter and fisherman by his dad, Bill, he geared his efforts to the outdoors. He bought the land, including nearly 240 acres of continuous woods, from area farmers, some of whom still help him every way they can with the camp.
He cut 15 miles of trails through the woods and adjoining land has been put in conservancy and wildlife restoration projects.
Along with the pavilions, there’s an outdoor kitchen complete with a pizza oven, communal fire pits and two state-of-the-art sleeping buildings that look like rounded teepees — they’re called yurts.
There’s an 80-by-80-foot square of brilliant green artificial turf upon which the campers exercise every morning and there is the log-hewn “hexagon of death,” as Matt calls it, that includes TRX training equipment donated by a company represented by quarterback Drew Brees, whom Light protected at Purdue.
“Everything we do, it’s like ‘Field of Dreams,’ ” Light said. “If you build it, they will come. We’ve created all this and we hope it’s used by youth groups, community groups, sports teams, people who want to do corporate retreats, have reunions, weddings, you name it.”
But the Vohokase camp is Light’s special passion. A foundation representative visits the schools of the kids who are involved, talks with their parents and sets the directives. The summer camp is a reward for doing their work and staying out of trouble during the year.
“I’m surprised how well all the kids from different backgrounds and different areas of the country get along,” said Jess Valdez, Matt’s pal since second grade, who helps with various camp activities. “But the kids come in here and learn to work together and they end up having a great time and leave friends.”
As 17-year-old Dustin Waymire explained it: “We’re all here for the same reason. Sure we have hiccups along the way and there might be an argument, but in the end we want to make ourselves better and be leaders, not followers.”
Hank Steinmetz, a local blacksmith with a waxed handlebar moustache who has the Vohokase kids try their hand in his Blacksmoke Forge shop, has seen that process first-hand:
“They’re like sponges that have been dry for a long time and suddenly get some moisture. They soak it all in, their minds are working and when they walk out they’re proud of what they accomplished.”
Like his own kids
Ellijah McLean, an effervescent and loquacious 13-year-old from Providence in his first year at the camp, is not holding back on anything.
He’s immersing himself in everything thrown at him, whether it’s been the pizza-making contest, taking part in the annual community service project (this year campers worked at the 163-year-old Bear’s Mill gristmill in Greenville), fishing for the first time — “I caught 11 fish,” he gushed — or simply embracing the outdoors.
“I live in the city — it’s all big buildings — and I’ve never really been in the woods before or even out in the country like this” he said. “Everything’s different, even the smells. But you know what? I’m even starting to get used to the smell of manure.
“At night out in the woods I thought it’d be scary. You know because all the horror movies are based in the woods at night. But we have a fire pit that goes all night and we have fireside chats and talk about everything. It’s a great camp really.”
Ellijah said what makes it special is Light:
“I knew he was a lineman who played for the Patriots, but I didn’t know he’d be so funny and outgoing. He’s a great guy, he really cares about us. He’s not one of those pro basketball and football players you see who does some kind of community thing just to look good, but who’s never really there once the cameras are gone. Matt’s right here with us all the time and he treats us like his own kids.”
Now that his playing days are over and the Crohn’s disease he quietly dealt with for a decade is under control, Light will pursue other projects, which likely will include broadcasting work with ESPN.
But as you could tell after dinner the other evening, he especially relishes the foundation and camp. Before he took the campers out to ride dirt bikes on an oval his friends carved in a nearby field (each camper got a racing suit, boots, helmet, goggles and gloves to keep after graduation), he sat at a picnic table with everybody gathered around him and scrolled through the photos he had stored on his iPad.
There were several pictures of family, others from his outdoor expeditions — hunting bear in Northern Manitoba, wild boar at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii, tracking mountain lion nine days on mule back — and some from inside the Patriots’ dressing room.
When Ellijah asked Light how many Super Bowl rings he had, an older camper chimed in proudly: “He has three.”
When Light thumbed up some Christmas photos, Ellijah wondered aloud: “Matt you ever dress up as Santa Claus?”
“Every day, man,” Light said with a smile. “Every day.”