One of the undiscovered—or at least underused—facilities in all of Gonzales County is the Texas Elks Children’s Services camp located in Ottine, Texas. For almost 75 years, this outstanding camp facility has provided love, support, nourishment and fun for children that are challenged with special needs medically, physically and mentally.
Now, the famous Elks philanthropical camp is under the direction of Executive Director Loretta Shirley, who wants Gonzales to know about the camp, come out and see the facility and use it for other functions after the summer camp sessions are over.
Shirley replaces Sandi Kennedy who left the camp in 2019 for a job just north of Austin.
“I want Gonzales to know that we’re out here and a part of the community,” Shirley said. “While our primary duty is to operate the summer camps for our special needs kids, we also want the Gonzales area to know about us, who we are and what we can offer to them.
“I think it (Texas Elks Children’s Services camp) gets overlooked by the community. It’s available for the community to use or rent during the rest of the year.”
The primary mission of the camp, however, is to use it for special needs kids. The camp is free to those who are admitted, and grants are available through the Elks Foundation to offer special services to help pay for assisted devices, therapy and sometimes even medical services.
The camp starts operating in June, with counselors attending training beginning the week of June 8. On June 14, the first class of six sessions held on consecutive weeks arrives at Texas Elks Children’s Services camp. The campers arrive on Sunday and stay through Friday. While they are at the camp, they learn skills, play games, go to a dance and get to go to Sea World as part of their stay.
“I take a lot of self-satisfaction in helping these kids,” Shirley said. “It’s the best job I’ve ever had. Think about this: I get to spend all my time trying to figure out how we can best let kids be kids and have fun. We want them to know that whatever is going on in their life they can come here and just be kids.
“To me, it’s a privilege because we are making a difference in their lives. It’s a privilege to work here and give these kids an opportunity to be themselves and even grow as people.”
Shirley started back in 2018 and handled the books. She was appointed Executive Director in 2019. During her short time as director, Shirley has made numerous improvements to the facility including remodeling the rec room, installing all-new LED lighting throughout the lodge to keep electricity costs low, putting in new toilets throughout the facility and the list goes on and on.
She isn’t through, however. In the future, she would like to install a turf grass sports field and is halfway to her goal of $35,000. They have discussed putting in a splash pad, repaving the parking lot, adding a new basketball court and installing playground equipment that will appeal to teenagers attending the camp.
“We have a state-wide foundation that funds our operations here,” Shirley said. “We live off the interest on the principal in the foundation, but we try and have fundraisers here, get donations and have people use the facility so we can raise funds to make the improvements we need to make. This building was built in 1946, so there are some things we can do to improve the inside and outside of the facility and property.”
Shirley says for as low as $10 per person per night the facility can be rented. There is a wonderful kitchen facility, plenty of bedrooms and a modernized recreation room. Plus, Palmetto State Park is just down the road.
“The hardest thing about this position is saying goodbye to the kids after we’ve gotten to know and love them during the week,” Shirley said. “In fact, I tell them when they are graduating that will be the last time they talk to me because I will be crying when they leave and unable to say goodbye.”
If you would like to make a donation to the Texas Elks Children’s Services camp or to possibly rent the facility, please call Loretta Shirley at 830-875-2425.