Steve Cooper was only 26 years old when he became director of Camp Cherry Lake, an overnight camp for 4-H youth in northern Florida.
Cooper was working at a lumber retailer in the Pensacola area when the then director of 4-H Camp Timpoochee suggested he apply for the Cherry Lake job. When he got the job, he moved his family to Madison, Florida, where Camp Cherry Lake is located.
“That was back in 1985. It was a nice environment to work in, and when the camp wasn’t hosting 4-H’ers I spent my time taking care of the place, mowing the grass, fixing things up. I remodeled some of the cabins,” Cooper said.
He and his wife started a 4-H club and lived at Camp Cherry Lake. Two years later, they moved south when Cooper became the director of 4-H Camp Cloverleaf, a position he would hold for more than three decades until his retirement late last year.
Florida 4-H, the youth development program of UF/IFAS Extension, operates three overnight camps in the state: Timpoochee in Niceville; Cherry Lake in Madison; and Cloverleaf in Lake Placid. Every summer, each camp hosts hundreds of youth ages 14 to 18 for weeklong sessions of learning, exploration and fun.
But unlike the young people who would stay at camp for a week at a time, 4-H camp was a way of life for the Cooper family.
“I’ve been married for 38 years, and 35 of those have been spent at camp!” Cooper said with a chuckle. “It was a great environment for raising our kids. All of them attended camp, and my youngest even worked as a lifeguard for a few summers.”
There was a lot to appreciate about the job of camp director, Cooper said.
“When I started out, I thought of myself as more like a caretaker of the camps. It was a job, but it became more than that. UF has provided me with so much over the years,” he said.
For example, Cooper didn’t have the opportunity to attend college before he began working at Camp Cloverleaf. Once there, he started exploring ways to continue his education.
“UF and the 4-H program were very supportive of that. I was able to take college classes and worked as a substitute teacher at schools in Lake Placid. I also trained to be a police officer for the city. The university really promotes employees’ education and development,” he said.
But most of all, Cooper said he treasures memories of working with the 4-H agents who brought youth to the camp each year.
“I enjoyed working with all the agents. They became like friends—and such a great team,” he says.
Like his career, Cooper has seen the Florida 4-H camping program evolve to become even more than it once was.
“The camps used to just operate during the summer, but now they offer even more to the youth and the community,” he says. “It’s funny to think back to me doing remodeling on the cabins at Camp Cherry Lake. Now the camp has a beautiful new pavilion—couldn’t have imagined that all those years ago.”
You can honor Steve Cooper’s 35 years of service with a gift to 4-H Camp Cloverleaf this Gator Nation Giving Day! Support for 4-H Camping provides opportunities for youth to grow as responsible citizens and leaders. If you or your organization would like to discuss partnering with 4-H, please contact Caylin Hilton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 352.392.5432.