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Having Trouble Getting Your Kids Outside? Try Adding Zombies

Luke Runyon
Camper Aedan Fanning takes aim at a zombie during the city of Aurora's zombie camp.

Campfires, sing-alongs and… the undead?

It might not be the most natural pairing, but it’s the exact combination that sets zombie apocalypse camp in Aurora, Colo. apart.

Summer camps are supposed to impart all kinds of new skills. Think of zombie camp as a more morbid version of a wilderness survival camp, with the spectre of an undead uprising meant to grab kids’ interest and retain survival skills they might otherwise forget.

Credit Luke Runyon / KUNC
A volunteer zombie shuffles across a field in Aurora, Colorado toward campers at the city-sponsored Zombie Apocalypse camp.

The camp in Aurora teaches the traditional skills -- like fire-making, shelter-building, knot-tying. They just throw in a zombie make-up lesson for good measure.

I asked 10-year-old Samara Valdez of Centennial, Colo. what she was hoping to learn from zombie camp.

“How to survive in the wild, just in case,” she says. “Because usually kids just stay inside and watch TV. And I think nature is a pretty cool thing.”

Credit Luke Runyon / KUNC
Camp director Lindsey Pesek says parents know what they’re getting their kids into when they sign them up for zombie camp. “When their kid comes home with a really gnarly fake zombie wound, they’re not mortified,” she says.

Zombie camp starts with  camp director Lindsey Pesek gathering the campers in front of her.

“Your first survival lesson is right now, which is how to build a shelter,” she says.

Pesek passes out a tarp, a few stakes, some string. Their task is to build a shelter to keep themselves safe. Zombies are top of mind.

“Why do we need a shelter?” Pesek asks.

“So we could hide from the zombies?” one camper asks.

Other campers pipe up to say the shelter could guard against looters, snow, rain and the sun.

“Getting a sunburn during the apocalypse will most likely really slow you down,” Pesek says.

Credit Luke Runyon / KUNC
Campers Haley Glunz and Angelo O'Dorisio use a tarp and bungee cords to build a shelter from the sun, and possibly, zombies.

Even though you can see the Rocky Mountains from Aurora, a lot of the campers spend their time in the city, not traipsing around wilderness trails. All are from the Denver metro area, and while some know some outdoor lingo, they’re not camping every weekend, Pesek says.

The camp is in its second year, sponsored and hosted by the city of Aurora at its Meadowood Recreation Center. Kristen Allen organizes the camp.

“The zombie is attractive to youth right now,” she says. “It gives them a reason to be stoked the first minute they come in. ‘When are we going to see the zombies?’”

“It’s just a really nice way to frame all the survival skills that we cover,” she says. “So it really is more of a wilderness survival camp and an outdoor environmental camp, but having that zombie element is a really fun twist to get kids engaged in the outside when they may not want to to begin with.”

Byron Fanning’s two sons are here for their second summer at zombie camp. He works for the city of Aurora.

“They’ll be doing a nature walk, and they’ll talk about how when the zombie apocalypse happens and you can’t go home any more, here’s what you need to eat to survive,” he says. “So it keeps the kids interested and it keeps it fun.”

Arguably the best part of zombie camp comes on the last day. The two dozen middle school-age campers arm themselves with water guns, hide behind trees and prepare to take on a zombie horde.  

A group of about a dozen volunteer zombies shuffle their way across the wooded park the camp occupies in Aurora, Colorado, arms outstretched, and groaning.

These kids have been preparing for this moment all week. 

The kids say the self-defense lesson was the most helpful in evading the zombies. But camp director Lindsey Pesek has one final lesson.

“Because our zombies were volunteers can we say thank you?” she asks the campers.

Apparently you can use the apocalypse to teach good manners too.

As we’re wrapping up I give 11-year-old Angelo O’Dorisio well wishes against the zombie horde, telling him I hope the campers survive the coming undead apocalypse.

“Hope you survive too,” he says. “The last thing we want is killing someone from NPR.”

As KUNC’s managing editor and reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I edit and produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
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