Sometimes, people stonewall us
A letter from The Ledger's editor + a few updates
So far, we haven’t gotten answers to the troubling zipline fall at Camp Thunderbird. We’ll keep trying — because it’s the right thing to do.
The Ledger has been trying for nearly 3 months to learn more about how a 12-year-old girl fell from a zipline at Camp Thunderbird. The YMCA of Greater Charlotte refuses to give answers — but the story behind the story illustrates how The Ledger operates. (Ledger file photo of summer campers at Camp Thunderbird.)
Dear Ledger reader,
On the afternoon of June 14, I got a text message from a longtime Charlotte friend: “Got a potential story for you. Give me a call when you can.”
That’s the kind of message that piques a reporter’s interest — though I have learned over the years that sometimes people think they have big stories when they really don’t.
I called him, and he said his wife had read on a South Carolina moms’ Facebook group that a girl had fallen from the zipline at YMCA’s Camp Thunderbird and was in the hospital with serious injuries. He wanted to know if I had heard anything about that. I had not. But I said we would check it out.
That’s the genesis of several articles we have written at The Ledger over the last three months attempting to learn more information about what happened that day at Camp Thunderbird. I’m sharing this back-story with you to illuminate how we at The Ledger make decisions — and why having local reporters asking hard questions is vital to a community.
I’m a parent whose children have taken advantage of the Y’s programs. They’ve been to Y sleep-away camps and ridden the Y’s ziplines. And the news made me think of Camp Cheerio, a YMCA camp about two hours north of Charlotte.
In 2015, at Camp Cheerio, a 12-year-old girl from Wilmington named Sanders Burney fell to her death from the camp’s zipline when the lines got tangled and cut the rope connected to her harness. A few weeks earlier, at a family camp at Cheerio, my children had been on that same zipline. As a parent, those what-ifs stick with you: Could that have happened to my son or daughter?
Unfortunately, in this summer’s zipline fall at Camp Thunderbird, the YMCA of Greater Charlotte has been much less forthcoming than the YMCA of High Point, which runs Camp Cheerio. Within a few hours after I received that text from a friend, The Ledger’s Cristina Bolling, though her connections, tracked down a copy of an email the Y had sent to parents of campers on June 7 saying that “one of our campers experienced a fall from our zip line structure,” adding counseling was available and asking for prayers.
To its credit, the Y that night confirmed the girl’s fall from the zipline. It said it had closed its ziplines while the incident was under review. But it said it would not divulge information about what happened in order to “respect the privacy of the camper and her family.”
It has now been almost three months, and we’re no closer to knowing what happened that day on Camp Thunderbird’s zipline. We assigned a tenacious and experienced reporter, Michelle Crouch, to look into it. Michelle has reached out to counselors, campers and employees. She got ahold of the 911 call. She sought incident reports from the volunteer fire department and the sheriff’s office. Yet none of those shed much light on the basic question: What happened?
And the Y still refuses to answer the most basic and obvious questions. We have asked:
How often was the zipline inspected?
Did staff members under age 18 ever work the zipline?
Did the zipline conform to industry standards?
Has there been an investigation, and if so, what were the results, and who conducted it?
What steps is the Y taking to make sure this doesn’t happen again?
Courteous but no answers: The Y’s PR team always responds promptly to us, and they are courteous and professional. I know the Y does great work throughout the Charlotte area, especially with children. But on this issue, the Y is also choosing not to answer any of those questions, which it surely can answer. The Y is still citing the girl’s “privacy” — even though nobody is asking the Y for her name. Maybe lawyers are telling the Y to keep silent. To us, the refusal to be transparent and answer any questions on the grounds of “privacy” looks like an effort to avoid addressing what may be its own culpability for a 12-year-old falling off a zipline.
This has been a challenging story to report, but that’s what we do. It’s easy to rewrite press releases and proclaim them as news. Our approach is different: We try to draw on our experience and community connections to tell you things you don’t know, on the theory that with better information, people make better decisions about their lives. Sometimes, that involves asking uncomfortable questions that people don’t want to answer, or examining topics that some people would prefer to leave unexplored.
That approach doesn’t always win us friends. Over the last few years, people who have objected to “unfair” articles in The Ledger include real estate developers, car repair shops, county commissioners, Myers Park Country Club members, Charlotte Latin alums … and I could keep going. We work to be fair to everyone, and reasonable people can disagree whether we succeed. But we’re not going to shy away from difficult topics, or shelve them because an institution would prefer we ignore something that people are interested in. We’re not the marketing arm of the Y, hospital systems, local government, restaurants or any other organization. We work for our readers, whose support pays the bills for our efforts.
The YMCA of Greater Charlotte is a big organization. Its 2020 tax form lists 4,800 employees and revenues of $78 million. Its board is made up of well-known civic and business leaders.
If The Ledger didn’t exist, would anybody be asking the Y to explain itself? It doesn’t appear that way — except for an initial article by WFAE, no other media has shown interest. Without local journalists seeking answers to hard questions, we’re often left to trust large organizations to do the right thing, on their own, behind closed doors. Maybe you’re OK with that. I’m not.
As parents whose children participate in Y programs and have been to Camp Thunderbird, Cristina, Michelle and I understand that many people reasonably want to know: Is it safe? Is it OK to send my child there? Is the Y’s leadership taking this incident seriously? Are they hiding something?
Despite our best efforts, we’ve been unable to answer those questions for our readers.
At the moment, we’re at an impasse. If the Y would like to embrace transparency and provide some answers, we’re all ears. If any of our readers know anything, Michelle would be happy to talk.
We’re going to persevere, on this and on other topics, because we think our readers want answers. Actually, I know they do.
After our first story was published in June, my phone started lighting up with texts from friends who have camper-age kids.
“That story about Camp Thunderbird is really scary,” one friend wrote. “We were just at Camp Harrison last month, and all of our kids were doing high ropes.”
And my buddy who alerted me about the zipline fall couldn’t believe his tip actually turned out to be true. He said: “The Y should be better than this.”
We think so, too.
Related Ledger articles:
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What do you think? As always, we welcome your feedback, on our coverage of the Y or any other topic.
Other Ledger news: podcast, events board, growth
We like to update readers every few months. A few recent developments:
➡️ Podcasts. As you might have seen in the last couple weeks, we have released two podcasts, on the topic of Centene’s pullback from its big planned campus in University City. That’s a big story, and we wanted to go in-depth on it, so having conversations with smart people about what it means, and sharing those discussions with you, was a novel way to do that. We’ll do more in the future. We see this as a way to reach new audiences that might not know about The Ledger and to deliver information in a different way. They’re available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and other podcast platforms.
If you want to check them out:
The future of Charlotte office space, with Brett Gray of Cushman & Wakefield:
University City after the Centene pullback, with Darlene Heater of Panorama Holdings and Tobe Holmes of University City Partners:
➡️ Events board: Next week, The Ledger will be starting an events board. It will live on a website, and we will mention each listed event once in our main Ledger newsletter, which is sent to nearly 15,000 engaged readers. We envision organizations listing Charlotte-area events such as professional gatherings, charity fundraisers, cultural performances, panel discussions, school open houses and the like — and probably not that many beer-chug-a-thons — but it is open to all, and we will see how it develops.
The cost is $50 per event listing, and the form and payment can be submitted easily online. We want to connect our readers to events that are relevant to them, and we plan to reinvest any revenues from the events board into original journalism.
➡️ Growth: We continued growing over the summer — adding new subscribers at a predictable pace — so that’s always good. Our new reporter, Lindsey Banks, has quickly immersed herself in our operation and has written many fine articles already — profiling local charities, looking into Airbnb party houses in Elizabeth and investigating complaints about the appearance of Providence Road — and she is using her skills to double as a podcast producer. With a full-time staff of three, we are now able to be more unplugged while taking a vacation, while still keeping the newsletters coming, which is a big plus.
And last month, we surpassed 3,000 paying members, and our total list (free and paid) is approaching 15,000.
Our operation doesn’t succeed and grow without the hard work and support of a lot of people, including our freelance writers, business-side contractors, sponsors and paying members. Thank you to them — and to you.
Have a great Labor Day weekend. We’ll be back with regular issues on Tuesday.
— Tony Mecia, The Charlotte Ledger
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Executive editor: Tony Mecia; Managing editor: Cristina Bolling; Staff writer: Lindsey Banks; Contributing editor: Tim Whitmire, CXN Advisory; Contributing photographer/videographer: Kevin Young, The 5 and 2 Project