You would think Leigh Longino, ’95, loved camping as a child, considering she made a career out of it. “That’s the joke,” she said. “I definitely didn’t care for that kind of thing.”
But she does now. And it’s not simply about sing-alongs. As CEO of Raleigh, N.C.-based Camp Corral since 2017, she spearheads an organization that has sent more than 24,000 children of ill, wounded, fallen, or injured military service members to a week away from their troubles and towards valuable life skills.
“We say that Camp Corral itself is not signing up for therapy,” she said. “However, we go through coping skills with a trained individual. We know when they’re not at camp and are back at home that things can get tough or challenging. Campers can learn ‘this is how I can support my veteran parent and myself in the healthiest way.’”
It’s also about building a community for children that they may not otherwise have at home.
“Many families don’t live around [military] bases so they often feel isolated in their own areas,” she said. “Kids come to camp and find a community of children like them so they can talk and share openly with their cabin mates and stay in touch and provide support throughout the year for each other. This in itself is a way to be resilient and work and live in a challenging household.”
But in many ways, it’s like any camp. With a mix of first-time and returning campers, they come with different levels of excitement and nervousness, but traditional summer camp activities await: swimming, canoeing, kayaking, zip-lining, archery, arts and crafts, horses, and rock climbing, to name just a few.
Camp Corral also has a portion of counselors waiting who might have different and vital insight. Serving children ages 8 to 15, the camp has been around long enough now that attendees come back as counselors.
“And that is a great gift – they received camping experience during their developmental years and then they feel the compassion to give back, to come back and help these campers,” said Longino.
She tells the story of a counselor who worked at a camp in Northern California. He walked up to one of Camp Corral’s board members and described his first summer as a camper.
“It was when he was in a dark place as an 11-year-old whose father had come home from war a very different person. He saw no hope in his life and his father’s life,” said Longino.
At camp, he was greeted with high fives by counselors whose expression of love for him brought him out of a deep depression. He came back several times and looked forward to it each year.
“He’s gone on to study child psychology at school and is dedicating his life’s work to supporting these children,” said Longino.
A Growing Corral
As CEO, Longino grew the team from a staff of three people to six full-time employees. She also had a huge breakthrough during her tenure as chief operation officer for the camp from 2015-17.
“I was able to facilitate a three-year partnership commitment with partners who had been with us a couple of years,” she said. “Strengthening our partnerships helped to serve more campers at a better negotiated price and, therefore, be able to fulfill our mission even more. That ultimately helped our goal to send more kids to camp.”
With 19 different camps in 17 states, it’s a national organization that truly affects children from coast to coast. Longino notes that it was founded by restaurant chain Golden Corral in 2011 and continues to be supported by the 500+ location operator.
It’s safe to say the restaurant chain considers Longino “golden” as well.
“Leigh brings two attributes to her role above all others and they are passion for our mission and authenticity in leadership,” said Lance Trenary, president and CEO of Golden Corral. “She leads with her heart, which in the nonprofit world is invaluable.”
Of course, that last part can make it difficult to handle the job’s toughest challenge. “Unfortunately, we can’t serve every military family that we’d like … yet,” she said. “It’s so difficult to not come through for them all but that just fuels your passion to do more.”
She previously worked for N.C.-based YMCA of the Triangle for eight years in the roles of senior director of risk management, director of Go Global Programs, and senior program director of Camp Sea Gull and Camp Seafarer. “These roles allowed me to see many different sides and expanded my decision-making abilities.”
Where Longino Learned Leadership
Longino is not short on words in her praise of her time at Meredith College, considering the experience pivotal in the development of her as a person. And it’s not just a fond memory, but practically a daily part of her life.
“Any woman at Meredith is given the opportunity of leadership and most of them take it,” she said. “My growth as a leader and as a woman I attribute a lot to my time at the school. I have love and support from my family but I still have close bonds with my Meredith friends. I’ve had 10 texts today with them. We get together constantly and it really is a powerful institution that is so well respected.”
Longino highlights being a part of event planning committees, including for Cornhuskin’ and White Iris Ball, as two of her favorite college opportunities, and she looks at her education as an economics major as vital to her present position.
“I enjoy math and so my coursework in our math classes and in that track kept me engaged and then the business lessons as well,” she said. “I believe regardless of anyone’s career path everyone needs to know business, how to build a business, and how to negotiate. My economics degree helped me to strategically look at and forecast numbers and turn products into numbers, and in nonprofit work, that turns into serving more people in your mission.”
Growing up in Portsmouth, VA, Longino had a chance to see firsthand some of the difficulties of military life. A city with a large population of Navy and Coast Guard families, Longino’s family were civilians but she would often have to say goodbye to friends she had made and sometimes see uncertainty in their eyes as they headed off for their next destination. And that, she always remembers, may be the least of these campers’ problems.
“If we help them, we also help their families,” she said. “It’s an honor that we have the chance.”