Curry Runs Tents For Troops Charity, Resort
Charlie Curry, the general manager of Toutle River RV Resort in Castle Rock, Wash., has turned his job into a passion for serving the men and women who work in America’s armed forces.
If his name rings a bell for most people in the campground sector and the RV industry at large, it’s because of his founding of Tents for Troops is a nationwide program currently active in 47 states in which campgrounds and RV parks give away two free nights of camping to active-duty military members and their families. Just about 300 parks are signed up for the service, and Curry expects more to join the network this summer.
He started offering free nights to military members at his own park about nine years ago. At that time, he was managing a band of Australian musicians who had recorded a song titled “Children of America” that was a tribute to the soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen who had protected the island country.
“After I heard the song, I thought to myself here these kids from Australia were doing more to honor our military than I was, and that’s when I came up with the idea that became Tents for Troops,” said Curry.
His goal is to reach 2,500 campgrounds, including all the family friendly RV parks in the country. Rhode Island, North Dakota and Hawaii are the only states without at least one member park.
“It doesn’t cost a campground a penny because they provide service only when they have unsold space,” said Curry. “Campgrounds can block out holidays and other big weekends. We never want them to give away a site that could have been rented — just donate sites that would have otherwise sat vacant.”
Troops seeking to use a free site must contact the campground directly to confirm availability. Drop-ins are not allowed, he explained.
Tents for Troops can give campgrounds a letter certifying the donation’s retail value, which can then be deducted as a charitable contribution. The organization is a 501(c)(3) charity and all cash donations or gifts in kind, like donated campsites, are deductible.
“Our service members love it and I get letters all the time thanking us for making the camping available, and our campgrounds often hear from them, too,” he explained.
While giving away a site to a military member, campgrounds are many times selling a site or two to the member’s friends and extended family who want to enjoy a vacation together.
Many of the member parks display the Tents for Troops logo on their homepage to promote the program and show support for the U.S. military. Curry is visiting and calling military bases around the country to make sure the servicemen and -women are aware of the program.
“A free campsite is very much appreciated by our service people who really don’t make a lot of money, but who make considerable sacrifices for our country working very stressful jobs,” he added. “About 95% of the troops who take advantage of the program are between 18 and 25 years old with one or two children.”
In addition to his tireless advocacy for Tents for Troops, Curry is the developer of Toutle River, a 306-site campground spread over 59 acres along Interstate 5 and adjacent to the Cowlitz River halfway between Olympia, Wash., and Portland, Ore. The site is bordered by a railroad track and can accommodate another 250 RVs in a designated rally area.
The parcel is almost a mile long and shaped like a skinny piece of pizza, he noted. But Curry packed a lot of activity into the property he started building in 2003 before opening in 2008. He also planted 4,000 trees.
The campground offers a nine-hole disc-golf course, a new softball field, and a giant croquette course where players use soccer balls and Big Foot mallets to compete. There are three volleyball courts in the park, and a full basketball court under a roof. Kids can ride bikes along a designated BMX trail or on the four miles of roads in the park.
Curry installed two wooden saunas that are centrally located for all campers and large enough to accommodate up to 10 people.
Because pets are always welcome – and always finding ways to get dirty – Curry created a special dog bath where pooches can get cleaned up before heading back to the RV.
All of the amenities are provided free of charge to guests, with the exception of a $10 deposit to use a golf disc.
There are five covered pavilions that can accommodate groups between 40 and 3,000 people.
The smaller pavilion is used to show family friendly movies on a big screen, and plans are to make the 60-inch screen even bigger with a better sound system to help drown out the traffic noise 50 yards away. Guests munch on free popcorn while movies are playing almost every summer night.
The office area includes a large store with plenty of food items, toys, souvenirs and even rental movies. An enclosed pool is next to a patio that features a sitting area where families can grill out. There is also a banquet room capable of seating up to 175 people with access to a full kitchen.
In fact, Toutle River has three outdoor kitchens, each set up with refrigerators and barbecue grills. A smokehouse near the main pavilion is available for guest use. Many people just smoke beef jerky, but a wedding party used it to cook up 20 prime ribs.
The tip of the lot’s pizza slice can’t be used for RV sites because there’s no way for the units to turn around. So Curry created an exercise trail with more than a dozen different stations.
That trail leads down to a picnic area near the delta of the Toutle and Cowlitz rivers where people can also enjoy fishing along 150 feet of water frontage. Curry even set up a campfire ring, picnic tables and playground for guests to use.
“I would say 90% of our guests walk down there at some point during their stay,” he explained. “It’s a great destination for a family walk.”
An Unexpected Mix of Guests
One thing that greatly surprised Curry was how many tent campers flock to Toutle River each summer, a figure he estimates at 20% of total occupancy.
“When I first worked up my business plan, I estimated most of our guests would be senior citizens. I could not have been more wrong,” said Curry. “In summer, we are virtually full of families and have hundreds of, if not a thousand, kids running around the park.
“I know most RV parks don’t like to serve tenters, but it works for us. Even our seasonal guests are middle age and younger,” he added.
About 35% of the campsites are occupied by long-term guests. But to prevent the park from becoming “cliquey,” the seasonal sites are scattered around the property rather than confined into one permanent area. He said seasonal campers don’t seem to mind at all.
“They get to meet different neighbors every week and everyone just seems to get along well regardless of whether they are staying for a few days or a few months,” he explained.
Beyond helping the military, Curry believes in giving back to the local community. He often allows school groups and community organizations to use the pavilions at no cost. This spring, the park allowed the high school track team to set up a 175-foot portable pole vault ramp in the largest pavilion.
“The coach approached Ed Cutright, the owner of our park, and explained that it was a real hassle for the team to keep setting up and breaking down the specialized ramp leading to the pole, and wondered if we could help,” said Curry. “We also open the space up to scouting groups and church youth groups looking for a place to host a big overnight event.”
The pavilion is also a popular spot for local wedding receptions and class reunions. A nearby building that once served as the park’s office is now used as a dressing room for brides and grooms. Curry plans to add six tables with umbrellas to the deck area and allow people to use it for potluck dinners.
Finding an Innovative Internet Solution
“I installed a T-1 connection in the park several years ago that worked well for a long time,” he explained. “But, with more guests bringing more devices that connect to the Internet, the speed has slowed to a trickle.”
Unfortunately, he is in an area where he can’t bring in a stronger signal by wire, so he’s pursuing a more high-tech option. Internet signal strength is strong directly across the river from the campground. So he worked out a deal with a homeowner who faces the campground.
Technicians installed a special antenna on the home and beam an Internet signal to the park, which will then be distributed to 12 new towers. The homeowner gets free ultra-high-speed Internet and Toutle River guests will enjoy surfing speeds that rival the best connections in the industry, Curry explained.
It is going to be a busy summer for Toutle River RV Park. Reservations are ahead of last year, and a mild spring brought campers to the park earlier this year.
“The park has become my life, and the guests have become my family,” he said. “I get to know them and about 80% of our families are return customers. It’s a lot of work, and pretty expensive to maintain a campground. But I couldn’t ask for a better lifestyle.”
For more information on Toutle River RV Park, visit www.greatrvresort.com.