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One Big Happy Family

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

“We welcome everyone,” says Stella Webster of Dayton, Ohio. The National African-American
RVers Association (NAARVA) is “like a big happy family,” and when you’re a member you’re
part of the family, no matter what your color.” Stella was in large part responsible for
the founding of the group, which now claims more than 2,000 members. NAARVA was founded in
1993. Membership has grown from 52 coaches to more than 1,000, with members in all but a
dozen states and several in Canada. And, despite the name, not all members are
African-American. “My husband and I have traveled in a lot of states where you don’t see
many black campers, and we’ve sometimes felt that we weren’t really welcome at campgrounds
and elsewhere,” says the soft-spoken Stella, who logs thousands of miles a year with her
husband, Richard, in their 1995 Coachmen Class A. “I mentioned that somebody needed to
start an RV group for African-Americans – and my husband said I should be the one to do
it,” says Stella, who retired from a government job in information systems management. She
suggested the idea to a couple of friends, Ezra Moore and William Blake; both are chaplains
at Dayton’s Veterans Administration Hospital. They were enthusiastic and suggested Norman
Ellis, of Cincinnati, would be aggressive enough to get it going. “I had observed that a
lot of African-Americans owned RVs, but for some reason they weren’t traveling,” Norman
says. Norman arranged an organizational meeting in a Cincinnati campground. The owners of
52 motorhomes came to the meeting. The following year, a similar gathering was held in
Belleville, Ohio – only this time, 85 coaches rolled in. Word of mouth alone had spread the
news that a club for African-American RVers was being formed. After that second successful
gathering, participants decided it was time to write a constitution and come up with a
name; Stella’s suggestion won. Norman drafted a constitution with her help, and it was
approved by the membership. Guidelines were developed, and a slate of national officers was
chosen. Dues were established, a logo was designed, and the decision was made to hold a
national rally every year. “Among the reasons for the annual rally are to socialize with
old friends and generate new members,” Norman says. “But the main purpose is to give back
to the community. We take up several collections during the rallies, then give the money to
a needy local church or other charitable organization.” Rallies are held in a different
city every year, so all members can attend at least some of them. Attendance has snowballed
every year, Norman says. He expects more than 1,000 to attend next year’s rally. Soon after
NAARVA was established, Norman suggested it be subdivided into five regions, each with its
own director. Members of the regional groups may hold gatherings as often as they like,
but, according to bylaws, they must meet at least once a year. Kenneth Lee is director of
the Central Region. He and his wife, Francine, who live in Cincinnati and travel in a 1995
Winnebago Itasca, learned about the newly created club while attending a jazz festival in
their home town. Impressed with the group, they joined eight years ago and soon became
deeply involved, attending rallies and frequently traveling in caravans with other members.
Kenneth, an electrician, is in his third year as regional director. Francine, a
tool-and-die maker for an aircraft-engine firm, is now national director of public
relations for the association. “We have members from all walks of life – judges, ministers,
engineers, factory workers, housewives – but mostly professional fields,” Kenneth says.
“About 40 percent are retirees, and 95 percent drive Class A motorhomes.” In addition to
making donations to charities, NAARVA awards five $1,000 college scholarships every year to
family members. A committee chooses the winners based on essays they write about their most
memorable camping experience. Francine says, “A lot of us travel with our children and
grandchildren; you can’t teach them about camping by waving goodbye as you drive off down
the street.” At a four-day gathering in St. Charles, Missouri, 50 of the 300 people were
children. The Lees say they enjoy the camaraderie of the rallies. But they also benefit
from the many seminars that deal with various aspects of RVing. “Our group includes experts
in many fields,” says Kenneth. “We often don’t need to go beyond our ranks to find
knowledgeable people to give the seminars.” The couple also enjoys the strictly fun aspects
of rallies: the auctions, cakewalks, craft sales, music, catered or potluck dinners, dances
and campfires. Longtime RVers William and Martha McClain, of Jeffersonville, Indiana, are
among NAARVA’s charter members. William says they spend many weeks a year on the road and
have never missed a rally. He points to the logo on his T-shirt, that of the Kentuckyiana
RVers club, which they also belong to, and claims it sums up his philosophy: “Broaden your
horizons – camp and acquire new friends.” National African-American RVers Association, P.O.
Box 24733, Richmond, Virginia 23234; naarva.com.

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