The Residential Tourists
How one family combines homeschooling with exploring all that Oak Island and Southport have to offer.
It was a sunny morning, with both the Oak Island and Bald Head lighthouses visible from the Old Bridge as early mist lifted from the Intracoastal Waterway. Jennifer Henry, who had moved to Leland from Asheville a few years before, took her older daughter to kindergarten and was driving over the bridge with her baby to visit a house the family was building on Oak Island. As the car reached the bridge’s summit, the Atlantic visible on the horizon, her mind switched gears.
“I said to myself, it’s a beautiful day and my daughter is going to be in school a long time, and she’s missing this,” Henry says. “I was coming over the bridge and I felt, right at that moment, let’s try homeschooling and see if it works for our family. “We will be living on Oak Island, where there are so many places for hands-on learning; let’s see if this works for our kids.”
Now the Henry family’s homeschool, Long Beach Preparatory Academy, is in its seventh year. They have been island residents since 2017 and have experienced the crowded version of the island, when 50,000 guests descend on the town and Southport for the Fourth of July, and the quiet version, when the only footprints on a nearly empty beach are made by older couples walking dogs.
The 12-mile-long island’s permanent population has increased from 8,501 in 2020 to 9,683 in 2023, partly attributed to COVID when North Carolina ranked seventh, nationally, for relocating. Henry has found that the island has adjusted, with more activities and locally owned businesses catering to children and teens.
“With more people working from home and more jobs adapting to remote work, it allowed people who had wanted to move, but were tied to a location, to go ahead and make that transition to where they wanted to live,” Henry says.
“I’ve talked with a lot of people who had a second home here, but made it their only home because they could. And businesses are recognizing that, and a good number of the townspeople are starting businesses as well and catering to families with younger kids. It’s good that we no longer have to drive to Leland, or Wilmington, for children’s activities.”
Henry’s oldest daughter, Vivian, is 12 now. Her younger daughter, Ruby, is 7. Baby brother Zeke is 3. The family (with dad Jon) belongs to a homeschool co-op that meets on Mondays at Southport’s Trinity United Methodist Church, where they do geography and science class as a group.
“For other classes, I use a variety, not one specific curriculum, just what’s best for each child in each subject,” she says. “Some courses are online, and others I fully help with everything. I like to have a schedule with lesson plans so we know what we’re focusing on for the week and month, and hopefully the year. We do school in the morning, then activities in the afternoon.”
The afternoon part, is when Henry’s children transform into explorers and athletes and taste-testers and actors and musicians, and Oak Island and Southport become territories to conquer as Mom drives, each flick of the turn signal leading to a new adventure. She names names.
“Southport Suzie’s has ice cream, but they also have family trivia night. And Horseplay Farms off Midway (on Clemmons Road SE), offers Saturday morning times for kids for $5 to learn how to take care of the horses, and they learn all sorts of horsemanship. Great program,” she says.
“The otters at the aquarium (North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher) are really cute,” Vivian says, “and they have a whole habitat for them, and they had a little nest in the back they were sleeping in. It was fun to take the ferry and feed the seagulls from the back.”
“My youngest daughter loves birds,” Henry continues, “so we went to see Mary Ellen (Rogers) at the Sea Biscuit Wildlife Shelter, where she takes care of injured birds. And right off the island, there’s Seaside Dance, and there’s Waterway Music, where Vivian does group guitar lessons.”
They are also involved in Starbright Youth Theater, a local musical theater group that encourages voice, acting and dance and holds performances at Brunswick Community College’s Odell Williamson Auditorium. They like to visit Inergy Market, on Oak Island Drive, a specialty grocery locally owned by a homeschool family.
“I like the Art Time place (on Oak Island Drive next to Salt 64), and the skate park, because there are lots of ramps for scooters and bikes for little kids, too,” Vivian says.
The family enjoys contributing to the community as well. Henry has planned a fundraising event for WAVES 4 K.I.D.S, a volunteer-run organization that supports children and youth in the foster system and other difficult situations in Brunswick County. The event, scheduled for February 4 from 4 to 7 pm, is called Darling Daughter Dance. It’s an opportunity for fathers, grandfathers, uncles and special friends to chaperone their favorite girls for an evening of fun while supporting a great local cause.
Vivian has a monthly, online homeschool newsletter that chronicles visits to area businesses. She has 61 subscribers.
Any child can submit to the newsletter, Henry says. “We just ask that the submissions be kind and respectful and nonviolent, and be original, whether they have artwork or a poem. If they have a writing talent, they are welcome to submit that.”
Southport’s slogan is “The Home of the Salubrious Breezes,” which means favorable to or promoting health or well-being. Oak Island’s is “A Place to Coast” and lists 23 activities under Public Parks and Recreation, including a splash pad, par 3 golf, basketball and pickleball courts, playgrounds, a baseball field, an amphitheater and a community center.
“There are so many options for field trips, some of them for fun, some educational,” Henry says. “There are local people who want to share their knowledge. So we find them, and we hear their stories and their wisdom. We work hard to make sure each child gets what they need to grow.”
To learn more about all the fun things for kids and teens to do in the area:
Subscribe to Vivian Henry’s newsletter by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Photography by Katie D Photography