Camp Southern Ground gears up for 2015

An artist's rendering of the dining hall at Camp Southern Ground. Photo/Special.

By BONNIE HESTER

Intern for The Citizen

Construction and fundraising are kicking into high gear at Camp Southern Ground, the summer camp for typical children and children of special needs on the neurobehavioral spectrum aged 7-17 that is the realization of a lifelong dream for GRAMMY Award-winning musician Zac Brown. The camp is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization of which Zac is the founder and chairman of the board of directors.

While planning for the camp has been ongoing for several years, actual construction began only last summer as workers broke ground to lay roads on the more than 400 acres that make up the camp property on Ebenezer Church Road near Fayetteville.

One year later, things are about to pick up speed, as the camp’s Director of Construction Ben Ferguson reports that he expects the final plat for the property to be approved within the month, allowing construction to begin in earnest on several buildings this fall.

According to Ferguson and Vice President of Development Adam Meyer, the camp is currently slated to open for day-only programming in June 2015, with overnight operations beginning a year after that in June 2016.

To that effect, the next stage of development will focus on buildings and features most necessary for daytime activities, namely the dining hall and the outdoor adventure and aquatic areas.

Designs for the dining hall show a large, modern structure capable of serving a maximum of about 450 people at one time. Aside from feeding campers and staff, the building will house the nurse’s office and will provide a space large enough for the camp’s closing ceremonies and for sheltering occupants of the camp during inclement weather.

The outdoor adventure park will be located in the heart of camp and will include a bridge, trampoline area, climbing ropes, high and low ropes courses, climbing towers, zip-lines and an alpine tower.

Meyer stated that the goal of this area is to create a confidence course that will allow children with typical and special needs to work together as teams and have a “two-way learning experience” while at the same time making children on the neurobehavioral spectrum feel “supported and safe” as they interact with the other children.

Immediate plans for the aquatic area include a splash pad and spray park. Eventually, though possibly not in place for the first year of operation, there will be a pool and slide system as well. In addition, Ferguson reported that hiking and mountain biking trails will be in place throughout the camp grounds before next summer.

Lastly, an organic demonstration garden is being designed on the property as part of the “Farm to Table” program.

Located near the site of the dining hall, it will give children the opportunity to care for fruits and vegetables that they will then harvest and deliver to the dining hall for meal preparation.

Meyer explained that chefs at the camp will be “committed to healthy diets” for the kids, as research has shown nutrition is linked to the severity of some of the conditions of the children with neurobehavioral special needs, so eating the right foods is an important part of their treatment.

This small demonstration garden will supplement produce from a 15-acre plot on the grounds that has been registered as a USDA farm. This farm will be managed by Larry Dove, an organic farmer who owns and operates Two Doves Organic Farm immediately north of the camp.

Meyer stated that camp leadership has decided to follow a plan of phased construction in order to have the majority of outdoor activities available by next summer, as they feel the need to begin operations as soon as possible in response to the high level of interest they have received from parents of children on the spectrum for autism.

This interest is explained by the fact that there are relatively few camps available that are capable of caring for these children with the proper level of monitoring and adaptation.

Meyer explained that what makes Camp Southern Ground different is the integration of programming between typical children and children of special needs.

“Our curriculum is designed for these kids to have an unforgettable experience,” he commented, adding that it is “really positive” for these children to have the opportunity to interact and make friends with children who are not on the spectrum.

Ferguson noted that this interaction offers motivation and support to children on the spectrum to stretch themselves to achieve things they never knew they could do.

Both the daytime sessions next summer and the overnight sessions after that will last approximately one week each, with a maximum weekly occupancy of about 250 campers; about 20-30 percent of those 250 will be children with special needs. In order to ensure that the camp is accessible to everyone, scholarships will be available to help those in need afford it.

Looking beyond next summer’s day-only model, Ferguson detailed the plans for several other structures that will be part of the camp’s full operations.

Most importantly, three lodges will be constructed to house campers. Two of the lodges will be separate girls’ and boys’ quarters, and in between these two buildings will be the respite lodge, a dormitory area designed specifically to maximize the comfort of children with special needs.

Other buildings will include a multi-purpose building, technology center, welcome pavilion, music center, arts building, and utility buildings such as a pole barn and a waste treatment plant.

This technology center, in addition to being part of the “brains” of the camp, will allow campers to interact via classroom sharing technology with children in Ghana who are part of the Children Inspiring Hope program, a nonprofit which facilitates the interaction of children of different cultures in order to stimulate in these children creativity, empathy, and ambition to make a better world through collaboration.

As for the off-season, the camp will host retreats for parents of children with special needs in which researchers will explain the latest research into those conditions and will discuss best practices for parenting. There has also been discussion of renting out the dining hall to groups in need of a large meeting place.

So where did the inspiration for Camp Southern Ground come from? Ferguson explains that this dream was first born when Zac Brown attended and later worked at Camp Glisson in Dahlonega, a camp which features an award-winning program for children with developmental disabilities called Camp Sparrowwood.

“Going to Camp Glisson really impacted Zac — it changed his world,” Ferguson said. “From that moment on, he said, ‘This is what I was meant to do with my life.’” Ferguson expressed his joy at seeing Zac’s lifelong pursuit come to fruition. “It is a privilege to be part of this, a lifetime dream, especially something that I thought there was a slim chance of it ever happening…now we know it’s happening.”

Camp Southern Ground officials have worked directly with Camp Glisson throughout the planning process, visiting Dahlonega several times and modeling many programming decisions after the successful institution, including a very low counselor-to-camper ratio to ensure the safety and comfort of children on the spectrum.

To further serve the best interests of these children, the camp is partnering with several well-respected camps and organizations (including the American Camp Association) to hire and train a competent, compassionate team of full-time professional staff, seasonal camp counselors, and volunteers. The camp will also be working with medical personnel, therapists, and other special needs experts.

Funding for the camp has so far come primarily through Zac’s contributions (he donates a portion of all the proceeds from his business ventures as well as his concerts) and through donations that have originated through word-of-mouth advertising.

Though the capital fundraising campaign is just starting up, the camp has already raised $24 million, leaving $16 million to go to reach the projected $40 million needed to complete construction of the first three phases of the project.

Meyer explained that as they move into the next phase of construction, they are now looking to move into the next stage of fundraising as well.

“We’re in a critical stage in the project where we really feel we need to enroll others in participating at the highest levels of fundraising for the next year or two to stay on schedule to make this project happen … Zac has been incredibly generous and continues to be on a regular basis, but in order to make this camp a reality, we need to have everyone interested onboard because this is something that goes beyond just Zac, it’s a group effort,” Meyer stated.

To learn more about Camp Southern Ground, visit www.CampSouthernGround.org.

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