ROBERTA -- It is six miles to the nearest traffic light, another 14 to the closest McDonald’s.
But cheeseburgers and red lights don’t really matter at Camp Grace.
This is the country. And the country is cool.
Mornings and afternoons are filled with the sounds of children laughing, swimming, playing and praying.
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At night, it is so peaceful you can look up and count a million stars.
Dave Pridemore, the camp’s executive director, calls Camp Grace the “best-kept secret in Georgia.”
Maybe not for long. It keeps growing. The word is getting out.
In another two years, Pridemore expects the camp’s enrollment to triple, reaching out to more than 3,000 youths during seven weeks in June and July. These young people come from the inner-city neighborhoods of Atlanta, Macon, Columbus, Albany and other Georgia cities.
So it is something of a culture shock when they arrive in the middle of large fields off Walkers Chapel Road in rural Crawford County, where they are surrounded by dirt paths, tall pines, large lakes and lots of love.
They find the place. Or the place finds them.
Then they find themselves. And many of them find Jesus. They accept Christ as their Lord and saviour.
The mission of Camp Grace (www.thecampgrace.com) is to “connect with like-minded partners in transforming the lives of “underserved” youth in Georgia’s urban areas.
Among the 33 statewide “partners” is Macon’s Campus Clubs, a nonprofit ministry and after-school program for at-risk children and their families in the Pleasant Hill neighborhood.
Each child is asked to raise $25 to attend the camp, and “partner” programs, such as Campus Club, provide $75 per child. Camp Grace takes care of the rest of the bill -- $360 per child -- through donations and sponsorships from individuals, companies, organizations and churches.
More than 1,000 campers will each spend six days at seven different camps this summer. The camp’s third session concludes today, and another 150 youths ages 7-18 will arrive Monday. There are about 50 counselors and staff members.
Pridemore said statistics show there are more than 600,000 youths living below the poverty line in the state. At Camp Grace, a youngster is typically from a single-parent home, lives in Section 8 housing and receives government assistance through school lunch programs.
“We show them Christ is the answer,” Pridemore said. “We have lots of team building and teach them about responsibility, integrity and learning to cooperate with others. A lot of them have tempers when they come here. But, by the end of the week, they’re crying because they don’t want to go home.”
Idea long in the making
The Camp Grace facility in Crawford County is in its sixth summer of weekly camps. It has grown every year. But Pridemore’s vision for the camp began as far back as 2001, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. A friend asked him to serve as chaplain at a camp in New York.
At the time, Pridemore was evangelism pastor at Fellowship Bible Church in Roswell. He grew up in Ohio and had attended Ohio State, where he was a cheerleader. After college, he worked with the Ohio Bell phone company and was transferred to Atlanta with Southern Bell in 1978.
That same year, his cousin, Tom Pridemore, was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons out of West Virginia and spent the next eight seasons as Atlanta’s starting free safety.
Dave Pridemore helped start the cellular mobile business for Southern Bell. He became a Christian in 1980 and left the corporate world in 1983 to attend seminary. He pastored churches in Florida, New York and Georgia before fully devoting his time, energy and resources to Camp Grace.
The 2002 camp in New York was centered on using basketball as means to reach inner-city youths. Its director was the chaplain for the Knicks, and NBA players Charlie Ward and Alan Houston helped out with the camp.
“I came back and started researching how many camps there were in Georgia that were exclusively for poor kids,” Pridemore said. “There were some smaller ones, but none of them were high capacity or high quality.”
Pridemore, who lives in Cumming, was able to lease Strong Rock Camp and Retreat in Cleveland for four summers. When he sought other venues, he got a chilly reception.
“I told them I wanted to bring in 500 inner-city youth, and I was denied,” he said. “I guess they thought the kids would tear the place up. That’s when I knew we needed our own place.”
When he learned about the property in Crawford County, he admits he had to look it up on a map.
“I didn’t know where it was,” he said. “I was not familiar with this part of the state, which is beautiful. This was the prettiest property I looked at, and the only one on a paved road with county water.”
The first time he walked the property, he paced off the steps from the tree line to the lake and knew his vision had found a home. He bought 186 acres, then another 114. The first phase, Frontier Town, is built to resemble a fort. Other phases include a Hoop Town and Extreme Town.
The camp has a current bed capacity of 300, with each cabin-like room keeping with a Wild West theme. The daily schedule includes worship time. Each camper selects three electives -- anything from music, dance, archery, equestrian and other activities.
Pridemore also oversees a Camp Grace in Kingston, New York. It is about half the size as the one in Georgia, with about 550 participants expected this summer.
By the time his work is done, he hopes to operate five camps in five cities.
“Everything I do is by faith,” he said.
Contact Ed Grisamore at 744-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org