FOR GEORGIA NATIVE ZAC BROWN, front man of the multi-platinum, Grammy-award winning Zac Brown Band, performing for sold-out crowds across the nation is second nature. But last November, there was a greater purpose as he took the stage at The Coca-Cola Roxy in Atlanta for the Night of Candles benefit concert, which raised more than $1 million for his passion project, Camp Southern Ground.
From the stage, Brown regaled his audience with memories from his own summers at North Georgia camps such as Camp Glisson in Dahlonega and Camp Mikell in Toccoa.
“[Camp] was a place that inspired me to have courage to be myself,” Brown said. His experience led him to become a counselor, and then a camp staff member, all the while nurturing a dream to launch his own camp. As his music career took off, he used his resources to make that dream a reality, purchasing approximately 400 acres in Fayetteville. Camp Southern Ground hosted its first summer camp in 2017 and launched programming for veterans in 2019. Today, it continues to change lives, one kid—and veteran—at a time.
A CAMP FOR ALL KIDS
What sets Camp Southern Ground apart is its inclusivity; in fact, it’s one of the first programs in the country to be accredited by the National Inclusion Project.
“We identify particular communities we want to serve and build out whatever addi-tional resources or accommodations [they require],” said camp director Scott Hicok. This includes kids from underserved geo-graphical areas, children of military families, and kids with neuro-diverse backgrounds such as autism alongside neuro-typical kids.
Camp directors and staff work hard to accommodate each camper’s individual needs with resources such as specialized counselors, behavioral experts and even service dogs. Interestingly, despite all the behind-the-scenes work it takes to create this melting pot of demographics, the camp experience from the kids’ perspective is not so different from any other summer camp.
“It looks just like kids making friends and having fun,” Hicok said. Still, the effort has a significant influence on the lasting impact this camp makes on its campers.
That effort is exactly what makes camp so monumental for kids like Ben Bowden, an 11-year-old with ADHD who attended last summer.
Veterans find community during Warrior Week.
“Ben was struggling in school, struggling to make friends and connect to his peers,” said his mom, Christina Bowden. “Ever since camp, he’s had a lot more confidence … Of all the counseling and behavioral therapies [Ben has had], this is one of the things that has made [the most] difference in his life.”
But it’s not just kids with differences—about a third of the camper population— who benefit from the inclusive model.
“We fully believe that our camp is better for typical kids because we have kids with differences,” Hicok said. “It’s better because it’s an opportunity to see a world that’s bigger than yourself.”
Regardless of background, Camp Southern Ground emphasizes three main goals for every camper: to grow unique gifts, healthy bodies, and good communities.
For the first few days each kid goes through all the camp’s core activities, which run the gamut from arts and crafts to archery and sports. The goal is to expose campers to a wide range of activities, many they have never tried before, so they can discover their own unique gifts.
“They help kids realize that they can’t do everything, and that’s okay, but you’re great at something and that’s worth cele-brating,” Bowden said.
All campers spend time in a 12-acre organic garden.
To grow healthy bodies, cuisine at Camp Southern Ground is a far cry from your typical camp fare, thanks largely to fresh produce coming from an onsite 12-acre, USDA-certified organic farm. Not only do they consume many of the fresh grown foods in meals that are gluten-, soy- and nut-free, all campers spend time working right in the garden, giving them both physical exercise and an appreciation for where their food comes from. In addi-tion, campers participate in a wide range of outdoor activities, encouraging physical movement, and the entire camp is screen-free.
The premise behind growing strong communities goes back to the camp’s emphasis on inclusion.
“Watching a typical kid figure out that his new friend with autism is talented in a bunch of ways, that’s probably something he doesn’t get to see in a school setting or on a soccer team,” Hicok said. “It happens only in an environment like this. And it builds this community of acceptance instead of tolerance.”
Warrior Week helps veterans reintegrate into the civilian sector.
Camp Southern Ground serves kids for eight weeks each summer; so what about the rest of the year? In 2017, Brown and the camp’s executive team hosted a series of vision development workshops to discuss additional programming. They brought in experts from around the nation with exper-tise in such areas as nutrition, Autism and military relations.
“Zac had a lot of veterans [in his network] and saw the need for reintegra-tion back into the civilian sector,” said Jake Dukes, vice president of strategic initiatives.
Warrior Week, Camp Southern Ground’s flagship veteran program, emerged as the result of those workshops and a generous grant from AT&T, which wanted to make an impact on veterans leaving service and entering the corporate workforce.
“Our mission is to help individuals identify their unique strengths, magnify that in themselves and others in order to profoundly impact the world,” Dukes said.
Focusing on both personal and pro-fessional development, Warrior Week is a 12-month program that starts with a week of intensive training at Camp Southern Ground. The program relies on two assessments—Strengths Finder and the Enneagram—to take veterans on a path of self-discovery.
“We want to help veterans identify their strengths, define their purpose and develop a plan after service,” Dukes said.
During Warrior Week, instruction, panels and sessions surrounding the six dimensions of wellness—occupational, physical, spiritual, emotional, social and intellectual—are balanced with outdoor activities, physical therapy and team-building. One night, professional song-writers come to help veterans process emotions through music. After the first week, veterans participate in programming to reinforce wellness strategies, regular communication, and monthly coaching calls for the remaining 12 months.
The Space Crab Treehouse for campers.
“There’s drastic transformation that takes place,” Dukes said. “We have veterans tell us all the time that they have no safe place to talk about the real trauma and real challenges they face. And when they come to Camp Southern Ground, it’s a place of safety and understanding … they’re no longer walking alone.”
Though the kids and veterans pro-grams play out differently, a common thread runs through everything Camp Southern Ground does: Helping each person identify their own gifts and talents, and in turn, empowering them to change the world.
“Camp changed my life,” Zac Brown emphasized to his audience here in Atlanta. “I want to dedicate my life to [giving] that same change [to others]. We pull together to make a difference, and then take that out to make the world a better place.
CAMP SOUTHERN GROUND
100 Southern Ground Pkwy., Fayetteville
The camp’s residential lodge.
NIGHT OF CANDLES 2020
Mark your calendars: The benefit show for Camp Southern Ground, featuring food, drinks, an auction, and special performance by Zac Brown Band, returns this year on October 30. Fundraising is key, as most kids attend summer camp on some sort of scholarship, and all veteran programs are funded entirely by the camp’s own efforts.