Jimmy Lee Wages remembers going to Madison County’s Camp Maranatha as a kid and enjoying the summer days of horse riding, swimming and games with other children.
The 210-acre camp on Floyd Road off Hwy. 98 has always had a special feel for the Madison County native.
“I think of camp as a refuge,” said Wages, who now serves as the camp’s assistant director, and whose mother, Linda, has long volunteered as a cook and head of the kitchen. “For me, it’s always been a steady, stable place, a place that I can come back to.”
That notion of “refuge” is integral to the camp, which opened in 1961 with the aim of providing kids, particularly those in need, with a memory-making — and free — week-long experience in the summer.
Every year, about 700-to-900 children ages 9 to 13 spend a week at the campgrounds. They must check their phones, videogame players and other assorted gadgets at the door. The week is intended for outdoor activities and face-to-face interactions, free of technology’s distractions.
The weeks of the camp are split up by age and gender. For instance, one week there will be
“junior” girls, ages 9-through-11-year old. The next week will be “junior boys.”
Camp director Wade Dixon said the camp focuses on providing a fun and loving environment for all children who attend. But there’s a special attempt made to bring kids in who might be struggling. Dixon said the aim is to bring in six children who may be deemed “at risk” or in need for every four children who come from more stable environments.
He said he’s seen the camp serve as a tremendous source of solace — or “refuge” — for children who come from tough home situations.
For instance, Dixon recalled sitting in the dining hall this past year with Linda Wages when an 11-or-12 year-old girl, who he referred to as “angel” to protect her identity, entered the room with her counselor. She had a special request: to live for good at the camp. The girl didn’t know her mother. Her father was in prison. Her grandfather was verbally abusive. She had been in foster homes.
Dixon asked her what about the camp made it a place she wanted to stay.
“She said, ‘I know that I’m loved here,’” said Dixon. “She literally asked us if she could live here. In many ways you just feel helpless. Every year, there are some kids that just lay heavy on your heart. But you hope that maybe this week at the camp can be something that they can remember in years to come and that they can pull from.”
Trevor Rollins, treasurer of Camp Maranatha, said his parents were missionaries and that he wanted to share their giving spirit. In Camp Maranatha, he found a calling.
“I saw what kind of camp this was and wanted to become a part of it,” said Rollins, who has served as treasurer for about a decade.
Rollins is not alone in being drawn to the camp. Dixon said that when people volunteer their time with the kids, they are impacted in positive ways.
“I’ve never spoken to any young person (camp volunteer) that after the fact didn’t feel like their lives were permanently changed in a good way,” said Dixon.
After a week of training, a teen counselor spends every hour of the camp week with a group of 10 campers. They eat, sleep and participate in all activities with the kids.
“The counselors have the opportunity to see how valuable they are to the community,” said Dixon. “Many of them have seen the value of the adults around them, but they haven’t connected the dots to themselves. In this camp, it’s on their shoulders.”
Dixon said he hears from a number of adults who remember their time at Maranatha — both as campers and later as counselors.
Camp Maranatha is Christian-based. There are night-time services and morning devotions. But the camp is not a “church camp.”
Dixon noted that many camps are geared toward church kids, but he said Maranatha is aimed at helping a broader group of children, many of whom aren’t affiliated with a church.
“Most camps that are out there are camps where churches get together and do something for the church kids,” said Dixon. “But we purposefully don’t do that.”
While church congregations are a primary source for church camps, Maranatha relies on broader community support.
“I’d like to tell Madison County that we couldn’t do it without them,” said Dixon, of the camp that has an annual operating budget of roughly $140,000 to $150,000.
The focus this time of year for many kind-hearted locals is on “toys for needy tots.” But those wanting to contribute to at-need kids can also consider donations to Camp Maranatha.
Donations can be made out to “Camp Maranatha” and sent to P.O. Box 53, Ila, Ga. 30647. The camp’s website is www.campmaranatha.com And donations can be accepted through Paypal at the site.
Those who don’t have the funds to make a monetary contribution can also consider donations of labor. Dixon noted that there are numerous projects around the camp that need attention, from pressure washing to painting and more.
Likewise, the camp is continuing its Christmas-time fund-raiser this week with Christmas trees for sale between $35-45 and homemade wreaths available for $10 to $15 depending on size.
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