BeiNg DiFferEnt. It's What Makes Us All the Same

Tucked away on just over 400 acres in Fayetteville, folks can be found providing support to a group of military veterans, on a high-ropes course with children who are differently abled, or tending gardens of organically grown produce. A decade ago, Camp Southern Ground was a dream in the mind of GRAMMY Award-winning musician, Zac Brown. Today, it is a beautiful, world-class representation of Zac’s heart for the underserved and for those who have served. 

The youngest of 12 kids and step-kids in his family, Zac was sent to summer camp every chance his parents got. He started at camps in North Georgia at age 7 as a camper, then after college, worked as a staff member. Those camps were designed as inclusion camps, meaning the campers were both neurotypical and neurodiverse, or special needs. The impact that the special needs kids had on the typical kids was what Zac noticed the most. Zac learned the importance of an inclusive environment and that is what inspired the vision of Camp Southern Ground. The desire to break down barriers and misconceptions about those who are differently-abled has been the core of Zac’s mission. Camp Southern Ground (CSG) is, distinctively, a 4-way inclusion camp serving neurotypical kids, special needs kids, children of military families, and underserved youth. During every week of summer camp, all are connecting, learning and growing together.

“Since Zac Brown was already a national brand”, said Mike Dobbs, President and CEO of Camp Southern Ground, “we spent our initial years building the operations with a national focus. That has allowed us to get the programs set up and rolled out. We are now better equipped to serve locally.” They have recently rolled out water safety training for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) and are planning more community family events. CSG’s residential summer camp serves the I/DD population and typically developing kids, ages 7 -17. Currently, any camper with I/DD will need to be able to communicate and handle their own self-care but there are plans for providing respite care services for more involved levels of disability. “The greatest challenge for the inclusion camp model is to ensure every “tribe” (or group of campers) is represented proportionately. Going back to Zac’s experience we want both typical kids and those with different needs to have a great camp experience and learn the benefits of being together. Having kids with I/DD going to camp with neurotypical kids, that’s where the magic happens for both. The perspective gained on both sides is huge.” said Dobbs. The tuition for a week-long inclusion summer camp experience is just under $2,000, but most campers don’t pay that. There are discounts for early registration and sliding scales based on income.

Veterans and their families also hold a special place in Zac’s heart. Because Zac has been able to leverage partnerships with organizations like the Gary Sinise Foundation Avalon Network and others, including Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank of Home Depot, veterans can come from all over the country at no cost to them. In non-summer months, Camp Southern Ground provides specific, topical support designed around health and wellbeing. Warrior PATHH (Progressive Alternative Training for Helping Heroes) starts with a full 7-days at CSG, followed by an intense 90-day follow-up, and continued support if needed. CSG’s signature Warrior Week program, which starts with a high-touch week at camp, is a well-being model to aid in the transition to life after military service. “We help vets discover their personal mission and passion and what they’re naturally suited for. We built that one from scratch,” said Dobbs. “If people need services we don’t provide, we’ll put them in touch with other organizations that can help.”

One of the slogans at Camp Southern Ground is #normalisoverrated and Zac Brown’s heart for veterans and those who are not considered “normal” is worn on his sleeve. In a recent interview, Zac said, “Ignorance is such a tragedy because some never get to be around other kinds of people. When you can immerse someone into all of that variety of culture and ethnicity and background, they come out not being afraid of [differences]. We can help change a child’s life in one week of camp. They never look at the world the same again.”

To learn more about Camp Southern Ground and how to support the mission, please visit www.campsouthernground.org or email info@campsouthernground.org.


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