Roy Exum: An Urgent Call To Action

Monday, May 12, 2014 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

The last four weeks have been agonizing for Lizzy Cheek but for dozens more who walk among us in our community, the dwindling days have been even more heart breaking. Our hero Lizzy is the camp director at the Double-G Ranch when she is not working overtime – every day – in the Department of Therapeutic Recreation at our famed Orange Grove Center.

The deadline for scholarship money for summer camp at Orange Grove was April 15. A lot of anticipated money didn’t show up, and this year some of our most critical “special needs” neighbors – over 30 who were born into a lifetime with physical and mental challenges – will not get to go for their “one week of heaven” because they can’t pay for it.

I realize there are few who can provide a full scholarship ($500) in the next several days but never forget there is great strength in numbers. What if we could launch an avalanche of donations from companies, individuals, organizations and other areas this week that would result in a miracle of sorts? I’m hoping you’ll join me in sending some kids to camp. We’ll combine all the cash we can raise in one week and make some dreams come true for the most deserving kids you ever saw!

Lizzy writes in an email to me:

* * *

Four years ago I took on the job as director for Orange Grove’s Double G Camp.  Since I have been in Chattanooga I always heard about what an important legacy it to the Center and the Chattanooga community. It was not until camp started that first summer that I became fully aware of the immense responsibility I had signed up for.

The moment anyone steps foot on the grounds of GG Ranch they are immediately surrounded by tranquility, joy and an overwhelming sense of being welcomed.  When, the staff and campers show up the atmosphere is taken to a whole new level. Excitement and laughter fills the air while you hear counselors cheering on their campers in a game of kick ball and swimmers vigorously splashing in the pool.

For only one week out of the entire year our campers and staff alike live in a world where disability is set aside, differences are embraced with acceptance, and commonality between each other is prominent. This family camaraderie is what I believe the founding families of Orange Grove were shooting for when they established Double G Camp in 1958.

It is not common for our campers to participate in activities such as arts & crafts, horseback riding, canoeing, or even see an Elvis impersonator any other time throughout the year. Many of their lives revolve around a daily routine of waking up, going to work, and completing chores before they go to bed. This is one of the few chances they have to let loose. 

But the activities are more than just fun and games; they are a catalyst for the special moments that make camp what it is.  People that know our campers in a daily setting are astonished when they hear stories and see pictures from each summer.  Throughout the year, Lara bashfully covers her face when around people, but at camp she lets everyone see her beautiful smile shine. We have officially renamed Zumba, “Broomba” because Mike decided dancing with a broom was far better than dancing with himself.

The horses allow many of our guys to live out their dream of being a cowboy, and we’ve learned how big the universe is by looking at Jupiter through the lenses of telescopes. Many caregivers are astonished when they see how fast our campers move when playing a scrimmage game with the UTC football players – and I must say, our guys would win a victory dance competition over any pro athlete.

The counselors and campers love to play jokes. It’s not out of the ordinary for people to walk into their cabins only to find their beds missing. All you have to do is look up, and you will see the mattresses carefully placed above in the rafters of the cabin.  They’ll never let me forget the time I was scouring the property looking for a goat they claimed was stalking their cabin – the goat never existed. The most important thing that I have learned from being camp director is to ALWAYS keep underwear locked up or else it will be hanging on the flag pole.

It is for the reasons listed above (and many more) that Double G is the highlight of our camper’s lives. Every single day campers waltz into my office asking about camp and how much fun they are going to have. We even have one camper who has a secretary that scribes his “GG Camp To-Do” list for me and secretly places her notes in my mailbox when nobody is looking.

For 56 years, our individuals have been coming to Double G Camp. It’s a magical event that impacts every aspect of the lives of all involved. I could literally write a novel on all the special moments that have taken place over the years. We are all blessed to have the best staff that returns year after year.  They are hard workers and put our camper’s well-being above anything else.  They don’t get paid nearly as much as they deserve, but to them, the smiles and friendships are what makes it all worthwhile.

This has been an extremely difficult year for camp.  Due to many circumstances, we have had to increase our camper’s fee. The possibility of attending is out of reach for many of the individuals we serve. The idea that many of these men and women will not be able to attend camp because of money is absolutely unbearable. The majority have been attending for well over 20 years. I cannot imagine camp without them, it’s just not right.

There is one more thing: The caregivers.  Parents, siblings, house managers, etc…  Double G is the one respite chance they get all year.  

Imagine yourself having a brother six years older than you with a developmental disability.  Your parents have passed away and you have taken him into your home to live after 40 years to fulfill your parents’ wishes. Your life has been turned upside down.

You are officially a parent of someone that doesn't have to opportunities than your typical person - it is now your responsibility to ensure his well-being.  So you do it.  Day after day.  You make personal sacrifices like passing up dinner with a friend because you cannot leave your brother alone.  You get up at the crack of dawn to make sure your adult brother gets on the bus.  You fix his meals, do his laundry, go to his ISP meetings with the state, and never stop. 

Then, it's the first week of June! The one week you know you will have for yourself out of the entire year. You're brother has been a camper for as long as anyone can remember.  In fact, that's all he talks about.  EVER. But, when your parent's passed, there wasn't any money they left behind. You've been scraping by with little assistance, and cannot bear the cost.  So there goes your brother's vacation and the one time a year you get to yourself.

The lack of our camper’s finances is why I am enlisting the help of our Chattanooga community to build a scholarship fund for Double G Camp. Please consider sponsoring a camper, it’s the best investment you could ever make.

* * *

Well put, Lizzy, so now I ask you to stand back, because if my prayers are answered, a flood of letters will begin arriving at Orange Grove in this most-crucial week. Those who can and wish to give should do so by check, keeping a copy for tax deductions since Orange Grove is a 501c3 organization.

Make the checks payable to “Orange Grove Center” but make sure each check includes the words, “GG Camp Scholarship Fund.” The mailing address for Orange Grove is 615 Derby Street, Chattanooga TN 37404 and the outside of your envelope should be marked, “ATTN – Lizzy Cheek.”

Trust me, this will work if you help spread the word. And, believe this, miracles still happen.

A happy camper at GG Ranch
A happy camper at GG Ranch

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