Not-for-profit spending $20 million to build Christian camps in Wayne County

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

PATTERSON, Mo. -- An organization created to build Christian camps has turned its attention to the hills of Wayne County, pouring more than $20 million into building one of the premier camps in the country.

The Eagle Sky Foundation, a 501(c)3 not-for-profit group based in Oklahoma City, began acquiring the nearly 5,000-acre property east of Patterson in 2001. After completion of Eagle Sky of the Ozarks, the foundation also plans to build Eagle Sky of the Rockies in Leadville, Colo., and Eagle Sky of Kenya in Africa.

Camp director Jim Garr described the Ozarks camp as the "proving ground," helping organizers determine size, cabin layout, etc., for the camps to follow. The Wayne County location was chosen by the board because of the availability of land, the natural habitat provided and the proximity to major transportation routes like the four-lane Highway 67.

The camp has been built from "the ground up," including a newly constructed wide gravel road, eight drilled wells and a manmade lake. Eagle Sky also features its own electric substation, three 25,000-square foot warehouses and a car wash, complete with wax.

Garr explained the foundation board members "feel that Jesus Christ has made such a difference in their lives, that this is one of the ways they can contribute."

So far, 4,000 beds are planned for the Ozark camp. However, the camp will first open with 1,000 to 1,200 beds to determine if demand is high enough to add more.

"We will build and, if they come, we will build more," Garr said.

Currently 20 to 25 staff are employed at the camp, focused on construction and caring for the buildings and grounds. Garr said the camp will be a "Christian challenge camp."

"Our focus is ministry but we want it to be fun ministry," he explained. "You're not going to lay around at this camp."

Planned activities include zip lines and rock walls, and water-related activities, including fishing, kayaking and water volleyball.

Eagle Sky plans to open the camp year-round for events like retreats, but the main emphasis will be church camp, for local students and beyond. Students as young as 6 years old could attend the camp.

"Summer camp will be a focus for us in the ministry," Garr said, adding the foundation hopes the camp will have "national and worldwide appeal."

The camp will be divided into four subcamps: north for teenagers, south for adult retreats, west for children and east for various other events, potentially including Christian concerts or community events.

Four of the 90-bed dorm facilities in north camp are already built, with construction crews finishing the interiors. Each dorm features three sleeping areas that can be used together or separately, a meeting area that seats 100, a storm shelter and a full commercial kitchen. The price tag on each is about $2.4 million, and as need is shown, Garr said the organization plans to build 12 more.

West camp will further be divided into subcamps, including an above-ground treehouse village and an aviation-themed camp. For the aviation camp, Garr plans to embed three Boeing 747s into the hillside to be used as bunkhouses.

One of the first sights students will see on their way into camp on Eagle Sky Drive is an impressive covered bridge made of cedar logs, created by craftsmen from Tennessee and Ohio. Immediately after crossing the bridge, students will see captive elk on either side of the road. Thirty elk already live on the property, with six calves born there in the past year.

Garr hopes students will be overwhelmed by natural beauty from the moment the enter the camp, so counselors can "use God's creation to help us connect with kids."

"If you think that bridge is awesome, wait until I tell you about the Creator," Garr envisions counselors telling youth.

Another attraction is Frenchman Hill, a 1,200-foot mountain summit that overlooks much of the surrounding land. Garr plans to build a cross several stories high on the mountaintop, from which students can zip-line to the main camp. Ideally, campers could hike to the mountain before sunrise, face east and see the sun rise over the horizon.

Garr assumed the director's position in October, and believes his work experience will serve him well in the position. He spent 27 years with the Missouri Department of Conservation in Jefferson City and St. Louis, first working as a wildlife biologist. With his experience there, managing the land and elk will come more easily for him.

Garr later worked in insurance and received training in leadership and risk management.

When he heard about the opening, Garr asked his wife, Pam, for her thoughts. He says she is typically conservative about matters like career changes, so her response surprised him.

"She said, 'You're going to apply, aren't you?'' he remembers. "I should've realized right off the bat that God was in it."

One concern for the foundation is managing the operating costs of the camp while trying to maintain affordable camp fees. To help offset the costs, some of the acreage will be devoted to raising cattle, which will be sold to finance the camp. Currently 100 head of are cattle are managed on the land.

For staff, Garr hopes to turn largely to local community, contributing to the Wayne County economy.

"We want to be a benefit to the community," he said. "I am very interested in Eagle Sky being viewed as a positive thing in the community."

According to the Eagle Sky of the Ozarks website, the foundation hopes to host its first campers in the summer of 2013.

For more information on Eagle Sky, visit http://www.eaglesky.com/eso.

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