When you walk through the gates of Camp Viola, it seems as if all your worries fall away.
It’s something Counselor Charity Pike notices each time she visits the camp site.
“There’s a special feeling when I drive through the gates,” she said. “I feel a peace. I feel God is out here.”
It’s one of the many reasons she keeps coming back year after year. This will be Pike’s 16th year at Camp Viola. Her first experience was back in 2000, as a fifth grade camper with the Western Heights Baptist Church. That summer she was saved and baptized in the Camp Viola lake.
Now, she returns with her mom, Freita Browning, also on her 16th visit, and her four-year-old daughter, Korah. Both said the campers are what bring them back year after year.
“Getting to see the joy on kids faces when they understand someone loves them,” said Pike. “Our job is not to be social. All this work that’s done is to share the gospel with them. This isn’t just another camp … that’s what makes us different.”
Browning, the self proclaimed “Kitchen Queen”, literally serves the campers from the comforts of the Camp Viola dining hall for one week each summer. She plans, cooks, and dishes up all the meals for children and adults affiliated with the Western Heights Baptist Church in LaGrange.
“It’s such a blessing to serve the children who are underprivileged,” Browning said. “There’s such a need in Troup County. I have kids who come up to me and say,’ we’re going to have three meals a day?’ To know what I’m doing for these children …. not only feeding their bodies, but I’m feeding their souls. It’s a blessing.”
And that’s exactly what folks with Camp Viola hope happen each time a new set of campers walk through their gates. The camp is nestled on 40 acres of land in the back woods of Troup County, off Mountville-Hogansville Road. For 10 weeks out of the summer, through a variety of organizations and churches, the christian based camp is open free of charge for children who wouldn’t be able to attend otherwise.
“What we do is special and unique,” explained Camp Viola Board President, Kevin Stringham. “This might be the only time kids will get to go away, and we want to make sure it’s the best week of their summer.”
Opened in the late 1920s, Camp Viola has evolved to include an arts and crafts/ game building, a chapel, separate dorm buildings for boys and girls,staff quarters, a dining hall, lakes, recreation field, and playground. During the fall and winter months, Stringham said the property is leased out for corporate retreats, family reunions, and other events. But during the summer, between 450 to 600 campers call Camp Viola home for a week.
“This is a part of the community’s history and continues to change the lives of children. It has a huge impact,” said Stringham. “Something powerful happens up here. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t be out here for my 15th summer.”
Charity Pike continued to serve at the camp, even while pregnant with her first child, Korah. Now four years old, Korah continues to accompany her mom and grandma to Camp Viola every summer.
“She said, ’ Mimi [Browning] I’m so excited! It’s the first day of Camp Viola!’ We’re teaching her to have a servants heart.” said Browning.
“It’s a second home,” said Pike. ” We build relationships with them [ the campers]. We share the love of Jesus with them. And I want my daughter to feel that too.”
And the Camp Viola message isn’t lost on the campers.
“We learned about team work and Jesus,” said ten year old Jacob Wilson.
“And fellowship and the Lord,” added fellow camper, Justin Gambrell.
“We learned about God,” said ten year old De’nazha White. “I learned something I never learned in church!”
Lessons that keep generations of families coming back, like the Brownings and Pikes.
“I can’t imagine my life without Camp Viola,” Browning said. “My body might be in LaGrange, but my heart is out here.”
“The rewards outweigh the work,” she added. “The hugs you get at the end….it’s beyond measure.”
“These kids don’t come from the best homes,” said Pike. “This might be the only five days of the year they hear about God.”
An experience she hopes her daughter, Korah, will have as well.