April 18, 2014

Anderson Woods offers camp that ‘gets into nature,’ changing lives of children and adults with special needs

In this July 2, 2013, photo, campers at Anderson Woods enjoy petting a donkey, one of many farm animals at the southern Indiana camp for those with special needs. (Submitted photos by Karen Mangum)

In this July 2, 2013, photo, campers at Anderson Woods enjoy petting a donkey, one of many farm animals at the southern Indiana camp for those with special needs. (Submitted photos by Karen Mangum)

By Natalie Hoefer

When Mary Julia “Judy” Colby was a little girl, she did not interact much with her older brother.

First, there was the 10-year age gap.

But the greater reason was her brother’s issues caused by brain damage at birth.

“Mother just told me to watch and learn, watch and learn,” she says of how her mother cared for her brother.

“And I did.”

For almost 40 years, Colby—along with her husband, Dave—has taken what she learned to create Anderson Woods, a camp offering children and adults with special needs four-day experiences in the wooded hills of southern Indiana.

Colby, director and CEO of the Anderson Woods non-profit organization and a member of St. Meinrad Parish in St. Meinrad, says there are many miracles associated with the camp, including how she acquired the land in Bristow, near St. Meinrad.

Miraculous acquisitions

The mother of six had started an insurance and bonds business for construction firms, and was looking for “a piece of land to get away.

“A priest friend of mine happened on a place near St. Meinrad. That very same day I happened to find logs [for building a cabin].

“Then I found out the property was 56 acres, and I knew I couldn’t afford that.”

The “old farmer” selling the land waved off her concerns.

“He said, ‘You just pay me however long it takes.’ So I got it, and I eventually paid it off,” she says.

Colby says the acquisition of the camp’s barn was also a miracle.

Lloyd, a young man in a SPRED (Special Religious Development) group she was working with at a Catholic church, wanted desperately to see her farm but was prevented by a heart condition.

Colby had been trying to acquire a barn for the farm from a certain farmer who refused to sell, even after multiple approaches.

One day, says Colby, she was in Indianapolis when “out of the blue I heard Lloyd’s voice say, ‘You can buy the barn now.’ I found out 30 minutes later that Lloyd had just died.

“So just as soon as I could, I went and asked the farmer again about buying the barn, and he said, ‘I’m tired of saying no. You can buy the barn.’ Lloyd knew how much I wanted that barn.”

‘It’ll never work’

By 1977, everything was in place. Colby had accumulated 175 acres, and had a cabin, barn and animals. In 1976, she had married Dave, who had experience with special needs children through his two sons with muscular dystrophy.

Colby recalls the reaction she got when she shared her and Dave’s vision of Anderson Woods with others.

“They told me, ‘You can’t take people like that in the woods. It’ll never work.’

“I said, ‘Watch me.’ And it does work!”

The first camp was a trial with three campers for three nights in 1977. In 1978, the Colbys officially opened Anderson Woods.

“We’ve gone from three campers to 200 campers per summer,” she says.

The camp now offers eight four-day camps in June and July. The four June sessions each allow for 20 children ages 5-18, and the four July sessions each allow for 30 adults ages 18 and older (the oldest was 74, says Colby).

The needs of the participants vary from the physically challenged to those with Down syndrome and autism.

“Our largest number of campers are autistic,” says Colby. “They’re all over the spectrum, from savant [with high intelligence] to low functioning.

“The only limit we have is wheelchairs,” she says. “It’s just too difficult for all the outdoor activities,” Colby explains.

‘First time they’ve felt needed’

Outdoor activities form the crux of the Anderson Woods camp experience.

“We’re just not an ordinary camp. We really get into nature.

“One of the big things I learned from watching my mom care for my brother was the value of animals and gardens.

“You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a 5-year-old pick their first potato [from Anderson Woods’ large organic garden]. It’s just a joy. They’ve seen them in bags, but they don’t know they come from the ground. It really opens their minds.

“And the other big thing is the animals. They don’t want breakfast until they feed the animals because it’s the first time they’ve felt needed. Animals give them this. It raises their mental awareness,” Colby says.

Their days are filled with berry picking, playing games, taking a nature walk, wading in the creek, playing in a waist-high swimming hole in the Anderson River—for which the camp is named— and a nightly reflection on the day’s activities.

One-time experiences during the camp include tie-dying shirts, an evening cookout and hay ride, a picnic lunch, and a jam-making session using the berries the campers picked.

‘The value of process, not product’

One day, Colby says, she lamented to her husband about the camp’s limitations.

“I said, ‘Really, we serve so few when you look at 200.’

“Then Dave said, ‘But look at what our staff does when they leave.’

“And it’s true. Our camp counselors have gone on to become doctors, special education teachers, therapists,” she says.

“They’ve only been [in college] a few semesters [when they come here], and invariably they change to a helping field,” says Colby. “Eighty percent of our counselors have changed [majors].”

The campers and counselors are not the only ones who benefit from Anderson Woods.

“Dave and I get far more out of it than anyone,” Colby says. “Probably the biggest thing I’ve learned is the value of process, not product.

“As Americans, we feel we have to accomplish something, and it has to look a certain way.

“It’s not so with our campers. They live in the process. If it’s not perfect when it’s done, so what. That’s changed my life in a lot of ways.”

‘Miracles still happen here’

Colby, who still runs a construction bonds business, and her husband are now in their mid-70s. They knew Anderson Woods would soon need younger managers.

But as with buying the property and barn, says Colby, “Miracles still happen here. No matter what we need, it comes.”

For the last two years, the Colbys have been training Megan and Dr. Isaac Gatwood, former Anderson Woods counselors in their 20s who met at the camp and later married—the third marriage to come out of the camp, says Colby.

The Gatwoods will train for two more years, then take over operations of Anderson Woods.

“They’ve been serving without compensation,” Colby says. “They’re very dedicated.”

After 36 years of providing special experiences to special people, the founders of Anderson Woods have no plans of slowing down.

“We’re still both going strong,” says Colby.

“God isn’t through with us yet.”

(For more information on Anderson Woods, including enrollment and staffing or volunteer opportunities, log on to www.andersonwoods.org.)

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