I was in college and married. I had to drop out because my wife needed surgery — that’s when I got my draft notice from the Army. After my training, I was told I was going to Vietnam. As a boy from Alabama, I could barely imagine it. I was lucky though; they gave me an office job.
I came back in 1972, and they offered me $8,000 to stay in the Army. I hadn’t ever heard of that much money, so naturally, I took it. I was placed into recruiting duty, which I didn’t love, and it meant we had to move a lot. My son went to six schools before he even turned 14. When it was time for me to re-enlist, I decided I didn’t want to uproot my family again and left the Army to work for the Department of the Army (civil service) at Fort McPherson instead, managing the recreation property at Lake Allatoona. I was there for 24 years.
MY INTRODUCTION TO THE YMCA
I had no idea about the YMCA when I met Ken O’Kelley, [who at the time ran the YMCA resident camp program]. I was setting up an RV with my grandson when he walked up and asked me what I thought of the Lake Allatoona property. He told me the Y was thinking about taking it over. I told him about the plumbing, that no one knew how long it would last, but that “if you love a house, you’re gonna buy the house.” I guess he loved it because the Y took over.
I was about ready to retire, and Ken asked me what I was going to do next. I told him I was going to take a 45-day vacation and then go get a job. Right after the Y took over, Ken brought me a proposal for a position here and I took it right away. What a blessing! I never had to look for a job! And I didn’t have to leave a place I loved, where my kids and grandkids grew up.
WHAT THE YMCA MEANS TO ME
At camp, everybody has everything to do. Everyone works together as a family. It’s hard to explain. We are employees — we all work for the Y, but it’s a family-oriented workplace.
Ken always says — God, family, camp. You keep the perspective of what you’re doing and why we’re here. We’re here to serve kids and change their lives. Some may have never been three or four blocks from their house, but they come here, and they can be themselves and they get to have fun. Camp means everything. It’s a place to grow, to learn, and to serve. Helping kids is the most important thing to us. I love kids, have worked with them all my life. This is right up my alley. I’ve been blessed beyond measure.
When the kids come in on Monday morning, you see the shy ones hanging back, and by Wednesday or Thursday, they’re whooping and hollering like everyone else. Their lives are changed. One week you’re starting, and then the next thing you know camp is over. It’s quiet. You make such good friends and hate to see them grow up and leave. But if they don’t go on to the next thing, there’s no space for the younger ones.
ABOUT THE Y’S COMMITMENT TO VETERANS
We have a veteran’s group that comes to our facility. It’s called Warriors to Citizens. They’ll bring 20 or 25 people who’ve been deployed overseas. They can come here, and we help put people back together. It takes all of us, from the Association office to the youngest Leader-in-Training to make camp work. We are a family. We work as a family to serve whoever needs our help.
Jim Bence is the property caretaker for Camp High Harbour at Lake Allatoona. He’s a veteran of the U.S. Army.