Camp Cole was born of tragedy. When she was 13, Kelsey Sawyer Carter’s younger brother, Cole, succumbed to a year-long battle against a rare form of cancer. After 54 chemotherapy treatments, Cole Sawyer died at the age of 11. Before his passing, he touched the lives of many friends and family members as well as contacts through his positive Camp Kemo experience. Grieving parents Stacy and Scott Sawyer, together with their close friends Deans and Peter Fawcett, were so stirred by Cole’s short life that a seed was planted to raise a camp site specifically for use by organizations that focus on the needs of children, teens, and even adults with fragile health conditions, serious illnesses, disabilities, and mental health challenges.
In 2016, Stacy Sawyer died suddenly from a neurologic stroke; however, a week before her death, she mentioned to Scott a potential camp site around 15 miles from the doors of Prisma Health Hospital. Kelsey says her mother was able to see the home for Camp Cole before her unexpected passing.
Kelsey and the Fawcetts’ oldest of six children, Margaret Deans Fawcett Grantz, knew each other growing up in Columbia primarily because their parents were friends. Their mothers were in the Delta Delta Delta sorority together at the University of South Carolina. Kelsey attended Spring Valley High School, while Margaret Deans went to Hammond School. Yet, they both volunteered — and still volunteer — at Camp Kemo, and they stayed in touch even while Kelsey went to USC and Margaret Deans chose Wofford College. Stacy’s death connected the daughters in a deeper way. And their husbands, Ben Carter and Derrick Grantz, were already lifelong friends.
“Immediately after Stacy’s death, we all asked each other the question: ‘Are we serious about this? Are we ready to embark on this journey?’” says Margaret Deans.
“We didn’t want my mother’s dream to die,” adds Kelsey.
Although Kelsey was working in education after college and Margaret Deans was involved in nonprofits, they decided to officially found Camp Cole together and make it their full-time endeavor. Currently, Kelsey is executive director, while Margaret Deans is development and marketing director. Both admit they live and breathe the commitment to see Camp Cole a reality, and they attest to the experience of loss as solidifying their friendship. Another contributing factor motivating Margaret Deans to make Camp Cole her life focus is the fact that she also lost her best friend, Elizabeth Helms, in second grade to cancer.
“Because Elizabeth died, I started Project Teddy Bear in high school. I knew I wanted to do something greater than myself — to give back,” says Margaret Deans. “But I never thought I would be helping develop and run a camp one day. It’s all just so rewarding.”
The property that Stacy was interested in was an old 280-acre working farm in Eastover off Highway 378. The Fawcetts purchased the former Caughman Arabian horse farm and gave 60 acres for the creation of Camp Cole. In May 2018, Camp Cole received its 501(c)(3) status, and a $10 million capital campaign was launched with the goal of breaking ground in April 2020 and opening in June 2021. As of December 2019, they raised more than $9 million.
“As counselors for Camp Kemo and spending the past few years doing so much research, we realize that while so many organizations serve individual needs, no retreat facilities are available for them to use that truly meet the needs of the medically fragile,” says Kelsey. “Camp Cole is such a unique concept that we’re hoping other states will want to establish similar sites to make a huge difference in the lives of children and their families. It’s going to be a state-of-the-art, year-round facility.” Kelsey explains that it will house on-site a pharmacy, examination rooms, technology integrated with Prisma Health Children’s Hospital, and equipment and specialists to meet “diverse needs.”
Kelsey points out that just some of the organizations needing “a more suitable environment” for campers are ones that focus on children with such medical challenges and conditions as spina bifida, autism, sickle cell, and many more.
Besides a 12-person board of directors that includes Scott Sawyer as its chair, Peter Fawcett as its vice chair, as well as Deans Fawcett serving, the organization includes a capital campaign committee and a 15-person advisory board.
“The children’s hospital and other health care facilities have been so very helpful and supportive,” says Margaret Deans, “and they have brainstormed with us to figure out our needs at Camp Cole. We realized, for example, that autistic children need a sound barrier between walls and that sickle cell children need a heated pool. Lots and lots of details.”
According to Kelsey and Margaret Deans, monies raised over the next few years, as well as construction projects donated toward the effort, will complete Camp Cole in a few phases. “The Building Industry Association of Central South Carolina is doing a variety of fundraisers throughout the year,” says Margaret Deans. “We are their charitable organization until our completion. Some members are providing their expertise and in-kind donations.”
“We are thrilled to have the BIA’s support,” says Kelsey, “and their involvement attests to how well constructed it will be.”
When all is completed, Camp Cole will offer a cafe/kitchen, a medical care facility, six “Courage Cabins” to provide accommodations for 200, conference rooms, staff offices, an indoor activity space, gymnasium, canteen, production stage, art shack, pool, playground, pond, outdoor amphitheater, ropes course, and gazebo. Already, a therapeutic riding program, led by certified equestrian therapist Amanda Malanuk, is expected to be underway by this spring.
Groups using Camp Cole will be able to bring their own programming, but on-site programming will be available also. Plus, while organizations will be expected to bring their own specialists who know the children involved and their conditions, Camp Cole will also have an on-site medical director.
“And the camp is only a little more than 15 miles from the hospital in case an issue arises with one of the children,” says Kelsey.
Kelsey and Margaret Deans share their amazement regarding how many individuals, companies, and groups have supported and continue to support Camp Cole. Third parties host fundraisers, individuals donate, and hundreds have participated in Camp Cole’s annual fall Sprint to Shine 5K Trail Run & Walk and The 1 Mile Kids Fun Run. The second annual Happy Camper Food Truck Festival is scheduled for March 29. “This is a free community event with sponsors that takes place at the Lowe’s Foods parking lot in Forest Acres,” says Margaret Deans. “Donations made by attendees that day and percentages donated by the food trucks help raise money for Camp Cole.”
In November, the Rho chapter of the Kappa Alpha Order at USC hosted its Dancing with The KAs event to raise funds for Camp Cole. Held at Stone River in Columbia, the event — attended by more than 430 Kappa Alpha brothers, parents, and friends — raised a total of $24,500. The funds raised through the dance event resulted in the 2019 Rho chapter exceeding the $100,000 mark for cumulative donations to Camp Cole.
“We will always have opportunities for people to donate and help,” says Kelsey, “even after Camp Cole is finished. We’re only getting started.” A long-term focus is to continue lowering the cost for organizations to secure the facility and to establish a needy-child scholarship fund. “We hope to add ongoing enhancements to the campus in the future,” says Margaret Deans.
Besides involving various people in the Midlands community and throughout South Carolina, Camp Cole is a close-to-home effort in that not only are Kelsey’s and Margaret Deans’ husbands and parents involved, but siblings and extended family members fill in when needed.
“Kelsey and I may be the ones in the daily weeds, but Camp Cole is definitely a family affair,” says Margaret Deans.
“I’ve been able to share the emotion of this effort with hundreds who are making it a reality,” says Kelsey. “Camp Cole may have started with the Sawyers and the Fawcetts, but it involves so many.”