In Mississippi, children and adults with disabilities and serious illnesses will soon have a summer camp of their own—one built with their needs in mind. For years, groups that support children with cancer, muscular dystrophy, sickle cell disease and other illnesses have rented facilities to set up camps, which presents accessibility and scheduling challenges. With the support of HOPE, a community development financial institution (CDFI) that serves Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee, the Mississippi Toughest Kids Foundation (MTK) is changing that. With financing from HOPE and labor provided through the U.S. Air Force’s Innovative Readiness Training program, the foundation is building Camp Kamassa, the state’s first fully accessible camp, in Crystal Springs, Mississippi.
The project was made possible through Uplift America, a public-private partnership of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), philanthropy and the financial sector. It provides long-term, low-cost financing for community lenders such as CDFIs to facilitate community projects like schools, health clinics, libraries, municipal buildings and child care centers in underserved rural communities. Many of these areas are experiencing persistent poverty: 20 percent or more of their populations have lived in poverty for at least 30 years. Through Uplift, the first five years of the USDA loans are guaranteed by Bank of America. Seven private foundations contributed to a grant pool known as the Uplift America Fund to help the re-lenders build their capacity.
Right now, summer camp programs for children and adults with disabilities and severe illnesses do not have a permanent home in Mississippi, forcing them to rent space from other facilities, which are not often built for their needs. Sharing space with other camps means these programs are frequently held during the first weeks of summer, when some attendees are not yet out of school, or the end of summer, when some attendees’ classes have already started. Not only will Camp Kamassa provide dedicated, accessible space year-round, it will also have medical facilities so campers can attend even if they must undergo routine treatments. The camp will be available to rent for other groups, but it will be unique in its accessibility to people with disabilities.
HOPE’s investment will have positive economic impacts on the community surrounding Camp Kamassa. Copiah County, southwest of Jackson, is a persistent poverty community where 28 percent of people live below the poverty line. By bringing a camp—which is expected to host programs all summer and on weekends the rest of the year—into the community, a steady stream of visitors will start spending time in the surrounding towns. MTK expects many parents to stay in Copiah County when their children are at camp or stop for a meal on the way to and from camp. Camp Kamassa’s construction will include local materials, and Air Force personnel who are traveling to Copiah County to build the site are already staying in the community. But the project’s impact will extend outside the county borders to help families across the state, many of whom face steep medical bills and other financial challenges.
Mary Kitchens, whose son survived kidney cancer as a child, founded MTK in 2008 with the goal of building a camp for adults and children with special needs, a dream that eventually became Camp Kamassa. For years, the Kitchens family was involved in Camp Rainbow, a camp for children with cancer, which never found a permanent home of its own. Camp Rainbow rented locations across the state, none of which was built intentionally for children with cancer. They realized if Camp Rainbow was facing these challenges, other similar programs were likely dealing with them as well.
“There’s just such a need,” Kitchens said. “It’s so good for children who’ve experienced something—they have cancer or lost a leg or something—to be with other kids who understand. It’s just very helpful to the healing for the children.”
MTK secured the labor for Camp Kamassa through the U.S. Air Force’s Innovative Readiness Training program, which lends airmen to community development programs to prepare them to build structures quickly. But the foundation struggled to find financing for building supplies. Many banks were reluctant to lend the full amount needed because MTK was a relatively new foundation whose long-term plan relied on other nonprofit groups renting the camp, and whose clients had high health care costs. HOPE made a $2.7 million loan to help get the camp up and running. Another financing partner on the project was Fahe, one of HOPE’s partners that works to eliminate persistent poverty in Appalachia.
“A lot of the special needs kids in Mississippi were going outside the state for these opportunities,” said Monica Walker, a commercial lender at HOPE. “Now they’ll have the ability to stay inside the state.”
MTK broke ground in May 2018. Camp Kamassa is on track for its first camp season in 2020.