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Camp takes disabled on weekend trips

Paul Freeman found two things while working at a camp for children with special needs in Dahlonega six years ago - his wife, Jessica, and his greatest passion, working with the mentally disabled.

"His whole life changed from there," said his sister, Mary Ellen Fiddler of Suwanee.

When Freeman and his wife graduated from college in 2001, they immediately set up their own program for people with special needs.

"That's our ministry," said Freeman, a 1997 graduate of Brookwood High School. "That's our calling in life."

Through the program, called Caglewood, volunteers take people of all ages with special needs on weekend trips. Sometimes they go to baseball games. Other times they spend a night camping. This weekend the Freemans are taking campers on an overnight hiking trip on the Appalachian Trail.

Freeman, the leading rusher on Brookwood's 1996 state championship football team, said one of the goals of the program is to teach life skills to campers - everything from communicating effectively to balancing a checkbook. But more importantly, Freeman said, he wants to allow people with special needs to do things they didn't think were possible, like pitching a tent or cooking on an open fire.

Bill Adams of Dunwoody said his daughter Sarah, who participates in the program, benefits from the Freemans treating her like an equal on their camping trips.

"Sarah participates with the ruggedness of the experience," he said. "They seem to understand Sarah, and vice versa."

Sarah is one of several campers who knew Freeman when he worked at the Dahlonega camp and then joined Caglewood when the Freemans started the program in 2002.

"We just feel so safe with Paul and Jessica at the helm," Adams said.

Freeman, who lives in Suwanee, said he hopes Caglewood will soon find a parcel of land in north Georgia to create a permanent camp facility. Within five years he wants Caglewood to be one of the largest and most influential programs in the Southeast.

Almost no one who works for the camp - including the Freemans - is paid, and it can be difficult to find volunteers sometimes. But the program has sponsored three annual golf tournaments in Monroe to raise money for its planned expansion.

And parents of Caglewood campers said there is a definite need for a more permanent facility.

"There are not that many camps around," said Widget Richards of Marietta, whose 23-year-old son, Nicholas, is involved in the program.

Caglewood volunteer Lisa Jones, who is working on her master's degree in education at the University of Georgia, said working with people with special needs is incredibly rewarding.

"The pure joy you get from going on these trips ... it's a feeling I can't even describe," she said.

Jones remembers one autistic girl she was accompanying to an Atlanta Braves game at Turner Field. The girl wanted to get a candy bar from the concession stand, and Jones helped her navigate to the counter and then let her handle the interaction alone.

"She went up by herself, got what she needed to get," Jones said. "She was so proud of herself."

Lee Blake of Alpharetta, a 34-year-old member of the program with cerebral palsy, has known the Freemans since he attended the Dahlonega camp they worked at several years ago. Blake said Caglewood helps him grow both spiritually and emotionally.

"It makes me feel stronger," he said. "It makes me have high self-esteem. I feel good about myself when I go."

The program can be as important to the parents of people with special needs, since caring for a child with a mental disability can be a daunting task.

"(Caglewood) provides away time for the parents to be able to focus on their lives," Richards said.

The Freemans have their hands full these days - in addition to the camp, Paul is the director of sales and product development at American Customer Service and Jessica recently gave birth to the couple's first child.

But Paul will never get too busy for Caglewood and its participants, said Fiddler, who also works with the program.

"No matter what else he has going on, these kids are the most important to him," she said.