Down by the Sea

Aerial view of Camp Jekyll
Aerial view of Camp Jekyll. Photo by David Fisher

A revamped, 1,080-foot boardwalk leads to a pristine Jekyll Island, Georgia, beach. There are no hotels, condominiums or houses in sight, just the ocean, washed-up driftwood and sand dunes built up over time. The shrubs and small trees in the dunes provide protection for wild animals and mask views of the new, 15.89-acre camp for youth on the other side of the boardwalk.

At the beginning of February, students from Northbrook Middle School in Gwinnett County, Georgia, comprised the first group to participate in environmental education again at the site of the former Jekyll Island 4-H Center, now called “Camp Jekyll.” This continues the legacy of 4-H programming and events held at the site from 1983 to 2014.

Many schools that visited the facility clamored to schedule trips to the new camp when the sign-up date was announced nearly six months in advance of the opening. Within a month of reservations opening, more than 5,000 participants booked spring 2017 environmental education trips and another 9,500 people booked trips for the 2017-2018 school year. Seven weeks of 4-H camp in the summer welcomes another 1,500 visitors.

The new, $17 million, state-of-the-art camp was dedicated on Dec. 5, 2016, with ceremonies led by Gov. Nathan Deal, Georgia first lady Sandra Deal, Jekyll Island Authority (JIA) Director Jones Hooks and State 4-H Leader Arch Smith, alongside local 4-H club members and state 4-H board officers.

“This new facility is a place to visit, study and learn for all the youth of Georgia and those beyond its borders,” said Gov. Nathan Deal. “The heart of this camp is education … (It) is a magnificent opportunity for youth to understand there is a big world to explore. Young people are in a very impressionable part of their lives. Many of them have never had the opportunity to even see the ocean, so this is a tremendously important facility.”

Following a 2013 visit to the center, Gov. Nathan Deal proposed funding for the project, and that funding was voted into the fiscal year 2014 budget by the state legislature.

“It’s an outstanding facility and we’re deeply appreciative of Gov. Deal,” said Richard Royal, former JIA chairman. “I’m extremely pleased with the design and construction. Everyone’s excited about the new Camp Jekyll and the mission that it’s going to play in the education of youth.”

The new JIA-owned facility will continue to be managed daily by the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension’s 4-H Youth Development program under an operations agreement. Richard Chewning, who served as program coordinator for the center for nearly a decade, leads as the camp director and Lauren Nys Kuschner oversees environmental education programming.

“Georgia 4-H is pleased to be continuing our relationship with the Jekyll Island Authority at Camp Jekyll,” said Smith. “We appreciate Gov. Nathan Deal’s commitment to make this wonderful new facility a reality. We are also excited to welcome other K-12 youth groups to rent and use Camp Jekyll.”

The architecture maintains a beach feel, with plenty of room for classes, outdoor activities, dining and housing for up to 256 guests. It includes a learning center honoring Sandra Deal for her commitment to youth education, which has a 300-seat auditorium, classrooms and offices; two 64-bed and four 32-bed cabins; one 16-bed staff cabin with two private, live-in apartments; one 300-seat dining hall; three outdoor pavilions; basketball and volleyball areas; and one maintenance building. The dune crossover for beach access was partially renovated and extended, and includes new washing stations for patrons coming back from the beach.

The one preserved and restored structure is the historic pavilion, home to the camp’s canteen and gift shop, which was constructed in 1955 as a place for African-Americans to visit the then-segregated beach.

The site was originally home to the Dolphin Club and Motor Hotel that opened in 1959. Many famous musicians visited the Dolphin Club lounge and restaurant, including B.B. King. It closed in 1966 and was later leased by the JIA to UGA for use as a 4-H summer camp in 1983.

In 1987, the program was expanded to include a year-round environmental education program. More than 279,000 students participated in classes like beach ecology, herpetology, seining and more since the program began at Jekyll Island.

Learn more about Camp Jekyll or schedule a group visit.

By Josh Paine