CARBONDALE — A few miles north of Scranton, located off a side road, itself off another side road in the city of Carbondale, is a recreational facility unlike any other in our area, because it’s focused on one thing: being a supportive place for disabled veterans and first responders.
Home base at Camp Freedom is a beautifully remodeled cabin, and it’s the first thing visitors will notice as they emerge from a heavily forested dirt road on their way to the property. Pulling into the driveway, a Times Leader reporter was greeted by Matt Guedes, executive director of the facility.
Guedes said Camp Freedom has been open since January 2018, and since then has been focused on helping veterans and first responders who are struggling with either physical or mental disabilities, along with Gold Star Families. While the facility is open to anyone with disabilities, these groups serve as the target audiences.
‘Breaking the pattern’
Their way of helping is a bit different from other nonprofits that are targeted at the same populations. Camp Freedom doesn’t provide physical therapy or psychiatric help; instead, it’s about offering a getaway from the stressors of real life.
“Man, we do everything,” Guedes said. “We hike, we bike, we walk, we relax, we fish, we hunt, we do shooting sports, we identify mushrooms, we identify trees. Really, the full spectrum of anything that can be done outdoors, we can do here.”
Guedes said the most important thing to him is getting people who are struggling out of their homes and to have a bit of fun for a few days.
“It’s about breaking the pattern,” he said.
That pattern gets broken, he said, over days-long hunting, fishing or other outdoorsy trips.
“It’s amazing what happens in a five-day period,” Guedes said, explaining he’s seen people’s outlooks on life totally turn around during their time at the camp.
Guedes said that Camp Freedom is fitted to support people of disabilities of all sorts — while he said the lodge and may aspects of the camp’s 1,800 acres of activities have been designed to make things easier for physically disabled people, he estimates approximately 80% of the vets and first responders who have visited the facility over the past two years have suffered from mental struggles like PTSD and depression.
‘It saved me’
One of the people who’s benefited from Camp Freedom’s help is Kyle Jones, a 28-year-old from South Canaan Township in Wayne County. Jones, a veteran of the Navy who was discharged after six and a half years due to an injury and a struggle with Crohn’s disease, said that helping at Camp Freedom has given him a reason to live again.
“(The discharge) wrecked my world, being told, ‘You can’t do this,’ something that I loved to do,” he said. “If I could still be in, I would be.”
Jones said he turned to alcohol after his discharge, which caused him to sink deeper and deeper into depression.
“I barely left the house, at all, for anything,” he said. “I had a meeting up here, and I fell in love with this place, and something happened and I had motivation again.”
The dark place that Jones had been in up until fairly recently belies his sunny disposition; when speaking with a reporter, he was obviously filled with passion, having visibly fallen in love with the work he’s been able to do at Camp Freedom.
Jones led a tour around the property, driving an off-roading vehicle through the facility’s miles of trails. His eyes were bright as he described all the insider knowledge of various areas: this area will be cleared of trees; if you look through that clearing, you might see a family of deer that often grazes there; there’s an abandoned mine shaft there, and you can see the steam belching from it during the winter months as the warmer air below ground hits the air above.
He’s been volunteering there for about a month now, and he said it’s already beginning to turn his life around. He hasn’t had a drink in a month, and he plans to keep it that way.
“If I hadn’t found this place, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “It saved me.”
‘We’re learning every day’
Guedes said Jones is hardly the only volunteer or guest who’s had that same story; in fact, those stories seem to be in the majority. He told of one of the camp’s few full-time employees, a combat veteran himself, who also turned his life around after his involvement with the facility.
“I remember his wife giving me a hug and saying, ‘Matt, thank you so much, it’s giving me my husband back,’” he said. “And it’s not us. It’s what we do.”
Over the past two years, Guedes said Camp Freedom has helped out more than 500 guests from more than a dozen states around the country. And he said this is all done at zero cost to those participating. Guests are selected after a lengthy application and screening process, which Guedes said is largely based on who Camp Freedom knows it is best fitted to help.
But he said they have plenty of plans to continue expanding and renovating to be able to help more people and better, including the eventual construction of another lodge with more private rooms for guests.
“We’re learning every day how to serve our guests better,” he said.
If you or a loved one would benefit from time away at Camp Freedom, or if you’re interested in volunteering, check out the group’s web page, campfreedompa.org.
Reach Patrick Kernan at 570-991-6386 or on Twitter @PatKernan