Barefoot Republic camps promote unity, acceptance of differences

Sadie getting groomed by a camper while having a big yawn.
Photo by Kennedy Gayheart/Paul Laurence Dunbar High School

By Chuck Logsdon
Henry Clay High School

Deep in the backwoods of Fountain Run in southwest Kentucky, a 45-minute drive from Bowling Green, is a 110-acre plot of land with ropes for tree climbing, a lake for swimming, a venue for horse riding, a gym and areas for art and music. 

It is populated by children of all races, genders and socio-economic status.

Barefoot Republic Camp hosts summer camps and retreats, focusing on spreading the message of unity in diversity, vulnerability and acceptance of differences. The focus of this camp is to provide students with a summer camp experience who might otherwise not be able to afford one. More than 50% of the students attend on scholarships.

The founder of Barefoot Republic, Tommy Rhodes, was in his third year at Vanderbilt University, on track to get a Ph.D. in biomedical science, when he realized something.

“The more success I had as a young scientist, the more empty I felt on the inside,” Rhodes said. “I finally took that leap of faith based on what God was stirring up inside of me.”

He realized he was not obeying his religion in his line of work. Rhodes grew up in a lower-income household and was never able to pay for summer camp.

He sold his baseball card collection for $17,000, along with some other possessions, to make a down payment on the campground. He then worked the next 10 summers making the land usable with the help of landscapers. 

Today, Barefoot Republic operates on an annual budget of about $1.8 million – raised from events and donors, such as the Cal Turner Family Foundation, from fees for camp programs from those who can afford to pay, and from renting out the camp to private groups.

Rhodes credits the achievement of Barefoot Republic to his Christian faith.

“Without my faith there is no way we’d be where we are today,” Rhodes said. “I’m a firm believer that God will only give you what you can handle.”

Barefoot Republic is a Christian organization. Each morning the campers have a morning church session as well as a small-group Bible study with the other campers in their cabins.

Operations Director Charlie Payne said his job is an opportunity to help children to worship in a different environment. 

The camp keeps a database noting campers’ ethnic diversity, whether they are from single-parent homes and if they attend church.

“As a society, one of the most segregated days of the week is church,” Payne said. “We’re intentional about putting kids of different backgrounds together.”

Later in the day, campers participate in activities, called “specialties,” including basketball, watersports and horseback riding. 

Staff member Kendreya Lee-Pointer leads the vocal performance specialty.

Lee-Pointer has attended for the past eight years as a camper and a staff member. As the main instructor for vocal performance, Lee-Pointer uses her position to help the campers relate to one another. 

“They all can connect through a song they all heard growing up,” Lee-Pointer said.

Lee-Pointer, who experienced a rough childhood, is a first-hand example of the mission of the Barefoot Republic.

“I have never paid to go to camp,” she said, “and even outside of camp there was always someone … pouring into my family whether it be mentorship or financial aid. They were always there.”

Other specialties include paintball, rock climbing and water-sliding. There’s also harness-based tree-climbing, where climbers use a system of ropes, and the blob, a large inflated platform in the camp’s pond where one child bounces on one side to propel another child in the air and into the lake.

Former high school science teacher Matt Black has worked at Barefoot Republic the past 10 summers and runs the low-ropes course. He still fills in as a substitute teacher and has blended his skills to improve at both occupations. 

“I have to be able to use my classroom skills to get the campers’ attention.” Black said, “But I can then take my team-building skills to a classroom and I can then do different things other teachers wouldn’t.”

Black tries to make Barefoot Republic a place where kids feel comfortable.

“It provides a safe place that [the kids] can come to and feel welcome,” he said. “We establish rules that if you have a different opinion you’re allowed to share your opinion and talk about it, but we don’t want to come down on people.”

Program director Kat Murphy learned about Barefoot Republic after meeting a staff member at a church ministry fair in Nashville. After attending with kids from her church, she liked what she saw and joined the staff.

“I really loved the mission,” Murphy said. “I think it’s important that people of all different backgrounds can see and experience God’s love.” 

While Barefoot Republic is designed to help the campers, staff members said they also benefit. Rhodes especially benefits from working at his camp.

“Our campers and staff have helped me grow exponentially through the years, through their faith,” Rhodes said. “The fact that these kids will come out to camp and share their stories helps all of us understand that we’re not alone.”