Skip to main content
Skip to main menu Skip to spotlight region Skip to secondary region Skip to UGA region Skip to Tertiary region Skip to Quaternary region Skip to unit footer


Campers look at tomatoes growing in a greenhouse

‘Forestry Force’ connects outdoor careers to youth with special needs

Eight-year-old Gideon put his foot on the pitchfork and pushed it into the soil. With a little assistance, he pulled back on the handle and up popped a cluster of red potatoes.


“Look, potatoes!” squealed Gideon and a few other fellow campers. As they put their hands in the soil and gathered some, they marveled at how the leafy bush above the ground yielded these familiar vegetables. 


The moment was one of many discoveries that took place that week at Forestry Force, a first-ever camp to connect youth with trees, wildlife, agriculture and other aspects of natural resources. But what made this camp truly special were the participants—all kids and young adults with special needs. 


By connecting them with spaces such as tree nurseries or greenhouses, or through learning about wildlife, camp co-organizer and project director Nick Fuhrman said participants could learn about potential job opportunities. Often, people with disabilities have the capacity to do these jobs—they just need to be shown how to do it.


“They can be assistant technicians for a forestry commission or work at a farm—once they’re taught to do something, you’re not going to see work ethic this strong in anybody else,” said Fuhrman, Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. 


Funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the camp’s goal is to help diversify the workforce by introducing people with special abilities to work in forestry and natural resources. “It’s a diversity and inclusion grant, but we argue that this is another part of diversity and inclusion,” added Fuhrman. 


The camp takes place over two weeks, and all campers and counselors were participants at Extra Special People (ESP) in Watkinsville. The first week focused on training for four counselors, then the second week included up to 14 campers and a variety of activities and field trips. Campers learned about pruning small trees, planting and tending to a garden, working in a greenhouse and wildlife and their habitats. Fuhrman collaborated on the project with Carolyn Copenheaver, a professor of forestry at Virginia Tech, and the camp was based at Flinchum’s Phoenix, an event space at Warnell’s Whitehall Forest.


One morning, campers looked out from the facility’s deck to see a fawn in the forest. “The mother probably left it there because she thinks the yard behind the camp building is safe,” said Gideon, who carried a red bag around with him to collect interesting rocks he saw throughout the day. The camp had already taught him a bevy of deer facts.


About the camp, he added, “I love it. I’m going to pet a deer later on.”


Along with meeting the friendly deer at UGA’s Deer Research Facility, the campers also visited a Christmas tree farm and UGA’s Horticulture Research Facility. That’s where the potatoes were dug up with the help of Ryan McNeal, the farm superintendent there. The group also saw tomatoes, peppers and water spinach growing as part of a student research project.


Camper Savannah Wimpey said she enjoyed the activities, most of which were new to her. “I’m enjoying the plants and animals,” she added. “I liked the turtle.”


Counselors Kimi Gilbert and Hannah Baird agreed that the camp was full of new ideas and experiences. Best friends outside of camp, they have work experience through Java Joy, a coffee cart service started by ESP. But neither had experience as a camp counselor—until now.


“It’s fun—I love it,” added Gilbert. They were tasked with taking Polaroid pictures during the week and enjoyed snapping and sharing the instant photos with their campers.


Involving young adults with special needs as counselors added another layer to the program, said Fuhrman. By the end of the two weeks, he said, he hoped the participants had a better grasp of career options that involve the natural resources.


“They take it seriously, especially our counselors. We give them shirts and they really feel like it’s a big deal,” he said, adding that they are compensated for their time through the grant. “It’s a great job for the counselors and the campers get some great experiences.”


Associate Dean for Outreach & Meigs Professor of Environmental Education

Support Warnell

We appreciate your financial support. Your gift is important to us and helps support critical opportunities for students and faculty alike, including lectures, travel support, and any number of educational events that augment the classroom experience. Learn more about giving.