Jean Peck leads the dream at Camp Southern Ground

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Photos by Marie Thomas

Leaning casually against the wall in Camp Southern Ground’s office building is a small wooden slate with three words scrawled across it: “Dreams Come True.”

Even though these three tiny words appear small and meek, sitting gingerly atop a console table, the declaration they make is mighty. “The idea that dreams can become reality suggests we can somehow harness the power to make the impossible become possible.”

How does this happen, exactly? As Jean Peck knows, behind every dream, aspiration, and goal, exists gumption, determination, and passion – all of which are required to see a dream through to fruition.

Currently, as Executive Director of Camp Southern Ground, Jean maintains an unwavering enthusiasm as she stands alongside Grammy award-winning musician Zac Brown and his team as they build his vision: a dream-come-true summer camp and retreat center for children both for typical and children with special needs. Being an integral part of Camp Southern Ground’s planning process from its conception, Jean has shared with the organization her many talents, garnered from years of achievement as a seasoned horsewoman, experienced pilot, business-savvy entrepreneur, world-traveler, and dedicated wife and mother.

Growing up in Griffin, Jean discovered her first love early in life: horses. As a country born-and-raised Southern girl, she spent much of her time riding. The thrill and excitement of western pleasure first drew her into the sport, but eventually expanded into English-style riding and even jumping.

“Growing up in the country, I was a barrel racer and rode western pleasure,” Jean explained, “One day I came across an English saddle and threw it up on my horse. Soon after, I really began to enjoy English riding.” Although horses were a large part of her early years, the rest of her time was spent enjoying her family, driving tractors, and dreaming about traveling the world.

After high school, Jean went on to attend Auburn University in Alabama. Despite her many interests, the courses she gravitated toward led her to persue a degree in Public Relations and Marketing. Her natural ability to communicate with others and her innate curiosity about the world around her suited her perfectly for a career in Communications.

Just as soon as Jean had figured out a new direction for her life, things took an unexpected and exciting turn. During her junior year, she met her future husband Dave Peck. Dave was in the army and would likely be moving out of state, but Jean embraced the adventure that lay ahead of them. In 1985, just one month after her graduation, they were married. Shortly after, the army relocated Dave and Jean to a small town in Oklahoma, and less than one year after moving, her husband overheard an army commander ask, “Anybody want to transfer to Alaska?” This was the beginning of the adventure she had been waiting for. One week later, the couple hopped on a plane. Destination: Alaska.

While Jean was living in North Pole, Alaska, she discovered something else besides how to wear five layers of clothing at one time. She learned that she loved to fly.

“Being a country girl at heart, the first thing I learned to drive was a tractor,” Jean explains. “When I got into an airplane for the first time, it just felt natural — like flying was what I was born to do.”

Jean felt that flying gave her the thrill of operating a challenging three-dimensional machine. The husband-and-wife team went on to complete their pilot training and join the Alaska Air National Guard. Earning her rank of captain, Jean was an aircraft commander on the KC-135 Stratotanker (Air-to-Air Refuler). She was deployed with the 168th Air Refueling Group to serve in Desert Storm, where she gained valuable leadership experience.

Taking the opportunity to travel, Harvey and Elaine Arnold, Jean’s parents, accompanied Jean on several trips here in the United States as well as abroad during Jean’s employment with United Airlines.

Eventually, after spending six years flying for the military and four years as a commercial pilot with United Airlines, Jean and her husband decided to settle down to start a family of their own. Although she had enjoyed the time spent exploring Alaska and most of Europe, Jean felt that returning to Georgia would be the best plan if they were to raise children. So after spending a decade in Alaska, in 1997, they packed their bags and headed back south. Jean continued her career with United Airlines for another six years, commuting to Washington D.C. to fly the Boeing 757 to Europe, North America and South America. “The long trips were hard on my internal system, but it was well worth the opportunity to keep traveling,” Jean remembers.

Over the years, their family multiplied in size and in 2003, Jean decided to put her flying career on hold. She took a leave of absence in order to stay home full time with their two fast-growing children, Justin and Caroline. “I needed a break from the routine and the commute,” Jean says. Although raising a family occupied a large amount of her time, Jean’s aspirations for the future continued to bubble up, and this time led her to real estate. “Real estate really found me,” she explains. “While I was renovating a home, I became interested and got my real estate license.”

The Camp Southern Ground team prepares for the final Board of Commissioner’s meeting, Dec. 15, 2011 to rezone the future camp land. Pictured are Jean, Greg Copeland (Domokur Architects), Zac Brown and Maath Bennett (Benko Construction).

Soon after becoming licensed in 2005, Jean’s real estate business was born. Tri-state Realty Group, LLC, based out of Peachtree City, specialized in leasing industrial, retail, and office spaces, as well as sales of commercial, residential, investment, and assemblage properties in Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. The company’s tag line, “We deliver dreams,” echoed Jean’s own drive and ambition. However, in 2008, when the market took a downturn, Jean decided to return to flying. “After the real estate market turned, I used my knowledge and talent to help friends in need sell their properties,” she remembers. “Real estate became an act of charity from that moment on.”

Besides being able to broker deals for friends in need, a very fruitful relationship came as a result of Jean’s real estate business. Her assistant, Sloan Mason, who had stood by her side since the inception of the real estate group, was hot on the heels of a new project and knew Jean would be a valuable asset. Jean still remembers the day in 2008 when Sloan’s son-in-law, country music star Zac Brown, shared his vision for Camp Southern Ground with her.

As a teenager living in Dahlonega, Zac Brown had spent several summers as a Camp Counselor at Camp Glisson in North Georgia. During his time there, he was able to work with both typical children and children with special needs. His summer experiences proved to be life changing and left him with a desire to make a difference: his dream was to create a summer camp for children of different backgrounds and ability levels. “I can honestly say that this experience shaped and molded my life in ways that I cannot describe,” Zac says, “and for this, I will be forever grateful.”

Jean proudly introducing Southern Ground artist, Sarah Dugas, who sang the National Anthem at the 2012 Atlanta Steeplechase event at Kingston Downs in Rome, Ga. Pictured are the Rome Fire Department Honor Guard.

“In 2008, when Zac first told me about his dream to build the camp, it immediately intrigued me,” Jean recalls. “He was so excited. His passion for the project seemed to overflow and flood the room.” Shortly after Zac shared with Jean his concept of a summer camp to include children with special needs, the pursuit of a new dream was underway.

Mirroring the passion of its creator, Camp Southern Ground’s mission is “to operate a camp to allow children to overcome academic, social, and emotional difficulties so they may reach their full potential by providing them with the opportunity and tools necessary to achieve excellence in all facets of their lives.” The state-of-the-art facility will be open to all types of children, from all walks of life, and plans to begin accepting campers soon aftter the facility is complete. The 500-acre camp will provide two community groups for kids ages 7-17: Foundry Branch and Kindred Forest. Foundry Branch will house typical children, while Kindred Forest will be a respite facility for campers with mild to moderate disabilities, such as neurobehavioral and learning difficulties. All of the campers will be able to enjoy a variety of activities such as canoeing, swimming, zip lines, hiking, rock climbing, sports, animal care, organic gardening, therapeutic programs and horseback riding.

Initially, Jean was driven to help develop the camp’s equestrian center, largely because of her lifelong love of horses. “Horseback riding is a hobby for our entire family,” Jean explains. “We foxhunt together at Bear Creek Fox Hounds and Midland Fox Hounds, and often include other kids on our outings. I feel like one of the greatest gifts I can give someone is to ‘turn them on’ to horses.” When she saw the opportunity to share with children the joy that horses had brought to her life, she eagerly agreed to get on board with the camp planning process.

As the camp’s development continued, Jean helped that her equestrian background was only one of the many talents that she brought to the table as part of the Camp Southern Ground team. Almost as if through a divine intervention, Jean’s real estate background, leadership skills, and entrepreneurial spirit acted as a catalyst that helped launch Zac Brown’s lifelong dream into reality.

Camp Southern Ground hosted “Camp for a Day” with activities such as Arts & Crafts, Fishing, Games and Horseback Riding. Some of the participants were from The Joseph Sams School in Fayetteville and Clearwater Academy located in Tyrone. Pictured are Julie Brown, Jean, Joshua Gordon (aboard Stella) and Justin Peck.

Putting her real estate expertise to work, Jean helped Zac with the aquisition of the land for the camp. After searching high and low, Jean helped piece together three pieces of adjacent land sites for the future camp, which is located in Fayette County off of Ebenezer Church Road. There were quite a few “aha!” moments during the first few stages of planning, Jean remembers. “Assembling the land for the camp was the first,” she explains. “Being able to rezone it for the camp was another. Going through the process, it became clear to people in the community that Camp Southern Ground is going to be something incredible for Fayette County. A camp for children especially those with special needs is badly needed in the county and will change the lives of hundreds of children in years to come.”

In the spring of 2011, Camp Southern Ground celebrated two important milestones. First, they were approved for 501(c)3 not-for-profit status, and second, Jean was hired on as the organization’s Executive Director. Although Jean had never been employed as a youth camp counselor herself, Zac’s passion for the project fueled her enthusiasm. “Every time I’m at a Zac Brown concert and I hear him talk about the camp it still makes the hair stand up in the back of my neck,” Jean describes. “It’s something so powerful.” Jean’s hope for the camp is that each visitor will be inspired to live by Zac Brown’s example and want to give back to others.

Recently, the camp has begun seeking out additional leadership to help navigate their exciting journey ahead. “We are off of ground zero now, and at about 30 feet in the air,” Jean says. “Although being part of this organization has fed my soul in ways I could only have imagined, I am looking forward to passing the torch so we can all witness this vision become a reality.”

Jean’s courage to reach for her aspirations, ability to maintain a laser-sharp focus on her goals, and desire to inspire those around her has set a precedent that will be difficult to match. Jean feels incredibly grateful for her time with Camp Southern Ground and for the opportunity to contribute to a vision larger than even she could imagine.

“Camp Southern Ground has filled a missing piece in my life, and to have the chance to be part of something this important has truly been a dream come true for me.”

For more information on Camp Southern Ground, please visit www.campsouthernground.org or email info@campsouthernground.org.

 

 

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