Ruffin Shackelford led a group of boys, referred to his program by a juvenile court judge, deep into the Shining Rock Wilderness. That night one of the boys started beating up another, and when Shackelford separated them, the aggressor said he didn’t answer to anyone and was leaving.
Shackelford pointed out that he’s the one who got them to the Shining Rock campsite miles from the closest road and was pretty sure he was the only one who could find the way out. The boy realized he had no choice but to stay.
The next morning the boy shared his life story with Shackelford, telling Shackelford of a life plagued with parental drug addiction and violence. By the end of the week, the boy converted to Christianity, and when he returned to school, he was promoted two grades.
“Of course not every story is like that, but that is one of them,” said Jamie Shackelford, Ruffin Shackelford’s wife. “They were scared to death that bears were out there but they would sleep in the projects next door to a drug dealer.”
The couple started hosting backpacking trips for juvenile delinquents in 1998 during Ruffin Shackelford’s time off of work from his job managing a power plant in Roxboro. In 2008, the Shackelfords opened the Outdoor Mission Camp based in Maggie Valley fulltime.
Now the couple hosts a wide range of campers and focuses on training college students to become leaders. The camp’s focus is to introduce “people to the Creator through the majesty of creation.”
Ruffin Shackelford said he grew up in the 1960s when drugs, sex and rock were the cultural source of excitement. When he started to raise a family, he realized not much had changed.
So he did what he could to make sure his five kids got their fair share of adventure in the outdoors instead of less favorable alternatives. The couple took their children cross country skiing in backpacks before their kids could walk.
They also helped raise foster children, and their kids’ friends always tagged along on outdoor trips.
“The camp seemed like a natural growth from that,” Ruffin Shackelford said.
Ruffin Shackelford’s father was an art professor at the University of Houston, and in 1963 the Cataloochee Ranch built a cabin a little way down the mountain. His dad traded portraits of ranch owners Tom and Judy Alexander for the cabin.
Although the camp was originally based out of that cabin, two and a half years ago the couple finished building a house at the top of the mountain where they now live and run the camp. That’s when Ruffin Shackelford quit at the power plant.
“There wasn’t enough time in life to follow my career and do this,” he said.
Throughout the years, the couple has led more than just juvenile delinquents through the wilderness. They also have hosted camps for teen mothers, at-risk students and church groups.
Last week, 22 middle school boys from Person County came to the Outdoor Mission Camp, many at the suggestion of the school reading specialist.
One of the campers Dezmond Wilson, 13, had never been hiking or camping before. He’d never been to the mountains either. But that week he hiked more than 10 miles and camped two nights on the trail.
“I thought I was going to be way behind,” Wilson said. “I just started pushing myself. I felt amazing because I hiked that far. I’ve never been pushed as hard as I’ve been this week.”
The Shackelfords are finding it more and more challenging to keep up with the younger campers.
“I’ve got to keep up with 20-year-olds, and I’ve got the heaviest pack,” she said.
Besides changing the lives of children, the couple has developed a vision to train another generation of leaders. Each summer they bring in college students to serve as camp counselors, or Sherpa.
They chose to call their counselors Sherpas after the ethnic group native to the Himalayan Mountains, which teach and prepare mountaineers from around the world to conquer Earth’s highest peaks.
The Sherpa at the Outdoor Mission Camp receive several weeks of training before they tackle the task of leading campers. They earn wilderness first aid, rafting guide and top rope belaying certifications.
Before becoming a Sherpa at the camp, Jane Savage, 20, said she placed more value on outward appearances, money and her future career.
“Then I came here and realized that’s not what’s really important,” she said.
Savage was drawn to the camp because it was set in the wilderness. However, before starting she had little experience backpacking.
“The first couple of times, it’s like you’re on survivor and then you’re back at the house in the Ritz,” Savage said.
July 30 the Sherpa will put into practice everything they’ve learned when they travel with the rest of the camp staff to Honduras to lead a weeklong day camp.