Magic at Gravatt

There is a hidden, magical place off of Interstate 20, Exit 29, where families build bonds and form memories. A place that ensures you leave with more love and happiness then when you came. Located in Aiken, South Carolina, Gravatt is an Episcopal, year-round retreat center and summer youth camp that offers so much more. Founded in 1949 by the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina, Gravatt’s mission is to be a sanctuary for the ministry of faith formation, hospitality, leadership development and environmental stewardship.

Gravatt offers space for retreats and meetings. There are hotel style accommodations as well as rustic camping areas, which are available for guest rental in the fall and spring. They host church groups, nonprofits, businesses, youth groups, sports teams, family reunions and more. Group sizes range from 10 to 200. There’s also space for primitive campers, team building exercises and environmental education for school groups. Gravatt runs a one-acre farm used to educate and serve vegetables and eggs to their guests. However, they are most known for their summer camp program, which is faith-based, co-ed and residential. They serve about 1000 1st through 11th graders each summer, along with the two family camp sessions available. Because Gravatt wants to serve as many as possible, they offer scholarships and military discounts.

In addition to their many offerings, every December Gravatt hosts a Christmas retreat for military families. When interviewing former staff-member Lauri SoJourner, she explained the story of how this annual event began. “This retreat started in 2011. We used to do a lot of wonderful Strong Bonds events with the WTB and had a contract with them {WTB} for a military retreat at Christmas. The government funding for it {Christmas retreat} fell through at the last minute. I happened to tell a friend of mine at Rotary about our disappointment that the retreat was canceled. He happened to be an Aiken Standard reporter and said, ‘That sounds like something people in Aiken would support if I wrote a story about it.’ So he did, and we put on the retreat ourselves – with the help of a lot of volunteers. It was such an amazing gathering of the community that we decided to continue the retreat. Being able to serve the military families was something our staff looked forward to – it really breathed life into our ministry. Though we no longer have those {WTB} retreats, being able to give this gift to service men and women once a year has become a favorite tradition. Military families sacrifice a lot, and it feels good to be able to provide this for them. We have received a lot of positive feedback from the retreat participants, and our staff and volunteers love it.”

The beauty of this retreat is Gravatt doesn’t pay any additional staff to come in. With the normal staff, they typically have about 60 volunteers throughout the weekend.  “It’s the last thing they {staff} do before Christmas vacation.” Community members are a huge part of the volunteer staff. Meals are donated, prepared and served by generous members of the Gravatt community.

In 2015, Samantha, a friend and coworker, invited my family and I to attend the retreat. She told me how wonderful the experience would be for our families. Not knowing what to expect, I honestly didn’t want to get my hopes up but agreed to attend. At the last minute, my husband was unable to attend, and with four children (one being a newborn), I wanted to call and cancel. My best friend Jenny, who is active duty, was in town for the weekend. She pushed me to go and came along to help. ‘Til this day, I still can’t thank the coordinators and volunteers enough. Not only was this an amazing experience for my children and I, but the friendships we created during the short time has continued throughout the years. My friendship with the Day Family is only one example of a strong relationship developed at Gravatt.

Lauri stated, “It’s really special to see relationships develop over a weekend. Usually, on the first night, each family sits with their own unit at meals. By the end of the weekend, families come together at meals. The families really appreciate the time to be together doing activities like making gingerbread houses, high and low ropes courses, ziplining, canoeing, fishing, evening activities and, of course, a visit from Santa! Last year, a soldier told me that he’d been on other “family” retreats with the military where he hardly got to see his children at all. He really appreciated that Gravatt focuses on the families doing fun activities together. There is so much joy to be had at this retreat.”

Since 2011, the Gravatt Christmas Retreat has grown from a few families to over 18 families in 2016. Because of the growing number of families, you are encouraged to apply the minute registration opens. “Typically we try to stay in a range of 15-20 families. It depends on the sizes of the families because of room arrangements. Initially we will have a waiting list, but because at times we have cancellations, we are able to contact families on the wait-list.” So even if you don’t get selected immediately, keep faith you may be called! If you aren’t selected this year but still want to be a part of the weekend, Gravatt is always seeking families, churches, and organizations to donate their time and hands in the Gravatt kitchen during the retreat. This is a great opportunity to not only serve, but come together as a community.

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About Crystal Tyson

Having served nine years active duty military, Crystal has always had a passion to serve those who serve! While becoming a wife and mother of four beautiful children, she was offered an opportunity to continue to do so. In her time with Family and MWR, Crystal has grown to absolutely love her job; it totally fits her outgoing, zany personality! This Chicago native looks forward to many more years to come with Family and MWR.

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