Finding Freedom: Camp for veterans, first responders growing to meet demand

Matt Guedes, executive director of Camp Freedom outside of Carbondale.

After three years of helping veterans, first responders and their families, a camp outside of Carbondale has plans to expand.

Camp Freedom began in January 2018. The 1,800-acre parcel of land belonged to Bill and Laura Bachenberg, who owned and operated a shooting range called Lehigh Valley Sporting Clays. The couple noticed that some patrons with disabilities frequented their range. Seeing the need, the couple decided to make their location handicap accessible, even giving disabled shooters free access.

The main idea for the camp was always centered on providing access to outdoor activities for those with disabilities, but it was Executive Director Matt Guedes who suggested putting the location’s focus on disabled veterans, first responders and their families.

Thus, the camp that many veterans and first responders have come to know and love was born. Guedes is still blown away by the kindhearted act of the Bachenbergs.

“Who, no matter what your ability or resources, decides to take a resource like this and says, ‘I’m not going to use it for my personal desires or passions, I’m going to repurpose it 100% for this cause?’ That’s what tells you who these people are,” said Guedes. “I’ve never met more generous people in my life.”

Guedes served as an officer in the United States Army for 3 ½ years. He was stationed at Fort Polk, Louisiana and Fort Hood, Texas. He is also the owner of Journey Hunts, a hunting consultant business. Guedes has also served as a pastor to three different churches, with 24 years in the ministry.

“Since I left the military, I never stopped caring about veterans,” he said. “That military aspect always stays with you …This was an opportunity to combine my great passion and love for the outdoors with my passion for helping people, particularly vets and first responders.”

Camp Freedom offers a variety of outdoor activities ranging from fishing, hunting and hiking to flora and wildlife identification.

“What we focus on is not what you can’t do, not what you struggle to do, not what your battle in life is about. What we focus on is ‘what can you do,’” he said. “How can we provide you with an opportunity to do something that you don’t think you can do?”

Last year, Camp Freedom served close to 2,000 veterans, first responders, and their families. But the demand has outstripped what the camp can accommodate. They hope to break ground this spring on an inclement weather meeting space/storage facility that can accommodate up to 500 people.

Camp officials are also planning an expansion to their main lodge. As of now, the lodge can only provide accommodations for up to seven people. The camp was able to accept only 41 applications out of 300 for the 2020 hunting season. Guedes hopes by 2022, they can accommodate more guests in their new and improved lodge. Other projects being planned include a new pavilion and a gun range.

The camp is a nonprofit, and much of their operations are funded through grants, sponsors and donations from local businesses and philanthropists. The park received a $99,000 conservation grant for a project related to the golden-winged warbler, an endangered bird.

“We’re going to do over 50 acres of renovations to our grounds in order to create a habitat friendly to those birds so that they can multiply,” said Guedes.

One of the camp’s biggest sponsors was Underwood Ammo, an ammunition company based in Sparta, Illinois. The ammunition company helped sponsor the customization of a 1969 Chevy Nova raffled off by the camp. Kount’s Customs, an auto customization/restoration shop that’s the subject of the History Channel’s series Counting Cars, customized and donated the car. Camp Freedom raised $300,000 from the raffle.

Camp Freedom was also the recipient of three track wheelchairs and a lift for access to the second floor of the lodge. The items were donated by Lackawanna County Veteran’s Affairs.

Camp Freedom filled a big piece to the puzzle of helping our warriors transition back into civilian life, officials said. They are also bringing families closer together by helping family members who didn’t serve understand a little more about the issues veterans face.

“Camp Freedom is a huge asset to our community, and I am grateful they are right in my back yard,” said David Eisele, director of veterans affairs for Lackawanna County.