We are celebrating 10 years of learning, discovering, and fun with Leadership Academy! Read on for reflections on our beginnings as well as exciting developments for the future with founder Laura “Twigs” Johnson.
How did Leadership Academy begin? How has it evolved over the years?
I was inspired to begin Leadership Academy because there was a clear demand for more opportunities to get kids outside and connected to nature. The first camp location was Warner Park, in 2014. From there, we opened a camp in Bells Bend and Beaman parks in 2016. As the desire for more types of activities grew, we opened Nashville Sail Camp, which was followed by Mountain Bike Camp. Leadership Academy has always been about sensing what the community wants and needs for their children, and providing opportunities to pursue that.
Do you have a favorite camping memory?
There are a lot to choose from! One of the first great memories I have is from 2015, at Warner Park. A young camper, Noelle, was a little scared to come to camp. She visited first to hear what camp was about, then came to a session for a week. When she left, she declared, “This is the best camp ever because everyone knows my name!”
Another camper came from a family that deeply loved nature, while he was a bit more interested in playing Minecraft. He sort of came in with an “I don’t want to be here” attitude, but then he ended up being super engaged and having a great time with newfound friends, no Minecraft involved!
I think this camper’s story and Noelle’s story really demonstrate how we want kids to be curious and excited about their new experiences in nature, and feel safe and cared for while doing so. I want to make sure kids feel seen, known, and important, and carry that confidence wherever they go.
More recently, it has been so nice to make new memories with the campers who have grown up and become staff at Leadership Academy themselves! I’ve loved seeing them flourish, progressing from campers to teen helpers to staff, especially at Nashville Sail Camp. There have been a lot of great changes from the camp they knew to the camp they work at and help run today, and it’s a testament to the community at Leadership Academy that they want to continuously come back to be a part of it.
What are your plans for the future of Leadership Academy?
Becoming a nonprofit is going to help us engage with our community in a more established way. We would love to see growth in Hendersonville, where we are opening a new camp, and continuing to grow in Nashville, growth that includes establishing community partners. It is clear that kids need camp and this unstructured connection to the outdoors more than ever before. Many of them have been inside on screens all day for virtual learning and for play, and they need enriching time to explore the outdoors, meet new friends, and develop life skills. It is a mission of mine to provide and grow these spaces for children to thrive.
10 years is something to be proud of! How are you planning on celebrating?
It is a huge milestone! In addition to opening our camp in Hendersonville, we plan to kick off the summer with a reunion celebration, inviting back Leadership Academy alums to hang out with us at a local park. More information on that on the way! We would love to see members of the community and Leadership Academy campers and their families to express our gratitude. There are so many people to thank, especially the loyal families and parents who send their children year after year, advocating for the program and encouraging participation. The staff at Nashville Metro Parks, Bells Bend & Beaman Park Nature Centers, the Percy Priest Yacht Club, the City of Hendersonville Parks & Recreation, and the Bells Bend Conservation Corridor for giving scholarships to attend camp at Bells Bend. I have had great advisors, including Tim Kearns, my insurance agent, and Mark Weller, who I wouldn’t have started Leadership Academy without his encouragement, support and mentorship. And of course my amazing staff team at all of the camps across Leadership Academy for their dedication, thoughtfulness, and care. It has been an incredible 10 years, and I am so excited for us to get back to our roots, see the kids play creatively in nature and come up with activities of their own, but also expand and provide new adventures that they will cherish.