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UPDATE | Wheelchair-accessible Coitsville camp looking for more funding

Jimmy Sutton, director of operations for GabbaCamp, speaks with reporters at Purple Cat headquarters in Youngstown, Ohio on Jan. 10, 2022.
Jimmy Sutton, director of operations for GabbaCamp, speaks with reporters at Purple Cat headquarters in Youngstown, Ohio on Jan. 10, 2022.

A 33-acre camp is being designed for people with low- and high-functioning disabilities, offering them a place to work with animals, enjoy a swimming pool, take nature hikes and do equine therapy — even those who use a wheelchair.

Golden String Inc. and The Purple Cat, two Youngstown organizations that provide activities for children and adults with disabilities, broke ground on GabbaCamp in 2018 to serve as an accessible vacation spot for people with autism, Down syndrome or traumatic brain injuries, said James Sutman, founder of the organizations.

The campsite is expected to offer 15 wheelchair-accessible cabins, several of which are designed to have lightweight ceiling lifts for people in wheelchairs to do their personal care, Sutman said.

“We’re really looking at it being a tourist vacation spot for folks with disabilities,” he said. “We’re located near Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Akron. … We can have people from all over the country flown into these airports, pick them up in a Golden String vehicle and take them to camp for a week.”

Sutman said the campsite will be adjacent to The Purple Cat at Farmer Casey’s Ranch, 4738 McCartney Road, Coitsville, and will be open year-round for lodging. Residents will also have access to a wheelchair-accessible, half-mile trail that circles the campsite’s 7-acre lake.

The campsite is expected to cost between $3.5 million and $4 million dollars, Sutman said, and he’s in need of more local and federal funding to help build the cabins, walking trail and community center and to tend to the lake, he added.

“Our first donation was for $750,000 from the Mahoning Valley Hospital Foundation,” Sutman said. “That really put us on the [right] road and actually paid for the road and path around the lake with the lake management and blacktopping for wheelchairs.”

The organization also received $250,000 in federal CARES Act funding and $100,000 from The Youngstown Foundation, he said.

Sutman said GabbaCamp will also provide on-site employment opportunities for The Purple Cat and Golden String clients.

“We can employ 50 people. … Even if some of them are only working a couple hours a week,” he said. “We do have folks with autism or Down syndrome that can tolerate 20 to 40 hours a week.”

The campsite is about halfway to its total fundraising goal, and plans to open by summer 2023, Sutman said.

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Jimmy Sutton, left, director of operations for GabbaCamp, and U.S. Rep Tim Ryan of Howland, D-13th, tour Purple Cat headquarters in Youngstown, Ohio, on Monday, Jan. 10, 2022. (William D. Lewis | Mahoning Matters)

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Howland, D-13th, joined Sutman at a media briefing Monday morning to talk about federal funding opportunities for campsite projects.

“There are different buckets of money, but a lot of this is going to be brick and mortar stuff, there will be some economic development potential opportunities with the [U.S.] Department of Health,” he said.

Sutman said the campsite can be used for other purposes besides the traditional vacation spot it’s designed for — like a quarantine spot for residents who have COVID-19. Its cabins could be finished as early as this summer, he told Mahoning Matters.

“If four people live together in Struthers and two become ill, we might want to move those two to a cabin,” he said. “We deal with a lot of folks who [have behavioral issues] like intermittent explosive disorder, and they may need to get away from their homes for a little bit.”

Sutman said the campsite can also help people with disabilities meet others who share their lifestyle and create new friendships.

“What if you’re a guy that’s very smart, but you’re physically disabled and you’re having a tough time meeting people?” he said. “You’ll go to camp for a week and surround yourself with other people just like you.”

Ryan said there’s a great local need to give something special to families with disabled children or adults.

“I think we all know families who are dealing with some family member who falls in this category, and it’s an opportunity for us to do something really special for this community,” he said.

“This defines what type of country and community we are to offer these families to have a little bit of relief here with a vacation that otherwise would be very difficult to do.”

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