Alabama 4-H Center delivers adventures
By Ginny Cooper McCarley
Rarely can one location play host to such a variety of events—science camps, church groups, weddings, corporate meetings—but the Alabama 4-H Center in Columbiana manages it all, while staying true to their mission.
“We are primarily a youth development center to impact leadership skills and youth across Alabama, but we are also a destination for a variety of other entities,” Bobby Breedlove, manager of the center, said.
The Alabama 4-H Center is a stunning 264-acres of towering trees, chirping birds, and cool breezes overlooking Lay Lake in Columbiana. The center sits on land that is leased long-term from Alabama Power as well as additional property owned by the 4-H Foundation.
In 1980, when the first buildings were erected on the property, the layout was simple—there was dorm housing, a lodge and dining room for meals.
Now, the center offers more than just the rustic accommodations you’d expect to find: There are 51 hotel-style guest rooms and 30 private dorm rooms as well as five quaint cottages. A number of meeting facilities dot the landscape as well, from boardrooms for official business to a theater with a view of leafy, green trees. For larger groups, the Environmental Science Education Center offers six meeting rooms of various sizes, which all look out over the forest.
Though the Alabama 4-H Center offers an assorted itinerary throughout the year, the keystone event for the center is the 4-H summer camp.
“For some kids, it’s the first chance they get to spend the night away from home and bond,” Breedlove said, adding that the camp seeks to “develop good young men and young women.”
Campers stay on-site for three nights, experiencing activities such as archery, canoeing and swimming. At night, kids eat ice cream at the opening-night luau and roast marshmallows to perfection over a campfire.
For the most adventurous campers, the center offers night hikes and a climbing wall as well as a giant swing, where participants don a full body harness, are hoisted to the top of a 30-foot pole and pull the quick release to go flying. The mantra for these activities is “challenge by choice,” Breedlove said, stressing that attendees are never pressured to try anything they are not comfortable doing.
“You like to see someone sneak a little bit outside their comfort zone,” he said. “That’s where the growth occurs. Confidence can be such a visible thing, and you can see that in their posture and reaction afterwards.”
The adventure courses are open to all groups who use the facilities, including corporate organizations and campers of all kinds. For many groups who opt to try the activities, change seeps into other aspects of their life as well.
“(That confidence) bleeds over into your personal life and professional life as well,” Breedlove said.
For visitors with a bent for science, the facility houses the Alabama 4-H Science School—another mainstay of the Alabama 4-H Center—a residential environmental education program, currently celebrating two decades of work at the center.
The science school sits on the banks of Lay Lake, and provides hands-on learning experiences for groups as well as outreach programs across the state.
For Brian Taylor, on-site program coordinator for the Alabama 4-H Science School, the science school is special in its ability to reach a broad variety of ages and skill levels.
“(People) of all ranges of ability and learning styles can learn things in an exciting way,” Taylor said, adding that the center has the capacity to work with both kids and adults.
The science school is home to almost 100 animals, ranging from reptiles to raptors. Many of the animals reside in the Environmental Science Education Center, a gold level LEED-Certified “green” building, which has a number of Alabama habitats on display. Owls peep out of the piedmont habitat, and in the swamp habitat, two small American alligators rest on a wet bed of leaves.
“The habitats are done really, really well,” Taylor said. “Our animal collection is what really sets us apart. There is always something different going on; always something fun.”
Quite a few of the animals are rescue animals, and some of the birds come from Oak Mountain’s Alabama Wildlife Center.
“Every individual animal has its own story, and they all have a message,” Taylor said, noting instructors often use the animals as an example to students of how to properly care for animals, as well as the importance of conservation.
For Taylor, who worked as an instructor with the science school for two years, the best part of leading the program is helping students appreciate nature.
“Seeing their eyes light up, seeing them make sense of something they’ve never understood before…it’s wonderful, it really is,” Taylor said.
With all of the camps, conferences and activities, there are a lot of hungry bellies to feed at the Alabama 4-H Center, a job James Jernigan enjoys immensely.
Jernigan has served as food service manager for the center for more than ten years, which have been “the best 10 years of my life,” he said.
The 12-person on-site kitchen can churn out “pretty much anything you can imagine,” Jernigan said, who often cooks up classic meals such as roast beef with fresh new potatoes and French-blend vegetables or fried chicken breast with mashed potatoes and green beans.
For the campers, Jernigan makes kid-approved meals such as spaghetti, chicken fingers and hotdogs.
The Alabama 4-H Center also hosts a number of weddings in the open-air chapel nestled in the woods, which features valeted ceilings and classic wooden benches.
For wedding guests, Adrieanne Conwell develops high-end catering options.
“She just rocks the house on catering. It’s amazing,” Jernigan said.
No matter what your business at the Alabama 4-H Center, guests can expect good service.
“We put our blood, sweat and tears into everything we do,” Jernigan said. “We take care of things so you don’t have to worry about anything.”