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A History of Leaders in the Making: Gate of Opportunity

Over 35 years ago, one man’s visit to an abandoned academy in the mountains of north Georgia would be the beginning of something spectacular. Having known many students who were already winners, S. Truett Cathy wanted to create a program to help shape them for life. The following post is a glimpse into the history of WinShape Camps as written by our first Director of WinShape Camps for Boys, Rick Johnson, in the book ‘A History of Leaders in the Making.’

Gate of Opportunity

     Truett Cathy believes in taking advantage of unexpected opportunities. “When I leave myself available to respond,” he says, “I find that I am richly blessed.”

In 1984, Truett took advantage of an unexpected opportunity, and since then he and thousands of children have been blessed by it through Camp WinShape.

The opportunity began with an invitation in the fall of 1983 to speak to business students at Berry College in Rome, Georgia. Truett noticed when he drove into campus that the sign at the entrance read: “Gate of Opportunity.” Intrigued, he asked Dr. Gloria Shatto, president of the college, about the origin of the phrase. She told Truett about Berry’s beginnings, how in the late nineteenth century Martha Berry had met some of the nearby mountain children, and after learning that they were not offered any schooling, had created the Berry School.

Dr. Shatto gave Truett a tour of the main college campus, and then drove to the Mountain Campus where Miss Berry had started her work and built her school through the early decades of the twentieth century. The beautiful old stone buildings looked to Truett like the ideal college setting- quiet and intimate, the stone evoking permanence. The Berry College president explained, however, that the old buildings would be locked up soon. For years, they had been used by the Berry Academy, the primary grades and high school that Martha Berry had organized before creating the college. Demand for the academy had fallen in recent years, and it was costing millions of dollars to keep the school open. The Berry trustees had decided to close it.

Truett was dismayed. He couldn’t imagine this place, with its historical significance and obvious value, being mothballed. Dr. Shatto said the trustees hoped to find an alternative use for the Mountain Campus and were open to ideas.

Truett decided to take his wife, Jeannette, up to Berry to show her the campus. Perhaps the two of them might have a suggestion for its use. As they drove up they talked about Martha Berry, and how God had worked through her to bring education and His word to hundreds of students over the decades. They stepped into Friendship Hall and Pilgrim Hall, beautiful old dormitories, then walked over to the Hill Dining Hall. Then they went over to Frost Chapel, where for nearly half a century, students, faculty, and visitors had worshiped God. “I feel like I’m standing on holy ground,” Jeannette said.

Truett and Jeannette knew that God had a plan for the Mountain Campus, and they believed they were part of that plan. Truett met the next day with the Chick-fil-A executive committee and told them what he had experienced. The executive committee shared Truett’s spirit of sharing but not his enthusiasm for the Berry Mountain Campus. They saw “a black hole” that would drain resources from other important and worthy opportunities. Truett insisted that they visit Berry. He also wanted his pastor, Dr. Charles Carter, to step onto the campus and experience what he and Jeannette had felt.

At the end of their day at Berry, Truett and Jeannette remained the only two convinced that God was calling them to this place. To everyone else, the campus appeared to be a series of insurmountable problems. Even Dr. Carter tried to talk them out of it. Maintenance alone, Truett’s advisors said, would be extremely expensive.

The Cathys agreed that the challenge was greater than anything they or Chick-fil-A could take on alone. But they knew God was in it, and with His active and direct involvement, they would not fail. In the months that followed, God’s plan would become clearer to them.

Truett’s heart for young people aligned with Martha Berry’s vision for molding the lives of youth. Truett believed God wanted him to maintain that purpose- to work with young people to shape winners, and from that vision came the name WinShape: shaping individuals to be winners. Through a partnership with WinShape and Berry College, more than 120 students would receive scholarships to the college and live at the Mountain Campus.

In December, the Reverend Bob Skelton, who was on staff at Roswell Street Baptist Church in Marietta, spoke at a banquet at the Cathy’s home church, First Baptist of Jonesboro. Later he spoke at a youth evangelism conference in Macon where Bubba and Dan Cathy were playing trumpets in the Stone Brothers band. Bob had previously served as director of admissions for Shorter College in Rome and had also pastored a church in that city, and the Cathy brothers sought his advice regarding WinShape College Program.

“I became excited as they told me their plans,” Bob recalls. “I knew the campus and the city of Rome well. The following week they invited me to Chick-fil-A headquarters to discuss their opportunities, and over the course of several weeks in early 1984, I spent more time helping develop their vision for WinShape.”

In June, Truett asked Bob if he would consider Director the WinShape College Program. Bob and his family agree to take the challenge, and they began the fall term with sixty-eight WinShape students.

In January, Truett was visiting the Berry Campus, and he asked Bob, “What are you planning to do this summer?”

“We’ll be recruiting students, getting ready for the fall, and taking my family on vacation.”

“What about summer camp?” Truett asked.

He made a convincing argument, telling Bob about the tremendous impact Camp Ridgecrest and Camp Crestridge had made on his children.

Bob couldn’t say it, but summer camp had been the furthest thing from his mind. How could they start a camp from scratch and have it up and running in five months? It was an impossible schedule, but Truett knew that “with God, all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:27).