Construction Begins on Golden String’s Gabba Camp in Coitsville

COITSVILLE – Across a small pond from Purple Cat’s Farmer Casey’s Ranch in Coitsville, workers are busy building the first of several cabins that will line the paths of Golden String Inc.’s newest endeavor – Gabba Camp.

Jimmy Sutman, director of operations for Golden String, says the new camp is intended to serve adults with developmental disabilities and could become a destination for clients across the country.

“That is going to be our first foray into marketing nationally,” he says. “People from all over can fly to the Pittsburgh airport. We pick them up in a Golden String van. We take them to camp for a week where we provide staffing and activities. And then we put them back on the plane and get them home.”

With nearly $1 million already invested in the camp’s infrastructure, Sutman believes he can replicate in the Mahoning Valley the great camping experiences he’s shared with his clients elsewhere.

Thirty-three of the original 52 acres of farmland in Coitsville were sectioned off for Gabba Camp. There, Sutman says he plans to build 12 cabins, a lodge, a handicap-accessible swimming pool and bathhouses.

Sutman is also president of the Purple Cat, an adult day program for those with disabilities, and Iron and String Life Enhancement Inc. (ISLE).

The idea for the camp initially came from Golden String board President David Blasko, says Sutman.

“We were having such success taking our folks out across the state,” he says. “Not only our state but even to Myrtle Beach and Virginia Beach, we have taken our folks camping.”

Golden String’s Blasko says the camp is part of the nonprofit’s work and will take more of an extracurricular approach as opposed to the day-to-day programming style of the farm.

“The vision was to have a camp almost like Camp Fitch, but for adults with disabilities – multiple cabins and a lodge,” Blasko says. “There are not a lot of opportunities for people both in our community and across the country.” 

The organization hopes to have all the cabins completed by summer.

The camp has been a work-in-progress for years but experienced setbacks in donation funding because of the pandemic, says Blasko.

“The idea for the camp is to continue to grow,” he says. “There are so many different opportunities we can go with to better provide services that are needed,” he says.

Sutman says Golden String received $250,000 in funding from the Cares Act – a pandemic-era relief measure – through the Mahoning County commissioners.

“In just talking qualifications for that, tourism and resort were words that were used quite a bit,” he says. “We don’t use them here in Youngstown or Mahoning County too much.”

That’s when it clicked, says Sutman. He wanted to create a resort for those with disabilities.

The Mahoning Valley Hospital Foundation “led the charge” after donating $750,000, says Sutman. The money allowed for a path to be built around the pond and a bridge.

The year-round camp will accept individuals from both residential and group homes. Staff members will be on hand to coordinate activities and to offer personal and behavioral support.

“We want to do things differently and we want to expose folks to that,” Sutman says. “A campfire. Cooking over a fire. Roasting marshmallows. A lot of our folks with disabilities never get a shot to do that.”

The land is stocked with a variety of animals, including peacocks, unique birds and alpacas. Wheelchair-accessible paths also run between locations.

Two types of cabins will be available – a conventional style and another design that accommodates clients with larger wheelchairs who require more space.

Five cabins have already been sponsored, and Sutman says they are still accepting sponsorships for the remaining seven. Each of the cabins costs about $50,000 to build, he says.

Cabins sleep six people, says Sutman, but some may vary depending on the client.

Upon completion, he believes the camp will accommodate between 100 and 120 people.

Plans for Gabba Camp could include an equine therapy program, Sutman says. This type of therapy involves learning to care for and understand horses, which has helped people boost their self-esteem and confidence.

“As I age, I want to do more with the animals and more with agriculture,” he says. “I would hope someday we would have a heated greenhouse and do a lot with horses.”

Sutman says he’s already seen success with alpacas and donkeys with his clients. He believes horses are the next step.

“It’s not only exposing our folks to the horses and animal care,” he says. “It’s more getting them on the horses and feeling the horse and getting to know the horse.”

Sutman says he plans to make the camp available for community rentals.

While Farmer Casey’s Ranch usually closes by about 4 p.m., Sutman says Gabba Camp can operate later.

Providing respite services were a “big thrust” for this, he adds.

“In this day and age, it is harder than ever to find caregivers,” he says. “Just like in any field, it is hard to find employees. But we think that we can give caregivers a break by having folks come here or the caregivers that they already have locally can just report here.”

At least two of the five cabins under construction should be completed soon, says Sutman. He believes this will enable Golden String to officially start the camp in late spring

Sutman is looking at additional opportunities with the neighboring properties – such as creating housing for those with disabilities with a walking path to the farm, says Sutman.

“A lot of our folks with disabilities live these strange, wonderful lives that are not documented,” he says. “So, we are all about sitting around a campfire telling stories.”

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Pictured at top: Jimmy Sutman pets Fillipo, the mascot for Farmer Casey’s Ranch in Coitsville.