Jerry Baker stood in a hallway in the main building at Tuolumne Trails, where he and his wife, Paula, have spent the past decade developing a camp for special needs children and adults outside of Groveland.

It’s been a $4.5 million undertaking to scratch an 80-acre facility from a wooded plot at the edge of the Stanislaus National Forest. The main building, called the Great Hall, is immense, made of Ponderosa pine logs with a patio across the back that has a sweeping view of the western mountains of Yosemite National Park.

Even now, Baker said, he remains amazed at what’s been accomplished.

About 3,700 kids and adults have been to camp at Tuolumne Trails in that time, most of whom would have never been able to experience camp life due to physical and emotional challenges. Children with cystic fibrosis, adults with muscular dystrophy, veterans with PTSD.

“We look for a way to say yes,” Baker said.

There are seven cabins and two ponds loaded with blue gill, a basketball court, pool, a mile of trails, paved walkways to accommodate wheelchairs. There is a challenge course, a meditative garden dedicated to campers who have died and most dramatic of all, a deck at the edge of the property, overlooking the canyons burned in the 2013 Rim Fire, which came close to taking out the entire camp.

Now, as the camp moves into its second decade, the Bakers are looking for what’s next.

“The challenge is how do we make this an entity that will outlive us,” he said.

The beginning

Baker started as a technician for National Semiconductor in the Bay Area in 1972. He worked his way to general manager of a division whose revenue doubled every year before reaching $100 million. He then became one of five founders when Fairchild Semiconductor was spun off from National, Baker said.

Two years later, Fairchild went public.

About the same time, Baker’s best friend was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Baker retired on his 50th birthday. It was 2001 and he was a millionaire who wanted to do something besides make money.

He and Paula considered all sorts of philanthropic avenues — maybe something in the Philippines or other parts of Asia.

Then they remembered the families they met when their son Scott was diagnosed with a brain tumor at 9.

“It was a real kick in the stomach moment,” Baker said.

Scott’s illness required five surgeries over five years.

“Life was put on hold,” he said.

They had bought a vacation home in Groveland in 1993 and a retirement home at Pine Mountain Lake four years later. They knew where they would build what they now call their own field of dreams. They believed if they built a place for families to come, they would.

But first they had to wade through all the requirements of federal, state and county government, the studies and hearings and red tape. Their first piece of property — a 100-acre tract closer to Groveland — was bought in 2003 but was ultimately shot down because it was too close to the Pine Mountain Lake Airport.

Then they found their 80 acres on Ferretti Road that stands 1,000 feet above the Tuolumne River.

The challenges

They plunged into the next round of hearings and applications and studies through all levels of government.

It was 2005 before they started building. Baker’s intention was to be open in 2007. It took another year.

“We had to build a city,” he said.

But in that time, the goodwill of the greater Groveland community became apparent. When styrofoam blocks for the foundation of the main building were stuck at the airport in a snowstorm, a cavalcade of people showed up with pickup trucks while others formed a bucket brigade, passing block by block down the long drive to the building site.

When seven cabins needed to be built, members of the Rotary Club and Coldwell Banker showed up to build them.

“This is the most supportive environment,” Baker said. “Camp wouldn’t have happened without them.”

In the early years, the camp was what is called an accommodations camp — Tuolumne Trails offers the space for groups to come with their own staff and mission.

Then, after about four years, when they realized some of the organizations could no longer afford to operate their camps, the Bakers began running camp themselves.

“Those were kids we loved,” Baker said.

Camps for special needs children and adults are expensive — the staff-to-camper ratio is about 2.5 to 1 — causing the camp to run at a deficit for the past few years. Fundraising and the Bakers make up the difference.

The camp is now owned solely by the Jerry and Paula Baker Foundation, a nonprofit organization. None of the board members are paid, and the camp makes extensive use of volunteers from the community as well as from organizations such as Americorps.

The future

On Thursday, dozens of third graders spread out across various parts of Tuolumne Trails. One group tried out the balance beam in a challenge course area, shifting kids around until the large structure leveled out.

Another group sat on the ground drawing pictures at Rim Fire Outlet, an overlook where the panorama of 2013 Rim Fire destruction and now regrowth can be seen.

The fire threatened to roll over the camp until a DC-10 swooped in with a heavy dose of retardant to tame the fire. The buildings would not have burned due to the log construction, metal roofs and extensive sprinkler system, but everything around it would have.

The children there this week represent what’s next for Tuolumne Trails as it moves toward becoming a year-round camp. This year more than a dozen camps are scheduled, and Baker thinks they can double that number in years to come.

Veterans groups have come, including one last weekend for veteran to train their service dogs. A group Baker calls the Pine Mountain Air Force took the veterans and their dogs up in their private planes to experience the Sierra from a whole new perspective.

Baker wants to do more camps for female veterans, whose injuries are often overlooked. He’s adding features to provide living history education to fourth-graders studying state history and challenge courses for those who need team building.

He wants school groups to come for outdoor education programs.

“It doesn’t make sense for it to be empty,” he said. “We need to make sure there’s enough support to pay people to do the stuff I do.”

Baker is 67 — but he says he’s going on 17. And even though he’s planning for the future, he doesn’t plan on going anywhere anytime soon. After all, this is a guy who, after a busy day at the camp, goes to his Groveland home and switches on the video feed to watch the joy on the faces of campers at the nightly fire ring.

Contact Lyn Riddle at (209) 588-4541 or lriddle@uniondemocrat.com.

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