Union Democrat staff

Tuolumne Trails, a camp for special needs children and adults near Groveland, was recently named the recipient of the 2018 Irving J. Symons Award, which is overseen by the Sonora Area Foundation.

The camp was established 10 years ago by Jerry and Paula Baker, carved from 80 acres on a wooded tract at the edge of the Stanislaus National Forest. Most of the $4.5 million the facility cost was paid for by the couple.

About 3,700 kids and adults have camped at Tuolumne Trails, most of whom would not have 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 in a recent interview with The Union Democrat.

The camp includes seven cabins and two ponds loaded with bluegill, a basketball court, pool, a mile of trails and paved walkways to accommodate wheelchairs. There is a challenge course, a meditation 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.

Baker worked in a semiconductor business in the Bay Area and retired 29 years later on his 50th birthday.

He and Paula considered all sorts of philanthropic pursuits before settling on the camp idea, largely because of the struggles their family faced when a son was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

They picked Groveland because they had a vacation home home there.

The Symons award comes with a $40,000 grant to the non-profit organization that runs the camp.

“This donation will have a significant and dramatic impact on our mission to provide a unique camp experience to special-needs children and adults, veterans, environmental education and myriad organizations,” baker said in a statement issued by the Sonora Area Foundation. “Specifically, we look forward to expanding our scope to include more residents throughout Tuolumne County.”

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