Monday 22 July 2019
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A “Secret In The Woods” NEW EBENEZER RETREAT CENTER Clara Barnes, Director

photos and story by Miranda Osborn

In a city just over 8.6 square miles lies many hidden pockets. Beautiful
scenery and incredible locations that no one seems to know exist. One such
locale is the road that ends at New Ebenezer Retreat and Conference Center.
If you follow Ebenezer Road till the end, one might first see an amazing old
church on the right. The historic Jerusalem Lutheran Church, dating back to
1769, beckons as the oldest Lutheran church in America with a continuously
active congregation (and one of the few Georgia buildings to survive the
Revolutionary War). If one looks to the left, however, there is a set of
beautiful buildings and grounds lined with old pines that seem to reach to
the sun. Paths meander here and there, and maps beckon on the sides of
welcoming gates; pavillion one way, cottages, a retreat center and offices
the other. It is a land that time seems to have forgotten. An immaculate
slice of heaven in the most unassuming location.
New Ebenezer Retreat Center has been occupying its 125 acres of land
since 1977 in the somewhat ghost town in Effingham County, the official
“first capital” of Georgia. The township of New Ebenezer (founded in 1734)
has a rich heritage and was settled by Lutheran Salzburgers seeking a place
of religious freedom and a chance for a new beginning. These values have
carried on to the Retreat. For over 40 years, this peaceful “secret in the
woods” has been a haven for individuals, families, and any who walk its
paths to soothe their souls amidst natural surroundings. It is a place New
Ebenezer Retreat touts as “embracing all that is good in life.”
Amenities abound. An in-ground swimming pool (open on a seasonal basis),
tennis court, basketball court, grill area, fire pit, and the banks of the
Savannah River afford the Retreat guests different venues for activities and
areas to be together during the day or to share times of reflection as the
sun rises and sets.
In spring and summer, the property is lush with blooming flowers and
manicured landscaping. In autumn and winter, nature’s beauty delights amidst
vibrant foliage and the refreshing breezes that whisper through the pines.
Not only is it a retreat for those looking to get away, but many school
groups from Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and North and South Carolina visit to
learn lifelong skills as part of the famed Ebenezer ALIVE! education
program. Developed as an extension of the classroom, the “Ebenezer ALIVE
program” is one of the Retreat’s most important programs; a “hands-on”
enriching educational program for fourth to eighth graders that makes an
impact not only on the lives of the students, but on the teachers and
leaders as well.
Newly-appointed full time Director Clara Barnes is as excited as the
New Ebenezer Retreat Center staff about new program opportunities for the
school groups. “The Ebenezer ALIVE staff continually strive to not only
maintain our excellent program at high standards, but to improve and move
forward. New Ebenezer Retreat Center is such a wonderful place for the
community of Effingham County to benefit from,” she adds. “As the new
director, it seems to me that so many people just don’t know what we do
here, and have no idea what a wonderful educational program we have for
But that’s not all that happens on the wooded grounds. Weddings,
retreats, church outings, family reunions, corporate meetings. anything that
one can imagine event-wise can become reality, with all the details being
taken care of meticulously by Barnes along with fellow staff members. Seven
full time and 23-part time employees, to be exact. The Retreat also has a
volunteer board of directors that looks out for the interests of the
non-profit. “Volunteers are welcome any time,” Barnes explains, noting that
Servant Work Camps are starting up soon and would be a great opportunity for
anyone wanting to help out.
“There is plenty of room to expand, but as always the availability of
funds is what controls future expansions,” Barnes continues. “I would love
to rebuild the Native American council house, upgrade outdoor classrooms and
add a building for wedding receptions near the pavilion. Dreaming of
expansion is great, but the reality is we are a 41-year-old facility that is
in desperate need of some major infrastructure upgrades. The upgrades must
be done, and if they are not it could mean that there might not be a future
for the Center. I am desperately seeking ways to find the funds for what has
to be done,” she states.
An area that Barnes also wants to focus on is to have more weddings at
the recently renovated pavilion. “It is so beautiful and I really want to do
some strategic marketing to get this part of our venue going strong,” she
explains. Next year the Retreat will also be offering band camps, day camps
and team building packages.
Barnes has been with the Retreat just five short months, but is poised
to do everything she can to bring as much life to the hidden locale as
possible. She brings a wealth of knowledge and skill to the Retreat Center.
Along with growing the business, she also has a burning desire to take the
Retreat to the next level of technology. “We are behind in this area and I
hope little by little bit to move us forward in this department. The goal
for me is to take the vision of the Retreat Center and just keep making it
better and better.”
“Every day I talk to people that don’t know that the Retreat even
exists!” Barnes says with a shake of her head of the land she now oversees.
Barnes hopes to change that, making the New Ebenezer Retreat an amazing
getaway for people of all walks of life to relax, reflect and renew.
Barnes grew up in Effingham County and spent her entire life here,
having strong ties to the community. She calls herself a “home grown Guyton
girl to the core,” her family living on a farm several miles north of Guyton
on Hwy 17 better known to the locals as “Monkey Hill.” “The farm inherited
this nickname many years ago from the train conductors that drove past the
house daily,” according to Barnes as a broad smile crosses her face. “It was
said that so many children used to hang out the windows waving that they
looked like a bunch of monkeys.” For a youngster, life on Monkey Hill meant
working hard, playing hard and enjoying fresh air and sunshine to the
fullest. To this day she lives just a few miles from where she grew up at
Dove Field Farm, where she has owned and operated a horse boarding facility
since 2011.
As a child, Barnes’ grandparents on both sides played a huge role in
her life. “They were always there no matter what life was throwing out,” she
smiles. Her “PaPa” (Dr. Charles T. Brown, M.D.) was one of the founding
doctors for Effingham County and helped start the current hospital. “MaMa”
Brown taught a young Barnes how to find treasures like Indian arrowheads,
grow flowers and how to fish. Grandmother Willie Overstreet taught Barnes
how to cook, clean, sew and laugh. “They all taught me to love God and to
have good character,” she smiles. “I have a saying that I always tell
others. I always want to be a good parent but I hope to be a greater
grandparent. Passing along that heritage is so important to me.”
When Barnes was a little girl, she dreamed of being a pastry chef.
Every day she could get outside to play she would make mud cakes and pies
with all kinds of nature’s decorations on them. “I still tell my kids all
the time that I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. They usually
laugh and say ‘Mom.. it is time to figure it out!'”
In 1984, Barnes graduated from Effingham County High school with
honors, before going on to complete two years at Georgia Southern University
studying computer programing. For the next 19 years, she raised her children
whilst managing and running financials for several businesses, but would
start her full time professional career soon after, doing what she knew how
to do best; cook, clean and serve children. In 2005, she started at Guyton
Elementary as a cashier, then moved to an assistant manager position. From
there, Barnes opened the Effingham Middle School as a manager, before
transitioning to the Board Office as a School Nutrition Specialist Trainer.
“During my 13 years of service for the BOE, so many valuable skills
were learned,” Barnes explains, listing a litany: cooking, cleaning,
leadership, computers, human resource, teaching, handling conflict,
communication, nutritionals, maintenance, equipment, hiring personnel, and
relationships with coworkers. “I will forever be indebted to all the
‘lunchroom heroes’ that I went to battle with every day for those 13 years
to get those precious children fed and full so they could learn something
new every day!”
It was a natural transition for Barnes to move to the director role at
New Ebenezer Retreat Center which she learned about in early May whilst
speaking with a friend who made her aware that Mrs. Connie Bazemore would be
retiring from the position.
“Working at the Retreat Center is very similar to my BOE position,”
Barnes explains of the many different hats she wears and the utilization of
all the learned skills. The number one difference is that the Center is a
non-profit organization. “Fundraising and asking for money is new to me on
this large of a scale.”
Most of the funding at this point occurs through the services that the
Retreat provides. More fundraising is always needed, and this is an area
Barnes is laser-focused on.
One of the most important things to Barnes about New Ebenezer Retreat
is not to lose the integrity and mission that the center was built around.
“Upholding those values is part of who we are along with what we do through
our service,” she explains. The Center is an ecumenical retreat location
that’s become a welcoming haven for those seeking personal growth, quiet
time, meditation and relaxation. Part of the Retreat’s mission is to
strengthen family, encourage wholesome recreation in an unspoiled
environment, provide a positive setting for learning and growth, and to
empower individuals, couples, families and groups to experience renewal with
each other.
Over 9,600 guests did just that at the Retreat in 2018; 3,391 of them
students and teachers attending the Ebenezer ALIVE! Program, with 4,000
s’mores toasted perfectly by the fire throughout the year. And Barnes is
just getting started. “Our peaceful haven is a place to rest and relax, and
will soothe your spirit. It is my prayer to continue New Ebenezer into the
future trying new things and making improvements every day so it can
continue serving the community for many years to come.”
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