front&center: Niki Jackson

By Spencer Watson Published April 6, 2008 at 5:57 a.m.
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— Niki Jackson spends a lot of time in her backyard.

Granted, it's a sprawling 220 acres, so there's a lot of land to cover, but size alone doesn't dictate the extent of her commitment. No, there's a lot to keep track of back there: streams, woods, a swimming hole, a giant tree house, rope courses, a rock wall ... even a pirate cave in a jungle lagoon. And there's often a lot of kids around.

If it sounds like the Arkadelphia native has a house abutting an amusement park, well, you're not far off the mark. For indeed, the yard she tends - just beyond the walls of the rustic pioneer fort in which she lives, built by the sweat of her brow and acumen of her friends and family - is very much a world infused with imagination and adventure. And for her, it's the happiest place on earth.

But Jackson, 36, does not live any where near Disney World, though she's been there before. Her home is the heart of the summer camp she and her family have been slowly growing for most of her life, nearly 30 years now. They lovingly call it Camp Winnamocka.

It all started simply enough. Jackson and her older brother Tony Ranchino were teenagers looking for an income, so they started teaching swimming lessons in their parents' pool. As they got to driving age, they decided to start a day camp literally off their parents' back porch, using the bathroom in the house when needed and hastily throwing up sheets on clotheslines to screen off a changing area after swimming.

Her brother managed the all-boys camp, and Jackson handled the girls.

The success of the day camp, which grew to include field trips in addition to outdoor activities, not only funded all the car payments, it carried them through high school. Jackson opted to attend Ouachita Baptist University in town and continued the camp into college, taking over the whole operation when she was a sophomore. In the meantime, the camp grew in popularity, and Jackson found she not only had local campers coming for a week-long summer getaway, she had some attending from out of town, staying with grandparents just to be close. It was clear she needed to take the next step: welcoming overnighters.

But that transition had its challenges. The logistics of serving so many meals at once (her mom volunteered to do the cooking at first) were one thing, but just as important, the kids needed a place to stay.

At that time, she just happened to be in a relationship with "the perfect guy," Brent Jackson, whom she would eventually marry. Also a student at OBU, he happened to be pretty handy when it came to building - and he was studying business.

"It was almost like I put out applications, but I didn't!" said Jackson, sitting in the spacious living room of the comfortable log cabin she and Brent built on site to serve as both an office and their home. "He can do anything, from rebuilding and engineering to building a house when he'd neverdone it before."

Even as she spoke, her husband was on the other end of the property reconstructing a water slide the couple purchased in Michigan, dismantled, transported to Arkansas, and plans to have up and running before this year's summer season starts.

Usi ng t i mb er f rom her grandfather's land near Fordyce, the couple first built one cabin to offer an overnight camp for up to 60 kids. They've added more since, and current plans have them growing to soon accommodate up to 140.

A staff of four counselors has grown to 60, many of whom are former campers - former counselors she's seen grow and marry and start careers of their own, including one who serves now as the camp's full-time assistant director.

Of course, that's' not to say the f lourishing of Jackson's dream came all at once. Indeed, the first overnight camp, Jackson said, had only six registered campers.

The rest were cousins and friends and other more distant relatives recruited to make the place not feel empty.

Jackson said those first few early years, funded by a loan the couple cosigned with her parents, involved nights laying awake and anxious, and more than a few times she found herself crying in the shower, fearful of how things would turn out.

And that was long after the countless hours of hacking and sawing and building and hoping that construction of the camp buildings would one day be completed (it wasn't before the first tour groups came in to see the place).

"We were built on a lot of love and support," Jackson said.

"Everywhere I turn I'm reminded of the blood, sweat and tears, ours and of others, that went into it.

"But I knew we could do this," she said. "I knew if wecould just get through those first years we could do this."

But while facilities are one thing, the life of the camp would only go so far as the activities would carry it.

On that count Jackson had good training: a childhood spent inventing names and voices for all her stuffed animals, who lived in homes she built out of Time-Life books.

Birthday parties for her meant weeks of planning not for cakes and decor, but devising tactics and strategies for the mud wars and water balloon fights that would mark the occasion.

"Ever since we were kids, the TV was just not an option," Jackson said. "Instead of doing the usual things, we built forts - real forts, with working drawbridges."

Their adventures, she said, were born of imagination and creativity. To wit, instead of getting a quarter from the tooth fairy, she would get a note that started a treasure hunt. At age 10, she and her brother built a pirate ship out of plywood - with working water balloon cannons.

"I just had so much darn fun growing up," she said.

Though it was a childhood spent being free to be a kid, a fun childhood, it was not without tragedy. Jackson's biological father, Jim Ranchino, died when she was 7, and she and her brother were raised by their mother, Veda, who remarried local prosecuting attorney Henry Morgan.

Though for years she didn't know, it was from her biological father, Veda Morgan said, that Jackson apparently inherited an uncanny ability to remember names and faces, a talent that serves her well as she welcomes 100 new campers a week to Fort Jackson and one she culls in her staff, whom she teaches to do the same.

However, it was from the parents who raised her that she learned not to be daunted by hard work and the benefits that come from it.

"She just rolls up her sleeves and goes to work," Henry Morgan said. "She's not afraid of working."

Yet wh i le mo st pa rent s might be thrilled to see that determination bent toward a career in law, which Jackson said she at point considered as an English and communications major, she was steered away from the practice by her stepfather, who warned her how confrontational the job is. His own office had been firebombed twice.

Jackson chose instead to nurture a spirit of caring and of fun, one that ultimately built the camp called Winnamocka and so far has carried it into its 13th season as an overnight camp, its 22nd year overall.

"It's been an incredible ride, I can tell you that," Jackson said.

matter of

fact

My age: 36

My family: Husband, Brent Jackson;

brother and sister-in-law, Tony and

Adiel Ranchino; father and mother,

Henry and Veda Morgan; five weenie

dogs and one yellow lab

My most important possession: My

relationships

My biggest fear: Scary movies

Some day I will: Sleep more

My favorite quote: "Start by doing

what's necessary, then what's

possible, and suddenly you are doing

the impossible." - Saint Francis

My last meal would be: Lobster, crab

legs and crawfish!

None Spencer Watson can be reached at 501-918-4505 or spencer@syncweekly.com.