Last year, Barefoot Republic received a grant from the Nashville Predators Foundation to fund “The Predator,” a 650-foot zip line. This year, a $7,300 grant helped Barefoot purchase the “Predators ProWall,” which engages children in games of street hockey, soccer and gaga ball.
Founded in 2009, Barefoot Republic is a Christ-centered multicultural ministry which intentionally recruits campers from different racial, social, cultural and economic backgrounds to bring them together through common interests and fun activities.
“We have over 40 countries represented in our camper base and about 1,500 campers this summer,” Barefoot Republic Executive Director Tommy Rhodes said. “Nine hundred of those families are receiving financial assistance, so we are very purposeful in awarding our scholarship dollars to make camp a reality for those who can’t afford it.”
With the camp’s base located nearly two hours away in Kentucky, they hold Nashville-area day camps in church parking lots.
That is until Christian pop singer-songwriter Amy Grant came along.
“I met Tommy in October and the reason I met him is because the preacher that married Vince [Gill] and me on this farm, was like a dad to Tommy,” Grant said. “So we went to lunch and I said, ‘I’ve heard of your camps. I think my sister did snacks for a camp in Nashville, how is that possible if it’s Kentucky based?’ And he said, ‘Well, we have day camps in Nashville.’ And I said, ‘Where?’ And he said, ‘Church parking lots.’ And I said, ‘That sounds way too hot!’”
After speaking with Rhodes, Grant decided to offer some land on her 450-acre farm in Franklin, Tennessee, to hold a number of Barefoot Republic’s day camps, which feature activities such as making music, playing soccer, photography sessions, horseback riding and now, games within the “Predators ProWall.”
“The ProWall is a really incredible model that allows you to do a lot of different things,” Rhodes said. “And in this particular application, “Barefoot at the Farm” where it’s a pretty rural area, pretty rustic, we have a gaga ball pit over here which has been very popular.”
Gaga ball, also called gladiator ball or Israeli dodgeball, is similar to the game of dodgeball, but within the confines of roller hockey walls. A physical education coach developed the concept years ago and has been able to market it to camps and children.
“You can play with 120 [kids] or so at a time and it’s an activity for all skill levels, so anybody can play, which is what we love about it,” Rhodes said. “It’s just been a huge hit. The ProWall that the Predators provided for Barefoot can also be converted to a roller hockey rink and there are other panels and pieces that we don’t have set up here that we are setting up in Kentucky to use for a hockey site outside. It’s incredible all that you can do with it.
“Barefoot is all about building unity, just tearing down walls, bringing people together, finding common ground and being able to have any type of shared experience is huge. When you can get 120 kids to participate in something at the same time together, that’s big. I just can’t think of too many activities that engage that many students simultaneously and they’re all just pumped. They just get in there and play.”
Gaga ball has been a hit with the campers, encouraging them to interact with others all while learning lessons of teamwork and cohesiveness.
“Honestly, I had never heard of gaga ball until Tommy told me about it,” Grant said. “They unloaded this enormous gaga ball and then I saw the Predators logo [on it].
“I just think the Predators are so loved by all of Nashville and it probably does two things: it makes the community love them more as a team, and it hopefully it makes the team feel like they're having an impact on all of Nashville, because this camp is 50 percent scholarship. We’ve got kids here from Brentwood, Belle Meade, kids from everywhere that would never go to a camp and we’re all here together and it’s all about team building.”
The Predators Foundation has been supporting Barefoot Republic for 15 years, and the camp is just one of the 88 organizations to receive a Predators Foundation grant in 2015.
“It’s been so encouraging to have the support of the Predators; that’s just a huge shot of credibility and name recognition,” Rhodes said. “Parents trust the brand and to build a line in anyway with what they’re doing, it’s an honor to walk with them. To see the logo, to see the colors, the parents see that and think, ‘This is something I can trust.’ And for us, as we’re trying to break in the different economic backgrounds, the different neighborhoods, different cultures, [the Preds] have already built a brand that folks trust. That’s huge for us to build a line and walk with them all.”
If kids aren’t playing gaga ball, they are sitting on the wall watching. It brings together the largest number of camp attendees all at once.
“When I heard the news [about the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina], I just thought, ‘Thank you,’ that all of us out here are using our energy to build bridges and to tear down walls of perception and fear,” Grant said. “Most people want the same things in life; to belong, to be loved, and this helps. To come out here today and see all these kids together helps me to not lose heart and to have faith in the future.”
The Predators Foundation aims to meet the educational, social, health and cultural needs of the community by offering resources and financial support to local youth-oriented organizations. This year, the Foundation gave out $415,020.47 - the largest donation in franchise history.
“We’re just so grateful for the Predators Foundation,” Rhodes said. “Their generosity and support over the past 15 years is allowing us to continue to develop our program, expand our platform and reach more kids.”