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Brenaus Firespark! camp pairs talented teens with professionals
Gainesville Ballet Company principal dancer Rommie Stalnaker directs her dance students during pointe class Monday morning at Brenau University during the first day of Firespark! camp. Firespark! is a co-education program for students ages 13 to 18, gifted in theater, dance, music, art, communication and business.
For the next two weeks, young people from across the globe will learn about a variety of art forms while living at Brenau University’s campus for Firespark! summer camp.

Monday was the first day at Firespark! for the campers, who range in age from 13-18 and can take classes on everything from hip-hop to journalism to medicine.

"They come to Firespark! to be the individuals they are," said dance instructor Rommie Stalnaker.

Stalnaker said Firespark! allows campers to learn and socialize in an environment different from the stress and peer pressure often found in the school setting.

She said Firespark! campers who return for a second year or more are referred to as "survivors."

And kids are not deemed survivors because they made it through the camp.

"They survived the 50 weeks between coming to camp each year," she said.

Firespark! director Alyssa Maddox has run the camp with her husband Brent Maddox for the last three years.

Alyssa Maddox said the camp was started as a music camp by John Upchurch at Brevard College in North Carolina 31 years ago.

When he got a job as Brenau University’s dean of admissions a few years later, he brought the camp with him, and the programs have expanded ever since.

Though the camp still has roots in the performing arts, focus has splintered into several other disciplines, including jewelry making, photography, journalism, Web site design and medicine.

The medical scholars class was started by Brenau University professor Gale Starich and "got an overwhelming response," Alyssa Maddox said.

In the program, kids learn about diseases, take a field trip to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and even get to perform sutures on chickens, Maddox said.

Starich is not the only professional at the camp, however.

Jolie Long, a dance instructor at Firespark! and an associate professor at Brenau, said she is impressed by "the calibre of the faculty they pull in. These kids are really going to have some good instruction from professionals working in their field."

Maddox said this year the camp offers professionals in various fields, including a certified metalsmith and drama instructors from New York and Los Angeles who work in theater and film.

One hundred and fifty kids are participating in this year’s two-week session, down from the last few years when numbers have been closer to 200.

Because of gas prices and the economy, some campers were not able to afford to return to camp.

And though some inquired about scholarships, the camp cannot provide them because all the money that comes in is used to fund the programs.

"Every penny they send is spent wisely on something," Stalnaker said.

But finances didn’t stop some campers from making the trip to Georgia.

This year, there are 11 campers from Greece, one from India and one from England. There are also kids from all over the United States, including campers from Texas, Ohio and North Carolina.

Maddox said of all the different classes offered, the drama classes are the most popular every year.

Whether campers come to get a sampling of different art forms or concentrate on one discipline, Stalnaker said the kids who come to Firespark! really want to be there to learn.

"They have the will and the love and the drive," she said.

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