From disabled SEALs to kids in wheelchairs, Virginia Beach adventure park aims to provide a sanctuary

Wounded warriors. Children and adults with disabilities. Families hurting from the loss of a loved one. A local organization hopes they all can find a home at JT’s Camp Grom.

The camp, scheduled to open in October 2016, aims to “become a sanctuary, a gathering place, a world of support and learning and rehabilitation unlike no other in this area.”

This is the conceptual plan for the layout of JT's Camp Grom, scheduled to open in Oct. 2016. (Courtesy of VA Gentlemen Foundation)
The conceptual plan for JT’s Camp Grom, scheduled to open in October 2016. (Courtesy of the Virginia Gentlemen Foundation)

“Our idea was rehabilitation through recreation,” said Billy Ennis, executive director of the Virginia Gentlemen Foundation, the non-profit behind the $15 million camp.

The foundation started in 2007, originally to providing resources to those with disabilities. Its focus shifted to people with ALS when one of the founding members, Josh Thompson — the J.T. in JT’s Camp Grom and the son of developer Bruce Thompson — was diagnosed with the progressive neurodegenerative disease, which results in the patient losing control of their muscles.

In 2010, the group broadened its efforts and created “Grommet Island,” a fully wheelchair-accessible park on the beach near 2nd street. Ennis said “grommet” came from the slang term for a young surfer, as Thompson loved to surf.

“It became very popular, very quickly,” Ennis said. He recalled being surprised at how many adults and disabled veterans in addition to children used the park.

After that, the Virginia Gentlemen Foundation members started brainstorming and asked what they could do that would dovetail with Grommet Island and that success. The idea for Camp Grom was born. The organization estimates about 100,000 people in Hampton Roads have some kind of disability, either from birth or from an accident or military service.

Ennis said the disabled and their families, and those who are dealing with the loss of a loved one, have been underserved. JT’s Camp Grom seeks to meet that need.

The site will feature a lake, aquatic center, "gymnatorium" and amphitheater. (Courtesy of the VA Gentleman Foundation)
The camp will feature a lake, aquatic center, “gymnatorium” and amphitheater. (Courtesy of the Virginia Gentlemen Foundation)

The plan is to create an adventure-based facility that attracts everyone from a handicapped child in a wheelchair to a retired Navy Seal who is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to Ennis.

“We hope (veterans) could regain that sense of adventure and do something they never thought that they could do again,” he said.

The designs include a number of different components on a 70-acre property, including:

  • An aquatic center with a zero-entry pool, lap lanes, a separate therapy pool and areas for basketball and volleyball. There are plans to add a “flow rider,” an indoor surfing/bodyboard feature designed for those who have paralysis or amputated limbs, after the facility opens.
  • An adventure ropes course accessible to people who wheelchairs. Ennis said there will be different levels of difficulty, depending on a person’s physical ability. Some courses will finish with a zip line over the lake.
  • “Gymnatorium,” a part-gym, part-auditorium space that will include room for games such as basketball and volleyball, and areas for recitals and other events.
  • An outdoor amphitheater for special events and live performances.
  • An activities center to host arts and crafts events, learning center opportunities, meetings, games and movies.
  • A wellness center that will provide first aid services, medication storage and space for physical and occupational therapy.
  • An all-purpose athletic field.
  • A trail through wooded areas around the camp.

The YMCA will run day-to-day operations of the camp, near General Booth Boulevard and Birdneck Road, while the Virginia Gentlemen Foundation will remain as owner of the property.

A groundbreaking was held in April after the foundation secured a 40-year, $1-per-year lease on the property from the city. Construction of the facilities and buildings should begin in late February or early March, weather permitting, Ennis said.

The foundation is about $1 million away from meeting their fundraising goal of $15 million to cover the cost of construction, he said.


View this video for an inside look at JT’s Camp Grom:

Have a story idea or news tip? Contact schools reporter Kelly Kultys at or 757-490-2750.

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