Air Force Veteran Planting Seeds of Unity in His Hometown

The late singer, songwriter, pianist, composer and author Ray Charles was born in Georgia. Which made one of his big hits, “Georgia on My Mind,” extra special for his fans living in The Peach State.

One of those fans is Carl Camon, also a Georgia native, singer and author. He was born and raised in Ray City – not named after Ray Charles – and moved back to the small southern Georgia town following his military career. He and his wife still live there.

As a child, Ray Charles was very interested in mechanical objects and would spend time watching neighbors work on their farm machinery.

Carl also developed an early interest in agriculture. His father farmed the field in front of their house for several years and as a teenager, Carl joined the Future Farmers of America. In addition, Carl sang with a gospel group.

Ray City’s First Black Mayor

“I once went to an event where Ray Charles was the guest talent,” Carl said. “I’ve always enjoyed his soulful voice.

“I’ve also always enjoyed the simple raw talent that Ray Charles possessed. His songs will continue to inspire us throughout the ages.”

The careers of Ray Charles and Carl Camon wound up taking different paths, but both made their mark on society.

Carl, who is Black, was elected to the City Council in predominantly white Ray City in 1992, serving until 1995. Then he was elected the town’s first Black mayor and won re-election four times, serving for a total of 12 years.

Establishing Youth Leadership Institute

While mayor, Carl founded the Mayor’s Youth Leadership Institute of Ray City in 2000. This program trains young people to become world-class leaders, focusing on education, graduation rates, high school teen pregnancy prevention and community involvement.

Despite the fact that he had no model to follow, Carl continued to develop this initiative to the point where he was asked to visit cities around the country to share the program’s strategy and success.

Officials in those cities had learned about Carl’s program through the International League of Cities in Washington, D.C. He explained the program during a visit to the office of Shirley Franklin, the first female mayor of Atlanta, as well as at the West Wing of the White House during the George W. Bush Administration.

In 2009, Carl published his first book, Poetic Infinity: From the Mind of the Mayor. He then published Empowering the Next Generation: A How-to Guide to Starting a Youth Leadership Program. Nine years later, Carl was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Mayor’s Youth Leadership Institute of Ray City.

Injured During Readiness Exercises

Carl’s military career began when he joined the U.S. Air Force right after graduating from high school in 1986. Following basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, he served for four years in the States, then 6½ years in the Reserves, including a stint in England.

Carl had injured his back during readiness exercises while in active duty and his condition worsened in the Reserves. “I didn’t want to get out, but I had to,” Carl said.

As his injuries worsened, Carl had back surgeries in 2011 and 2012. The past year and a half have been especially rough for Carl, who was unable to stand during a four-month period. His back issues led to leg and knee problems, and he needed knee surgery last month.

“I had never experienced that much pain,” Carl said. “I had pain all day everyday for six months. I had no strength in my back. But when I’m asked if I would do it all over again, I say ‘yes.’ I’m proud to be a veteran and I’ll always have an attachment to the military.”

Connection With Farmer Veteran Coalition

Following his service, Carl was a corrections officer. He then earned an education degree and taught for a while.

But he never lost his early interest in agriculture. He and his wife own four acres of land in front of their home – the same four acres his father once worked. They have a raised garden bed and some fruit trees. He has plans for more cultivation. “It will be a salute to my father,” he said.

In the meantime, Carl has taken on a new project that combines his military experience with his love for farming. He got connected with the Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC) in 2019.

This organization recently sent him seeds that fueled a community garden project Carl is in the process of launching in Ray City. The seeds had been donated to FVC by 4Patriots. More on his community garden project in a moment.

Mobilizing Vets to Feed America

FVC is a national, non-governmental and non-profit organization headquartered in Davis, California.

It was founded in 2008 by Michael O’Gorman, a lifelong farmer from central California, so that veterans could serve their country in a new capacity – as providers of the nation’s food and fiber.

The group, which mobilizes veterans to feed America and transition from military service to a career in agriculture, includes 20,000 vets. FVC has given out more than $2.5 million in grants to veterans through the Farmer Veteran Fellowship Fund.

The idea for the group came to O’Gorman after he read a story saying that U.S. troops who died while serving in Afghanistan and Iraq were disproportionately from rural areas.

A New Mission for Veterans

“It struck a light bulb in my head,” O”Gorman told Fox News. “In agriculture, we were in a crisis. We needed more young people to become farmers.

“We were at the peak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I thought, ‘If these guys and gals are serving their country, why not help make jobs for them on our farms?’”

O’Gorman left farming after nearly 40 years to start the organization. Its supporters include the Bob Woodruff Foundation, Newman’s Own Foundation, Prairie Grove Farms, Farm Credit Counsel, Prudential Financial and Kubota Tractor Corporation.

“We found early on that veterans were looking for something that was challenging but, more importantly, meaningful,” he added. “Farming just checked all the boxes and there was not a lot of downside to it.

“It provided a healing environment and it was great for men and women who wanted to do something that didn’t entail sitting behind a desk. (Veterans) also responded to the fact that our country is in critical need of farmers. As individuals and as a collective, they felt they were once again on a mission.”

A Song From the Heart

After receiving a note in the mail from Carl about why he wanted to feed America, FVC paid for his airline tickets, hotel room and expenses for their 2019 convention in Austin, Texas.

Assisted to the stage and podium by his wife, Angela, Carl sang a soulful version of America the Beautiful in front of the crowd during the opening ceremonies.

That rendition was recorded and played again at the beginning of this year’s virtual event.

“Being there and singing that song really helped my mental outlook,” Carl said. “I got to see many other veterans – some of them going through similar or worse times – and it really encouraged me in what was the toughest physical time of my life.”

Community Garden Project Approved

Carl’s sister serves on the Ray City Council. She presented a plan he devised for a community garden on city property for the purpose of bringing unity to the community.

The Council approved it, so the planning has begun in earnest. The plot of land is between one-quarter and one-third of an acre.

“What we’ve done so far is come up with the vision and a mission statement,” Carl said. “With COVID, this is such an unfortunate time, but it’s also a good time to learn how to grow your own food.

“Like many other cities in the South, this one does not have the best history of race relations. It will be interesting to see what we can accomplish when we bring people together and work hand in hand.

Preparing for Spring Planting

“We have about a dozen people so far who are involved and I think we’ll have a lot more by the time the spring planting season comes around,” Carl continued. Among the seeds from 4Patriots are tomatoes, carrots, broccoli, cucumber and squash.

“The city is small so there’s not a big budget for this, but we want it to be a class act. In addition to the raised garden beds and running water, we want to have a shelter for the tools and a place where people can get some shade when it’s hot.

“We’re getting the preliminary things set up. People have seen the layout and our phosphorescent tape, and we’ve measured off the beds.

“It’s easy to say what you’re going to do, but when people seeing you actually doing it, that’s when they get excited about it and want to get involved. We’re going to invite local Congressman Austin Scott to our groundbreaking.”

Encouraging Participation

Carl said the eventual harvest of the community garden project will aid local people most in need of food.

“Lots of folks are out of work and on fixed incomes,” he said. “One local woman is trying to figure out how she can feed her eight children.

“But we’re approaching this community garden not just for food but also for unity and education. We want to encourage young people to think about what they can do for their community.

“It’s like what President John F. Kennedy said – “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

The Value of Vegetables

Carl said he also wants people to learn how to eat more nutritionally.

“It’s much easier to eat sweets than vegetables, which are healthier but also more expensive. This way they can have vegetables and salads and not have to pay for them. There will be a donation box, but paying is not necessary for getting food.

“We’ll fence in the garden and then open it up on specific days for people to come in and work. We’d like people who are going to benefit from the garden to help work it.

“We’ll take safety precautions due to the virus, but people need to get out and do something in the open air.”

‘Part of the Healing Process’

A big part of the reason FVC was established was to allow veterans to enjoy nature in a healing environment. Many of them were under considerable stress while they served and are now dealing with the aftereffects of that stress.

Farming and gardening allows them to avoid sitting behind a desk all day and gives them a worthwhile mission to fulfill.

“Veterans don’t choose to feel stress from their service,” Carl said. “It happens and you choose to deal with it. For me, it does me good to get out of the house, breathe fresh air, tend to the trees and work in a garden.

“Making yourself useful by doing something bigger than yourself is part of the healing process. It’s therapeutic and leads to wholeness.”

Carl is confident the community garden will do the same for the folks in his hometown.

Stay tuned for updates on how the donated 4Patriots seeds grow this spring.

In the meantime, please enjoy this short video message from Carl:


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