PARRISH — Shortly after he was appointed its interim director 18 months ago, Charles Wallace of DaySpring Episcopal Conference Center took a canoe ride on the Manatee River.
Wallace’s house on the 92-acre campus, as well as the 18 other buildings all painted in what is affection- ately known as DaySpring Brown, blended in with the center’s roughly 2,000 trees and lush vegetation so well that he didn’t at first notice any buildings as the river swept him past the center’s waterfront location.
“I didn’t even see my house, even though it was right in front of me,” said Wallace. “The entire center is one with the environment.”
That story is symbolic for Wallace because he has been charged with making DaySpring one also with the changing environment of the modern world outside this wooded domain.
For 26 years, the lush campus hidden a short ride off U.S. 301, just west of Old Tampa Road, has meant many things to many people.
Groups and individuals can come for a day, overnight, a weekend or even a full week and pay about $90 daily per person, which includes three meals made in a kitchen on campus and sleeping accommodations in a house or cabin. The center is open only to church groups from the diocese and any other nonprofit groups.
Wallace now is charged with transforming DaySpring so it can take on more groups with more varied needs. The center — which by Wallace’s estimation has been visited by only about 20 percent of the 36,000 members from 77 churches in the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida — is going to reinvent itself slightly throughout 2010 in order to get that number up to 40 percent, Wallace said.
Wallace had his first meeting with Manatee County officials this week to begin the process of requesting permits for increasing meeting, class and sleeping quarter space at the center, which opened in 1983 after the diocese purchased some of the land and was gifted some more that was owned by a prominent local rancher.
“One of the things we are exploring is making DaySpring more a central focal point for the diocese’s programs,” Wallace said.
“That would mean exploring with the county whether we might build some more classroom space so we could expand education and training programs.”
The diocese includes churches in 14 counties along the Gulf Coast between Hernando and Collier counties.
“If you put a pin in the center of the diocese, DaySpring would be within a few miles of the center,” Wallace said.
Wallace, who plans to shepherd in the arrival of a new executive director at the end of 2010, hopes some of those changes for the future include a major swimming program, perhaps with a swimming pool with accommodations for the disabled.
The interim director also plans to give the center top-of-the-line technological capability for linking the center with the world.
“It’s time for a reassessment,” Wallace said. “Small institutions change and if we don’t change with the time, we get stagnant. That is why I am here, to refocus things.”
Many things to many people
Some of the many church and nonprofit groups that use DaySpring come for the sacred places on campus, like St. Thomas Chapel, built in 1914 and moved to DaySpring in 1986.
Near the chapel is the Labyrinth, where people can walk and pray. There is also an outdoor chapel that overlooks a river estuary and many wooded trails with benches for contemplation.
For others, like Michelle Flint, assistant director of the nonprofit Pathfinder Outdoor Education of St. Petersburg, the center is a place with a rugged low and high rope challenge course where she leads groups that come to learn how to problem solve and get along, Flint said.
Pathfinder takes roughly six groups per month to DaySpring, where they work together to build unity.
“I can tell you this, there is no place like DaySpring in the area,” Flint said. “It’s the combination of the willingness of the staff there to help you do whatever you need to do and the facility itself, its woods and river accessibility.”
Flint is excited about the possible future changes. “It is my dream that DaySpring could offer fully accessible service so that the disabled could use the challenge course and water programs,” Flint said. “That’s my dream, too,” Wallace said, when he heard Flint’s comment.
For some, DaySpring simply represents a place where the solitude can soak into a mind and open it to new learning.
“What happens here is that, for a short time, people withdraw from regular life, which we call an isolated temporary system,” Wallace said.
“It’s not really a monastic thing. It’s just that they come together, focus on a subject or learning task in a quiet place. They are able to travel faster on their learning curve and enjoy better retention just because of the environment.”
For Laura Diamond, the center’s outreach director who also lives on campus, DaySpring is starry nights and the sound of owls.
“I’ve seen deer, raccoons, armadillo, owls and every bird you can think of that belongs to Florida,” Diamond said.
“At night, the crickets and frogs take over. To me, that’s the real attraction of DaySpring, the peacefulness of it, the beauty of it, the sense of community you feel.”
Diamond, like Wallace, accepts that the center must change direction, but she hopes it’s not a radical change.
“We do need to be bigger, with more meeting rooms and more technology,” Diamond said. “But I hope through the change we never lose our connection with nature.
“People often tell me, ‘I can’t wait to come back,’ “Diamond said. “That’s what does it for me. That’s my calling. When I hear them say that I know we have done our jobs.”
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 6686.