VERSAILLES — For an organization with a 575-acre campus that serves about 12,000 people a year with a wide variety of activities, Life Adventure Center of the Bluegrass is not very well known.
"We call ourselves the best-kept secret in Central Kentucky, and that is probably true," said Byron Marlowe, one of the program directors. "I grew up in Nicholasville and had never heard of it before I came to work here."
The non-profit center traces its roots to the Cleveland Home, a Versailles orphanage started in the late 1800s, and Life Adventure Camp, created in Estill County in 1975 to instill confidence and self-esteem in at-risk youth.
The center now has a broad mission statement: It "engages, educates, and empowers our community to build respect, responsibility, and self-esteem through teamwork, communication, and environmental stewardship using hands-on learning in a natural setting."
The center has started several programs aligned with that mission, and it is trying to raise its public profile, Marlowe said. The center has a new Web site (Lifeadventurecenter.org), is about to hire a new executive director and is expanding its programs.
The center will host its first adventure race, the Bluegrass Challenge, on Aug. 25. Teams of two or three people will race by hiking, canoeing and mountain biking to complete a series of objectives between 9 a.m. and noon. The competition will have male, female, co-ed and family divisions. The entry fee is $50 a person.
"I designed this as the ultimate race I would like to race in," said staff member Chris McEachron, an avid adventure racer. Each team will get a map and 14 checkpoints to reach and accomplish problem-solving tasks. "We could have 200 teams and none of them could have the same experience."
For the third year, Life Adventure Center will host what it calls Kentucky's largest corn maze — 16 miles of paths cut through a six-acre cornfield, where maze designers have used global-positioning satellite technology to create a giant mural visible from the air.
The maze will be open Sept. 14 through Oct. 21. Admission includes hayrides, concerts, a pumpkin patch for little kids, a ropes course and other activities. (More information: Kycornmaze.com)
The center rents its facilities to companies and other groups for retreats, plus conducts activity sessions for school groups, military families and married couples in a series of "Play Date With Your Mate" weekends.
The corn maze and adventure race will help raise money for the center, which benefits from an endowment that covers more than half of programming costs. Other costs are covered by participant fees, grants, rentals and donations.
That allows the organization to offer educational programs to the public at affordable prices, plus provide scholarships for young people who otherwise couldn't afford these experiences, Marlowe said.
When I visited Life Adventure Center earlier this month, the Carroll County High School girls' volleyball team was spending an afternoon of team-building on one of the camp's most popular facilities: a treetop challenge course of cables, a climbing wall and zip lines. Last year, 90 groups with 2,000 people used the challenge course.
Another popular program is equestrian instruction, which includes horseback riding and vaulting for children and adults in indoor and outdoor riding arenas, plus dozens of acres of meadows.
Vaulting — basically gymnastics on horseback — is an old European sport that has gained popularity here since the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, said Kara Musgrave, the equestrian program director.
Other school groups come for environmental education classes, which include wildlife and wildflower areas and a teaching garden.
"Some of the inner-city kids have never been in the woods before," Marlowe said. "This really captures their imagination."
There are primitive campsites and cabins, 15 miles of hiking trails, an outdoor picnic pavilion and a new assembly building for year-round indoor activities. The building is one of the first in Woodford County to be designed and built according to high environmentally-friendly LEED standards, Marlowe said.
While the center wants to continue reaching out to all segments of the Central Kentucky community, character-building for children will remain a primary focus.
"A portion of what we do is for the kids who need it and can't afford it, the at-risk groups," Marlowe said. "But all kids are at risk for something. All kids have influences that could turn them in a bad direction."