On Spence's Farm for Kids a mile and half north of Chapel Hill, horses graze on hay in paddocks while ponies trot around a ring with smiling kids on their backs. Chickens squawk in a coop near a garden blooming with organic vegetables, making it easy to understand why the children's programs here have been popular over the last three decades.
Owned and operated by 65-year-old Spence Dickinson, the farm hosts after-school and summer camp programs for kids ages 5 to 16, offering van service from 19 schools in Durham and Orange counties. Billed as an authentic agrarian experience for children, the farm also espouses self-growth principles like empowerment, communication and respecting boundaries.
Yet in the past three months, six staff members have quit. Four of those staffers, during personal interviews, cited Dickinson as the reason for leaving. During the same time period at least 14 children have unexpectedly been pulled out of the program by their parents. Although no one has accused Dickinson of a crime, concerned former staff and parents are worried about the children's safety at the farm.
"The children have the potential to become hurt due to his neglect and lack of safety procedures," said former staffer Heather Morand, who called the situation "alarming."
Among their allegations:
• Dickinson encourages campers to walk behind horses unattended, believing it empowers them to overcome the fear of being kicked.
• He has taken children up the steep inclines of Occoneechee Mountain against the recommendation of state parks staff.
• By Dickinson's own admission, between six and 10 children have been bitten by nonvenomous snakes in the farm's history.
• Dickinson doesn't safely maintain his vans. This past fall, one caught on fire during a trip to a school, prompting the driver to leap from the front seat. (No children were in the vehicle.)
• And a former camper alleges Dickinson made sexually inappropriate comments to her in the barn during her first day of employment, on her 19th birthday.
Yet Dickinson claims these conflicts are merely misunderstandings. He says he has a cadre of loyal admirers, including those who say he has helped turn around their lives by infusing them with confidence. He is a proponent of Landmark Forum, a for-profit self-help company based in San Francisco that promotes personal development.
"I look at people, and go, 'How can I empower you?' " said Dickinson. "I want to take another step higher, and be an agent for change."
A Tennessee native, Dickinson grew up around horses, maintaining his passion for them when he brought the expansive farm 30 years ago. Since then, he says he has served 10,000 children. His biography on the Spence's Farm website suggests he has worked with children for more than 45 years, in addition to being a real estate developer and personal development coach.
On the farm kids can ride horses, grow organic food, hike mountain trails, swim in ponds and tend to animals: chickens, horses, goats, a turkey and a cat.
Marlene Panet-Raymond, whose three children take weekly riding lessons from Dickinson, says she is "blown away" by his ability to teach kids horsemanship principles like respect, communication and acknowledgment. She says Dickinson shows her children how to apply those principles to life in general.
"He puts it in such a magnificent way," said Panet-Raymond. Since their horse instruction began, she added, "My children often say, 'Are you behaving with respect?'"
Dickinson says he challenges campers to trust themselves in the face of risk, and to push themselves past their perceived limits. But to some staff members, his challenges go too far.
"He taught the kids, don't be afraid of the horses, that it's OK to walk behind them," said Morand, echoing the concern of other former staffers, including one who left several years ago.
Several times throughout the year Dickinson also leads campers on a hike up an unstable flank of an Occoneechee Mountain rock quarry marked by steep slopes and slippery crevices. Signs warn hikers of risk.
On the Spence's Farm Facebook page an 11-minute video clip posted in 2010, titled "Spence's Challenge Climbing Rainbow Mountain" shows nine campers at the base of Occoneechee Mountain, preparing to make the ascent.
"I know you can climb this mountain," Dickinson exhorts. "You're gonna look at this mountain and you're gonna go, uh-uh I can't ... But because I'm here, I'm gonna challenge you." He encourages the campers to trust themselves and to overcome the voices in their head that are "playing tricks" on them.
"If you're not looking," the camp owner explains on screen, "you could put [your feet in] a place where you'll slip, and then you'll go Ahhhh, I'm gonna die!" (At this, the camera shuts off and cuts to the next scene.)
"We have cautioned Mr. Dickinson on several occasions that what he is doing could be dangerous," said Keith Nealson, superintendent of Eno River State Park, which oversees the management of Occoneechee Mountain. "It's not illegal, but we don't recommend it."
"He wanted me to take them up there, but I refused," said former staffer Morand. "I'm a mother. It's crazy."
Dickinson defended his hikes: "I've had kids, 15 years later, saying, 'My experience on that mountain helped shape my life.'"
In the footage of the Occoneechee Mountain climb, the viewer can hear the rocks crunching under the children's sneakers and see debris spilling down the mountain. Dickinson tells them to control their minds.
"Oh, I feel like I'm going to slip!" one girl cries. Another girl tries to navigate a tight catwalk near a drop-off. She freezes for a moment, dropping a hand to the ground. Dickinson coaches her from behind.
"Stand up and walk. Make yourself move. Move those feet. Move it, move it .... one more step and you're out ... you got it! My goodness! Oh boy! You guys are so great!"
Once the campers reach the top, Dickinson says: "I'm going to count to three, I want you to yell as loud as you can, I made it."
After the cheer, a boy shouts, "It was wicked awesome!"
"First my mind was telling me that I couldn't' do it, 'cause it looked so steep, and I did it," the boy boasts. "I was scared of climbing that tree, and then I climbed a mountain."
Dickinson is also reportedly infatuated with snakes. He often brings campers to the Eno River, encouraging them to overcome their fears by handling the nonvenomous snakes slithering in the water. He promotes what he calls "the rule of the blackberry bush": If you move calmly through a dangerous situation, you often come out unscathed.
"Would a snake bite a tree?" he often asks the campers at the Eno River. "No, they wouldn't. So stand still like a tree, and it won't bite you."
However, one day, Dickinson brought to the farm a copperhead snake, enclosed in a glass case. As the children peered inside, Dickinson surprised them by reaching into his jacket and removing a long, nonvenomous black snake.
"The kids started grabbing for it, and it reached out and bit a kid on the finger," recounted a former staff member. "There is no reason a kid has to get bit by a snake being held by the owner of a camp." (In 25 years, said Dickinson, "I can count on two hands the number of kids who've been bitten by a snake. Am I trying to get the kids bitten? No, I'm trying not to get them bitten.")
Staff and parental concerns peaked last October, when Dickinson attended the Shakori Hills music festival in Chatham County, where Dickinson bumped into a former camper, then 18. The teen seemed down on her luck and strapped for cash, according to a written complaint to the sheriff's office filed three days later. Dickinson offered her a job doing general farm work. The Monday after the music festival — on her 19th birthday — she reported for work. While she and Dickinson were alone in the barn that morning, she says he began talking about sexual desires.
After leaving the farm that day, the teen drove to a coffee shop to meet with another woman— a 40-year-old mother who also attended the music festival. (The mother pulled her children out of Spence's Farm that morning, after Dickinson followed her around the festival grounds over the weekend, calling and texting her several times and mentioning that he found her attractive.)
After the teen shared her experience with the 40-year-old, both women filed a joint complaint with the Orange County Sheriff's Office.
Reached by phone, the 40-year-old shared with me her written statement to the sheriff, asking that her name not be used for publication. The teen confirmed the accuracy of the statement. Following are excerpts:
• The teen reported that "[Dickinson had] been very 'touchy-feely' with her all day and had repeatedly touched her on the face, back, legs, and on her chest above her breasts, including fingering her necklace."
• The teen said Dickinson "had taken her into a barn stall alone and said, 'Sometimes people don't say what they're really thinking. For example, if I were to tell you what I am thinking right now it would be that I am a man and you are a woman, and I would like to have sex with you.'"
• The teen said "[Dickinson] asked her to go in his 'corn maze' alone with him and wanted her to get on her hands and knees and crawl into the space, with him behind. Thankfully, she refused."
• When the teen left the farm and called the 40-year-old from her car, "She sounded quite distraught and said that she didn't know what to do because Spence was following her in his car and would not leave her alone ... She told him several times that she did not want him to, but he insisted and pulled his car out behind her, tailgating her the entire way ... She also said she made a wrong turn and he called her on her cell phone and yelled at her, asking if she was trying to ditch him."
In addition to the sheriff's report, Marshall Massey, a former Spence's Farm employee, recalls seeing the teen on the farm grounds that day. He said he witnessed Dickinson boxing the teen against her car with his leg, as if to trap her; the teen verified Massey's account. "The look on this girl's face was like this," said Massey, opening his eyes as wide as he could.
The Sheriff's Office did not pursue charges.
That night, Dickinson sent the 40-year-old a Facebook message to emphasize he did not have a romantic obsession with her. "He asked if I had received his calls and texts and told me he wanted to be my 'Uncle Spence,'" the woman told the Sheriff's Office. "I am fearful for my safety and that of my children."
Dickinson says his intentions with the teen were innocent. In his Facebook message he wrote, "I was trying to give an example of something I would never do, like I might think something like an interest in sex, and, I said, I would never act on it."
He added, "I truly am a good man whose purpose is to empower others."
When I called Dickinson at the farm last week, as his after-school program was wrapping up for the day, he explained his educational philosophy. "Kids are just dying to feel needed, appreciated and valued," he said. "Adults say, 'The world is messed up, but you go and play and we'll fix it.' But on this camp, the kids participate."
Asked about the recent exodus of staffers, Dickinson cheerily said that the staff was back to capacity and that campers were registering in droves.
"The farm is better because they left," he said. "Even if you do good, people still put you down, because you make them look bad. I'm doing some great things here."
At one point he interrupted the phone conversation, explaining that one of his campers was hugging him. He offered his cellphone to the girl. "He is cute and handsome, and I'm 5," the child announced.
Dickinson invited me to the farm. Inside his office that evening, he wore a rugged green shirt that said "Spence," jeans and a Stetson hat. He often smiled. Outside, several children were waiting for their parents, playing with chickens and laughing. On his office computer, Dickinson pulled up five-star reviews of his camp from parents raving about how much their children loved it.
He then launched into several lessons on overcoming fears and respecting social boundaries. To make a point about entering someone's personal space, he stood up on a chair and looked down at me sternly, asking me how it made me feel. Then he stood to my side and pressed his arm against mine, asking me how I should react.
He explained that it is important to oxygenate one's brain to overcome fear. "If you're breathing, you're not just your brain, you're your body." He offered an anecdote about how he helped a boy overcome his lifelong tendency to panic by instructing him to hold a chicken. "A chicken doesn't lie," he explained.
When I asked whether he allowed his campers to walk behind horses unattended, Dickinson led me outside and into the stables. He entered a gate where a large stallion was standing. "If you're a horse's friend, the way they act is predictable," he explained, petting the stallion's back. If you're unfriendly, "They'll be predictably unpredictable."
He placed his cupped hand under the stallion's mouth.
"Now he's getting to know my smell."
Suddenly, he yelped and whipped his arm through the air, causing the horse to bridle.
"He bit me!" Dickinson said.
His finger began to bleed.
"If someone screws up, you give him another chance," Dickinson said later.
Still inside the stallion's gate, he explained that he had "never done" what he was about to do. He dropped to his hands and knees next to the stallion. Then he crawled between the horse's front and hind legs, explaining that the stallion trusted him. Safely through, he rose to his feet. Then he nuzzled his face against the horse's. "That's a kiss right there," he exclaimed.
Eventually, the conversation turned to the sheriff's complaint. Dickinson denied telling the teen that he had sexual thoughts about her. He said he was trying to teach her a lesson.
"From my experience, it doesn't matter what you're feeling or thinking — it's how you act," he explained. "A dog can smell your fear. If you run away from a dog, it will come after you. But if you stand still and don't show stress, it might not hurt you. I didn't say I was sexually attracted to her. I wasn't. I said that if I was, I would not act on it. Because it's all about what I do, not what I think."
In response to the teen's accusation that he repeatedly touched her body, Dickinson cited a lesson on "partnerships with horses," claiming to have used it with thousands of children. "It involves holding their hand and nudging them, Like, 'I'm the rider, and they're the horse.' That's all the touching."
Dickinson denied that used his leg to box the teen against her car, saying he dropped to one knee in order to dust dirt from the teen's pants. (To demonstrate, he dropped to a knee and brushed my thigh with his hand.) "I didn't do anything except be friendly. That's who I am. That's what I do."
He denied tailgating the teen to the coffee shop, explaining that he merely wanted to meet the 40-year-old—to whom he had sent four texts and three Facebook messages, in addition to calling her twice, over eight hours—to explain that he was not romantically interested in her.
"I tried to bring up positive things about her, and how she could work on building her self-esteem," Dickinson said.
He acknowledged that using sexual language with the 19-year-old was "a mistake," which ignited concern among parents that wasn't merited. That, in turn, accounted for the departure of the campers and the staff, he said. When I mentioned that some ex-staff members felt pressured by him to attend Landmark seminars, he said he doesn't force Landmark on anyone.
Later that evening, Dickinson introduced a counselor, a woman named Kearsten, who appeared to be in her early 20s. He said he wanted to use Kearsten as an example to show that he is a good person.
"Do I ever pressure you to go to Landmark?" he asked Kearsten.
"No pressure, you're just being informative," she said.
"Have you ever seen me come onto you sexually?"
"And if I told you that you were attractive, what would you think?
"That you're just being nice."
When I asked Kearsten what she liked about the farm, she said, "Spence is really nice. He tries to work with us if we tell him what we're thinking. He'll help us out. The atmosphere is great with the kids. This is not an unsafe place."
Two days later, over the phone, Dickinson questioned the motivations of the women who made the sheriff's complaint. "There is no validity to these accusations, no charges," he said. He said that he hoped Kearsten's testimony would prove that he never wanted to have sex with the teen who lodged the sheriff's complaint. "To be honest, Kearsten is more attractive than [the teen]," he reasoned.
The ex-staffers who question whether Dickinson is fit to run a children's camp concede that some people admire him. His mantra of empowerment is well intended. "The ideology isn't bad, but something just gets lost in translation," said Massey, a former staffer.
Dickinson acknowledged that some people might disagree with his philosophies on how to educate children. He points out that farms are inherently dangerous. "I'm an advocate for a child's right to take risks," he said. "I don't want to get anyone hurt. But I am OK if they're scared shitless."
"There's not another camp like this," he added. "In most after-school programs, kids are stuck indoors. But for me it's all about challenging them. I know being around horses is scary. But I let them know they're capable."
After two hours on the farm, Dickinson said good night and offered another invitation to the camp. Before walking back to his house, he said: "I know I'm valued. I'm a contribution. I'm trying to make a difference in this world."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Camp fear."