While thousands of metro Atlanta residents and tourists visit Stone Mountain Park each year, they may never have met some of the park's most important employees behind the scenes. Known as work campers, these park employees essentially work, live and play on the campgrounds.
These employees are responsible for registering new campers, booking reservations, keeping the grounds clean, and bringing new business to Stone Mountain Park. Many work campers also live on the campgrounds.
One of the park's most charismatic work campers is John Gombala. A 70-year old retiree and Lilburn resident, Gombala has worked at the park for six years and brings his past experiences as an executive for a major corporation to his job as a work camper.
"Even though what I do at the park and my background are totally dissimilar, I have been able to apply some of my previous skills. The need to take responsibility, to make sure that I handle problems efficiently and a mindset that the buck stops here are all important in this job," said Gombala.
In his previous career Gombala, who has a background in engineering, worked for a $2 billion corporation that specialized in power generation (similar companies would be Georgia Power or Southern Company). As an executive he oversaw $900 million worth of business for the company. During his time there he was also involved with aircraft manufacturing such as the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy program (the C-5 Galaxy was a large military transport aircraft built in the late 60's that is still known as one of the largest military aircrafts in the world). After the company's owner passed away it was being acquired by a larger conglomerate, and after 37 years Gombala decided to retire.
Looking for something to do in his newly retired life, Gombala was encouraged by his eldest son, who is a former Stone Mountain Park employee, to apply for a job with the park. He was quickly hired and Gombala, who has spent most of his life as a recreational boater, began to find a similar sense of community amongst RV'ers and boaters.
"Whether you're an RV'er or a boater the sense of community is the same. If you stop into a marina or campground, you've never met a stranger because everybody is a friend. It doesn't matter your walk of life, we're all connected by this one thing," said Gombala.
That sense of community also attracted Carye Abitz. The 34-year-old Texas native has been a work camper at Stone Mountain Park for two years. The former Delta flight attendant and her husband were looking to move beyond their house with a yard into a less conventional lifestyle.
"My husband and I have a kind of gypsy, free spirit, and work camping provided a lifestyle where we could enjoy two things that were important to us: traveling and being able to move with all of our possessions if an opportunity ever arose," said Abitz.
Abitz and her husband became a part of the RV lifestyle after spending some months in New Orleans, La., doing Katrina relief work. Facing the vast amount of devastation and with limited traditional housing available, the two decided to use the opportunity to transition out of the home they owned in Newnan, Ga., and into a mobile unit.
After leaving New Orleans, Abitz and her husband travelled to different states, and the two soon realized that in order to sustain their mobile lifestyle, they would need to find a job that accommodated it. Soon after Abitz applied for a work camper position with Stone Mountain Park and was hired. Since then she has made the campgrounds her home.
"It's a home away from home. People look after your RV if you need to leave or if something happens to you medically people are there for you," Abitz said. "We are a family and that's the best thing about it, that relationships are formed and create wonderful bonds."
Abitz lives on the campgrounds full-time while Gombala splits his time between the campgrounds and his home in Lilburn. Abitz is perhaps one of the youngest work campers; many have held previous careers unrelated to their jobs at the park.
"Most of the work campers come from some other walk of life," said Gombala. "It could've been engineering or they could’ve been a physicist or a truck driver. Most of the employees are older and they bring with them a wealth of experience and a great work ethic."
On the grounds where the work campers live there are rows of parked RV's, each one decorated to the owner's personal taste. There are Christmas lights hanging from the RV's awnings, picnic tables draped with table cloths, tomato plants and sounds of dogs barking. The lot looks more like a cul-de-sac in a suburb than a line of mobile homes on a campsite.
The campgrounds see a lot of activity. There are the varying schedules of work campers and their lifestyles as well as the changing needs of each season. One thing that remains constant is the sense of community among those in the camp and its ability to always welcome someone to their home away from home.