Scott Cameron calls himself a messenger.
The local neonatal physician was a leader in bringing Friendship House — a residential facility for young adults with disabilities and medical students — and Friendship Gardens — which provides sustainable food resources — to Fayetteville. He gives credit to the community and his partners.
“The ideas just connected somehow, and the community backed it all,” Cameron says.
Friendship House, which is now in its fifth year, is at capacity with 24 residents. Ten of them are residents with intellectual or developmental disabilities, most of them with either Down's syndrome or autism.
The other 14 are students in medical programs at local colleges and universities or are affiliated with Cape Fear Valley Health.
Cameron is one of four community advocates who will be recognized with CityView’s Power of Giving Community Impact Awards for 2023.
Cameron’s story connects his medical career and his mission trips, both of which influenced his desire to make a difference in the community.
A Fayetteville native, Cameron, 53, graduated from Terry Sanford High School. He attended Duke University and went to medical school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His residency was in pediatrics, and he served a fellowship in neonatology at Johns Hopkins University before joining Cape Fear Valley Health’s neonatal intensive care unit in 2005.
His love for mission work was inspired by joining Highland Presbyterian Church, the home church of his wife, Avery. They started attending the annual Presbyterian Pilgrimage weekends at Camp Dixie.
“It was a full watershed weekend of faith and deciding what was next. And what was next was the Prescription for Renewal,” Cameron says.
Participation in the global medical mission begins at the Billy Graham retreat in Asheville. Members of Cameron’s family were doing short-term mission work when they received news that a spot was open for a monthlong mission in Kenya.
“It was right after my wife’s father died, and we took the whole family for a month. We loved it so much we went back for a second time the next summer,” Cameron says.
It was then that his story took a turn with a medical problem of his own. He had been experiencing abdominal issues for almost 10 years without a proper diagnosis. On the way to Amsterdam through connecting flights, his stomach began to expand.
“I looked like I was 32 weeks pregnant. Here we were en route to help others, and I needed the help,” Cameron says.
The family pressed through an eight-hour flight to Nairobi and a four-hour drive to the TenWek Mission Hospital in Kenya. It was there, as Cameron lay hospitalized, that doctors found the solution. Cameron ended up losing two and a half feet of his colon in the process of treatment.
“It was something that elderly women get in the United States, but in Kenya, they see it commonly in adult men. They were able to diagnose me right away, and a surgeon I had met the previous summer was able to correct it. Prayer and sharing faith were part of the hospital care,” Cameron remembers.
A month later, Cameron was back home. A bedside conversation at the hospital led him to decide to pursue a master’s at Duke Divinity School.
“I was going to school full time and working part time at that point, but it was through that experience that we found out about the Friendship House in Durham,” Cameron says.
Cameron was spending two or three nights a week in Durham while Avery was in Fayetteville with their three children, Wallace, Glenn and Hugh. One night, she ran across a housing deal that paired seminary students with adults with disabilities called the Friendship House.
“It was a new concept and only $450 plus utilities. It was perfect,” Cameron says.
What made Friendship House different was that it required seminary students to become roommates with someone with a disability. Cameron was open to the prospect, but at the Friendship House’s icebreaker, where residents met their roommates for the first time, he walked in and immediately started looking about the room, diagnosing people.
“It’s what we do (as physicians),” he said. “But that’s when Alex, my future roommate, introduced himself.”
Cameron recalls Alex, who had Down’s syndrome, being full of joy, telling the physician how enthused he was that they were going to be roommates.
“It was then that I realized that I had spent years telling parents about unmet expectations as a physician, and all of the people I’m diagnosing in the room are having the time of their lives,” Cameron said. “They are smiling.”
He thought the concept of Friendship House was something needed in Fayetteville. Instead of seminary students, however, it could be medical students who are paired with tenants with disabilities. Cameron and Tara Hinton, who worked at Cape Fear Valley Health Foundation and has a daughter with autism, visited Friendship House in Durham.
“After seven hours traveling to see it, touring it and asking all of the questions, Scott, Avery and I started sketching out the idea to bring it to Fayetteville literally on napkins at a restaurant. We knew we could do this,” says Hinton, who now is director of regional philanthropy at ServiceSource.
Cameron and Hinton started the groundwork to set up a nonprofit organization and get their plans on paper before presenting the idea to ServiceSource, which works with adults with disabilities to create inclusive communities.
“It went from a pie-in-the-sky idea to starting the fundraising for the reality,” Cameron says.
He graduated from Duke Divinity in 2016 and was ordained in the Presbyterian Church in 2017. By then, Friendship House was in full swing.
Fundraising campaigns at Highland Presbyterian and Cape Fear Regional Theatre and a chef’s auction and other engagements helped them quickly spread the word. They raised the $1.3 million they needed in less than nine months.
According to Hinton, there are now a dozen other Friendship Houses focused on health care and medical students as mentors.
“The best part about all of this is that our residents are there as resident mentors and friends, not caretakers, and our disabled friends are learning to live on their own, maximizing their interdependence,” Hinton says.
Cameron says the experience of living with roommates with disabilities has made him a better doctor because he has more empathy.
“It allows you to look at life differently and leads to better understanding,” Cameron said.
Five years after its opening, Friendship House can celebrate success with local gatherings, new friendships, and even the marriage of two residents. Cameron officiated the wedding.
‘He loves this city’
Fayetteville native Amanda Christianson, who with Cameron helped develop the concept for Friendship Community Gardens, says the work he does outside the public eye is what makes him deserving of the Community Impact Award.
“He likes to do most of his work in the shadows,” Christianson says, “quietly twirling away behind the scenes for the pure satisfaction of serving his Lord and his community.”
“He loves his city, he loves his community and he loves people. You would think that with his occupation in the NICU that he would rightly figure he was giving his pound of flesh to our community already. But going away to Duke Divinity School and being at that Friendship House changed him,” says Christianson.
The idea behind the garden is to provide people in the community a way to supplement their diets with fresh, organic food and offer recreation for young families with children. She said as a physician, Cameron was keenly aware of the bad health effects of processed food.
Friendship Gardens teaches children about where food comes from and also helps feed residents of the Savoy Heights and Arsenal Heights neighborhoods, located not far from Highland Presbyterian Church. The garden has more than 50 raised beds.
“We wanted to be a part of the neighborhood, and gardening was a good way to get to know our neighbors,” says Christianson. “It’s also something everyone can do regardless of experience or ability level.”
The garden has a weekly farmers market in the summer with live music, concessions such as hamburgers and hot dogs, and fresh produce.
Cameron says plans for a Friendship House 2.0 are in the works, with cottages to accommodate friends with disabilities who are ready to live together in a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment.
“What I think is interesting is when folks in the community take a need like affordable housing for young adults with disabilities and health care professional students and form the Friendship House. Or create sustainable food options for neighbors from two different socioeconomic backgrounds with the Friendship Community Gardens,” Cameron says. “It creates space for all to flourish.”