Resurrecting the good news each summer

An interview with camp directors

The notion of summer camp is more than 100 years old. With so many other opportunities available to children and youth, is camp still relevant?

GoodNews_featureKerry Precht (Camp Evergreen, Sundre, Alta.): Definitely! Camp is different from most extracurricular activities: it’s not competitive, doesn’t require special skills, and is based around the idea of living in community. Camp can be a great “growing up place” for kids; they can be independent from their parents in a safe, supportive environment.

Darrell Janzen (Simonhouse Bible Camp, Cranberry Portage, Man.): It’s a fast-paced adventure, but also a place where people can “be still and know that he is God.”

Jeff Siemens (Redberry Bible Camp, Redberry Lake, Sask.): Children and youth are excited about building relationships, looking up to role models who care about them, and having adventurous fun with activities they don’t normally take
part in.

Andrew Hiebert (Camp Crossroads, Torrance, Ont.): Camp connects back to the spiritual world. It may be structured and full of activities, but it’s rooted in experiential learning, friendships, coupled with spiritual teaching and Scripture – what Jesus modelled.

Les Klassen (Camp Bob/Campfire Ministries, Black Creek, B.C.): It’s the opportunity to escape the busyness of the everyday world; life shifts to something counter-cultural.

Harry Edwards (Stillwood Camp and Conference Centre, Cultus Lake, B.C.): Summer camp still has the most profound, long-lasting effect on children.

What do your campers look like and what are some of the challenges that come along with that?

Kerry: 39% of Evergreen campers reported no church affiliation; 62% of our campers come from cities. We provide campership aid to families who can’t afford camp fees, and in 2011, gave out more than $17,000 to 70 campers.

Darrell: The bulk of Simonhouse campers come from a 300-km radius – remote communities and reserves. Approximately 75% have no regular church home. Many come from split homes or single-parent families, and various family service agencies.

Jeff: Redberry campers are split between churched and un-churched. This poses the challenge of balancing evangelism and discipleship in a short period. It’s becoming more common to see campers from unstable home lives, or foster kids looking for a sense of identity.

Andrew: It’s still 80% from church and 20% with no church affiliation at Crossroads. Some 30% come from MB churches. Family camp is growing. In the last three years, we’ve partnered with church plants, especially to welcome first-generation Canadians to camp. MB churches in Toronto have loved the fact they can help their families get away. For some of the older first-generation Canadian kids, it’s quite a stretch to have so much co-ed interaction. I meet with pastors to talk about cultural norms and differences, and how can we help older ones integrate.

Les: At Camp Bob, about 30–35% of our campers are un-churched. Campers’ families range from those who can afford to attend multiple camps per summer, to those who cannot afford to send their child to camp at all. In 2011, we gave out 35 camper bursaries – we won’t turn anyone away because of economic constraints – but this is a growing need. Camp Bob welcomes immigrants from Japan, Korea, and France. This diversity of backgrounds can introduce cultural and linguistic challenges. It’s really important to make sure they’re being accepted by peers, so that each camper feels equally loved and equally important.

On a continuum of “rustic” to “luxury,” where is your camp and why?

Harry: We’re probably on the higher end of the continuum. While Stillwood’s facilities are suitable for youth camps, it’s also nice to attract adult groups in the shoulder season. When we began redevelopment of our camp back in the late 1990s, we recognized the income generated through adult retreats is a primary source of funding for our youth programs.

Kerry: We like to think of ourselves as “semi-rustic.” Evergreen’s mission is to serve kids, youth, and families using the outdoors.

Darrell: Simonhouse is located in a remote area. We run our own generators, use solar and wind power, bounce phones over radio waves, and internet through satellite. We have our own water treatment and disposal.

Les: Rustic! No electricity, no flush toilets, no road access; food prepared and cooked in outdoor kitchens, everyone sleeping in tents; and firesides under the stars. Campers hike a kilometre off the logging road to get here. Our goal is not to become a copy of other camps, but to improve what we have and do in the outdoors. Many a visitor has stepped into Camp Bob and said, “I can actually feel the presence of God in this place.”

How do you keep experiences fresh for returning campers and appealing to new ones?

Andrew: We focus on the relational side of things; we still have a lot of fun, but we run on a shoestring budget. The creativity of Crossroads staff is outstanding. For older kids, we’re competing with pressures of society; in order to get them to our camp, we have to provide value for them in the real world. Last year, we started to offer swimming lessons. This year, we’re looking at co-op credit for young leaders through high school.

Les: Camp Bob provides a wilderness environment not duplicated anywhere else. We try to bring in new program elements each year; for example, we’ve just started a new sailing program with enough boats to have a whole tent group on the water. We’ve made changes, like getting campers involved in cooking meals together as a tent group.

Kerry: Two questions shape our activity decisions: What fits with our vision and mission? And what can we do well? Programs become more challenging as children get older; for example, our wrangler keeps a database of horsemanship campers, so we group them along skill levels and provide new instruction each year. We have a different theme each summer; one year, everything was loosely based on the game Settlers of Catan. Ultimately, if the staff are really excited about even the most trivial activities, the kids get excited too.

Jeff: It’s of utmost importance to stay relevant to our campers; not adapting ministry to the world’s values, but using our programming to communicate that we understand our campers and are working hard to provide exciting opportunities.

Darrell: The activities are only the icing on the cake; the substance is always in the staff leading them. A camper’s favourite part of their week at Simonhouse always has to do with a camp leader pouring into their life and loving them like Jesus.

Technology has changed the way we do almost everything. How does it affect the way you do camp?

Kerry: We receive more than 90% of our registrations online. In terms of programming, we have to be a bit fancier to keep kids interested: photos/video-of-the-day kick off morning chapels, games kick off evening chapel, and we incorporate video teaching into some skill areas. Plus, our AV team produces a unique memory-DVD each week.

Jeff: Technology has enhanced the way we stay connected. Follow-up is the biggest challenge camps face, and with social media and technology, we can continue to invest in lives year-round.

How do you deal with cellphones, iPods, and other electronic devices: forbidden or supervised?

Kerry: Only a few designated staff can carry phones; all others are required to turn them in before the kids arrive.

Andrew: We ask kids not to bring cell phones. It’s a fast from technology, and creates a more interdependent environment, so kids actually relate to people where they’re at. On canoe trips, we ask kids to hand in watches, to learn to live by their own biorhythms for the week. As for personal electronic devices, we generally leave that to the discretion of cabin leaders; they may allow kids to listen to some of their music before they go to bed. But, even staff have a difficult time; we’ve had to take cell phones away.

Jeff: Outright ban at Redberry.

Les: Not happening. It’s good to be “off the grid.”

Comment on campers or staff who’ve never spent time outside a city.

Kerry: Sometimes, we have to explain that you can’t approach wildlife. And moose aren’t the same as horses. The biggest challenge is with our Adventure Classic camps, 75 km west of Evergreen, in the mountains. Despite the packing lists we send to campers, kids come wearing flip-flops or are underprepared for how cool it gets on summer nights in the mountains.

Andrew: Two first-generation Canadians literally thought they were in a different country when they got off the bus. They were very upset, but by the end of the week, they couldn’t get enough
of camp.

How has the message you share changed or stayed the same?

Kerry: The message – Jesus as Saviour – has remained consistent over the years. Staff use their own stories to share who, and how important, Jesus is. Figuring out how to make sure our [off-season] groups feel welcome at Evergreen without compromising our beliefs is challenging. For example, we’ve moved from starting a meal by saying, “We’re going to pray! Everyone please bow your heads,” to “If you’d like to join us, please bow your heads. If not, we ask for a moment of quiet while we pray.”

Darrell: Our staff work to teach about Jesus in everything they do. Morning “Singspiration” and evening chapel only account for a small portion of our evangelism – every activity at Simonhouse is a conversation about Jesus. We’re bold in sharing the good news with families at closing program. One father said his daughter was so on fire for God when she came home from camp that it was contagious in the family. For the first time in 20 years, he set foot back into church and now the whole family attends.

Jeff: We’re intentional – strategic – in sharing the love of Christ and his good news with Redberry campers in every opportunity, using creative and fun ways to connect. We use as many tools as possible: drama, music, teaching, interaction, Bible memorization, and so on.

Les: We’re getting bolder; we don’t apologize for our goals or minimize our experiences with God. We tie the gospel message into our individual stories and encourage our leaders to “lose the church lingo.” We promote group participation, because everyone has a voice.

How is discipleship woven into teaching and activities?

Kerry: We train Evergreen staff to incorporate God into each activity area, but the outdoor challenge course is particularly conducive to faith lessons. At the end of the week, kids share things like, “The big thing I learned this week was when I did ‘the leap of faith.’ I was really scared but I knew the rope was going to catch me. And that’s like God, because he catches us when we fall.”

Jeff: We challenge our campers to go back to their homes, schools, friends, sports, etc., and share how Jesus is changing them and shaping their lives.

Les: Drawing spiritual parallels with our activities is an awesome teaching tool, and requires leaders to be walking in that zone. We do our best to foster discipleship, and encourage our counsellors to maintain contact with campers throughout the year. Camp Bob leaders may be the only example of Jesus Christ many campers will ever see.

Andrew: The speaker sessions are incredibly practical, like a one-week Bible school, with all the fun of camp. But our focus is on living the practicality of Christ among us – giving kids opportunities to recognize they can make a difference as Jesus prompts in their lives. Some kids have broken hearts for fellow campers and it’s really exciting to see these kids on mission.

Harry: Children learn by example as they witness the gospel lived out in the lives of their leaders at Stillwood.

Jeff mentioned the importance of follow-up. What role do technology, local church resources, mid-year retreats (at camp), and reunions (at city churches) play?

Kerry: Facebook is a primary tool for keeping in touch, but it has to be carefully managed. Privacy laws mean we can’t give out names, so we try to provide kids with information for churches we know. We need to do a better job of arranging reunion events that are collaborative efforts with local churches. One year, we were able to pair up two teenaged guys, who had become Christians at camp, with the youth group at Dalhousie (MB) Church in Calgary: both guys were baptized last winter, they’re now engaged with the church body, and joined our staff team this past summer.

Les: Social media definitely has a place. We encourage counsellors to connect with their campers – you’re not just a leader for 6 or 7 weeks, you’re a leader for life. Our program director is part-time youth pastor in a local church, and the connection with camp has been very positive, both for church attendance by community kids, and for counsellors to plug in as leaders in the youth group.

Darrell: There are very few youth groups and children’s programs available to Simonhouse campers. Technology allows for some increased follow-up, but with that come challenges. Follow-up is only successful when it enhances personal relationships.

Jeff: We cannot simply share the gospel with our campers and send them out with well wishes. It’s not only about conversions, but contributing to the growth of campers. They need mentorship, encouragement, challenge, and affirmation in their lives. Social media and online programming help us stay connected and reach out to campers at home. We connect campers with youth groups and churches, do winter retreats, camper reunions at different churches, and run Connection – a “camp” evening in partnership with other camps and youth groups.

Andrew: Cabin leaders can stay in contact through the Crossroads Facebook page. We try to connect older campers with local churches; we hold reunions at churches in the off-season, and each camper signs a birthday postcard for cabinmates that we send out as a reminder of camp. We’re always asking, “How can we partner more with our churches so kids are invited to youth groups already in place?” One possibility is mobile ministry teams who partner with local churches to run day camps/VBS.

How do you recruit young staff when summer jobs beckon and university tuition looms? Has the aging bulge of boomers resulted in more retiree volunteers?

Kerry: The bulk of our staff are former campers and recruits from Bible colleges. We receive some government grants that help offset financial pressures, but university tuition is an issue. It would be amazing if someone were to donate a scholarship fund for staff who are registered in
full-time studies.

Darrell: We recruit mostly through personal referral and word of mouth. We also grow leaders through the camp.

Jeff: We focus on home-grown staffing – from campers to LITs/CITs (leaders/counsellors in training), junior staff, cabin staff, to senior staffing positions – and recruit from our churches and from Bible colleges. Redberry doesn’t offer very high wages, but provides a life-changing experience. We receive high volumes of volunteers. More retirees are parking their RVs at camp during the summer. These “grandparents” help with homesickness and campers who have trouble connecting with others.

Andrew: A lot of our staff have wanted to work at Crossroads since they were young: they come as campers, participate in LIT, then become staff. For both campers and staff, we’re competing with summer jobs, sports/extracurricular activities, and the downturn in the economy. Also, the pioneer builders are aging and passing away, so it’s becoming difficult to get volunteers from that demographic.

Les: Most of our recruits come from local churches or the Christian school in the area. Our small financial honorarium can’t compete with the benefits of being in the job force, so one of our challenges is the perception that camp is “play time.” It breaks my heart to hear parents discourage their children from becoming involved in something that will have life-long impact. Camp isn’t a place to come to, but to go out from. Where else can you empower a generation of student-leaders to make a difference in their own culture, discover passion for serving others, and be equipped emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually to identify, understand, and operate cross-culturally?

So, leadership training is a vital part of camp.

Jeff: It’s just about as important as investing in the lives of our campers. We want to send young adults into society as contributors to their communities, schools, work, and God’s kingdom. Assisting in the growth and discernment of young leaders through Bible school internships is a major part of our ministry.

Kerry: The students who participate in our ARISE (cabin leader training), PUSH (work experience) and WTP (wrangler-in-training) programs often go on to become staff. Their leaders are able to build stronger relationships with them, which really benefits the campers and, in the long term, the camp. Hosting interns from Bible colleges has been a very positive experience as well.

Les: Many of our campers can’t wait until they’re old enough to join our leadership training program. A big part of training involves servant leadership. We look at attitude, the ability to work unsupervised, the calibre of work done, and development toward being a team player. Discipleship is an integral part.

Andrew: When youth share their testimonies, they often say camp helped them grow spiritually. God has used camp to equip kids to serve the church. Some people have come through Crossroads from camper to pastor.

What excites you most about camp’s opportunities for sharing the good news with children and families?

Les: Seeing lives transformed by the power of the living God. People tend to relax and lower some of their barriers. Safety opens the door to expression; expression to vulnerability; vulnerability to resolution; resolution to reconciliation – with God or fellow person – and reconciliation opens the door to healing.

Jeff: Camp continues to be recognized as a safe, healthy, and exciting place for children, where parents are confident their kids will be cared for.

Darrell: People are again becoming more open to allowing their kids to attend Bible camp even though they have no religious interest themselves.

Andrew: It’s a way to encourage kids to share love and the message of the gospel and have fun doing it. The message presented in chapel is important, but just as important is our life and how we care for one another. One returning camper brought a friend who, because of the love and community she experienced, made a commitment for Christ.

Harry: We get to portray Christ to children from all economic, cultural, and social backgrounds. Where else can you present the gospel in word, song, actions, and activities every day for a whole week?

–KB

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