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Campfires, Memories, and Meeting God


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The summer camp experience in North America

By Kimberly Luste Maran
Benjamin Cunya loves making new friends. Originally from Peru, the 11-year-old was especially excited about attending summer camp at Camp Victory Lake in New York. When he first arrived, Cunya was amazed at how it looked “big and nice, and exciting.” He eagerly jumped out of the car, and even though he is learning English, went on the prowl for friends and fun. He found both—and more.

Camp Victory Lake summer campers have some fun with one of the counselors.

Photo supplied by Camp Victory Lake in New York


Two counselors have made the biggest impressions on him during his six weeks at camp —“Counsellor [Robert] Jones because he taught me to be neat; and Instructor [Itahni] Kotee, who is a very good art teacher.” But Cunya’s favorite parts of camp were playing, swimming, and learning more about God.

“I’ve learned that God made the earth and made mankind beautiful,” says Cunya. “My mom wanted me to come here and learn more about God. I’m glad I came.”

Cunya is one of more than 23,000 children across North America who attended camp this past summer, having their lives changed by the experience.
Adventist Camps

There are 67 church-owned camps and conference centers across the North American Division (NAD) estimated to be worth $1 billion. Most conferences own a youth camp — some are located in rustic environments and operated only during the summer and early fall months while others are large camps and conference centers that cater to members of their local conference and outside Christian or secular groups that rent the facilities.

“Most of our camp/retreat centers operate year round,” says Bill Wood, coordinator of NAD camp ministries. Wood, who has been involved with Adventist camps for 40 years and continues in his retirement, shares that almost 370 staff and their families labor all year long at NAD camps.

“Summer camp, with more than 35,000 attending child/teen and family camps across NAD, is just a small fraction of what happens on a year-round basis. Many camps host non-Adventist retreats, family camps, secular conferences, etc., and this is subtle evangelism at is best as it gives our non-Adventist friends a new look at Adventists.” Wood is glad for these opportunities, but wishes that “more of our churches would utilize their own camp facilities for church retreats, leadership training, and other events.”

And while the majority of the camps are used year-round, the most profoundly affected groups are arguably those who attend and work at the camps in the summer. Adventist camps, which have changed thousands of lives through the years, started inauspiciously 89 summers ago.

 BMX bike riding is one of the activities campers may participate in at
 Cohutta Springs Youth Camp in Crandall, Georgia.
 Photo provided by Georgia-Cumberland Conference Communication


Dreams Fulfilled

“The story has been told many times,” says Wood. “Two teenage boys had a vision for ministry to other young people their own age in their home state of Michigan.” Luther Warren, 14, and Harry Fenner, 17, recognized that the boys in their church needed a ministry that would help them grow their relationship with Jesus. The two walked down a dusty country road talking. Soon they stopped and knelt in a field and asked God to lead in their dreams and plans.

In 1927, Grover Fattic, who had dreams of his own for a wider ministry to young people, presented his summer camping program ideas to the East Michigan Conference leadership. Fattic was serving as conference Missionary Volunteer secretary at the time and, with approval but no conference funding, Fattic found the Townline Lake site — a Boy Scout camp. The boys’ prayers were answered!

The first Adventist summer camp, organized by Fattic at Townline Lake in Montcalm County, Michigan, lasted for 10 days and cost $10 per camper. The conditions were less than ideal and, in fact, some parents who drove their sons out to the camp thought it too unsafe and the boys left. According to Wood, however, the 18 boys who did stay swam, camped, and fellowshipped together.

“The event was so successful that Fattic organized a similar experience for girls the following summer,” Wood says. “That first group of boys helped birth a program that was quickly followed in Wisconsin, California, New England and, eventually, across the nation and world. Those humble beginnings grew into Adventist Youth Ministries, which includes Adventist Camp Ministries, Pathfinders, and Adventurers.”

Campers gets ready to zip line this past summer at Camp Wagner.
Photo provided by Camp Wagner in Michigan


Beyond the Great Outdoors

The children who spend summer days and weeks on the more than 14,600 acres of NAD campgrounds unplug and enjoy the great outdoors. A variety of activities, which include swimming, water skiing, climbing, arts and crafts, campfire moments and much more, keep the campers and more than 2,700 summer staffers busy. But Adventist camps are more than that.

According to Norm Middag, a pioneer in Adventist camping in North America and founder of Association of Adventist Camp Professionals (AACP), camps provide a safe haven for youth. “Camps provide a place in a natural setting where young campers as well as families can enjoy wholesome outdoor experiences — and for families, a cost effective vacation.”

Not only do campers learn how to be part of a community and develop new skills and interests, they also develop spiritually. Says Middag, “Camping helps develop spiritual meanings and values that help the camp users strengthen their character.”

Middag adds, “Life time friendships are made through these experiences.  And the main purpose of our camps is to provide an atmosphere where young and old alike can experience a new relationship with Jesus Christ.”

“Jesus is at the heart of the camp experience,” says Wood. “Imagine a small child who stands in line waiting, clasping their pillow anxiously as the director hands out cabin assignments. The child is ready for adventure, but they may not even realize that the adventure they will soon embark upon will show them the most amazing picture of Jesus they may ever encounter in their entire lives— a picture that will take them finally to live forever with Jesus in the kingdom of God.”
And it’s not just the campers who have close encounters with Jesus.

“Summer camp provides not only opportunities for youth to develop socially and spiritually, it provides young adults the opportunity to develop a commitment to the Adventist church and see their faith and in action as they seek to win the campers to Jesus,” says Jason C. North, Sr., youth/camp director at Camp J. R. Wagner in Cassopolis, Michigan.

Chelsea Dancek, who has served as a counselor at Camp Kulaqua in High Springs, Florida, for several years, had a break-through summer after a tough year. In her July 13, 2016, blog “Not Just a Summer Fling,” she writes about two campers who touched her heart, and about a staff assignment that helped heal a broken heart and mend her relationship with God.

Elise Jones is baptized this past July at Cohutta Springs Youth Camp in Crandall, Georgia.
Photo provided by Georgia-Cumberland Conference Communication Department


“As I closed my eyes, God’s presence just really hit me and swung wide open the doors to my heart,” she writes. “As I soaked it in, the past frustrations and estrangement from God I had been feeling just melted away and were replaced with peace and closeness. I was assured that, for the first time in a long time, I was exactly where He wanted me and doing exactly what He wanted me to be doing.”

Dancek began to see camp in a different way. “God showed me that camp is a time to learn to better love and be loved,” she writes. “He taught me that the campers and staff I was surrounded by were not only people I could minister to, but also windows into His heart.”

“Chelsea’s story is repeated in the experiences of hundreds of other young adults who have worked as staff at Adventist camps,” says Debra Brill, an NAD vice president who, as part of her portfolio, is administrative liaison and board chair of youth/young adult ministries. “Research commissioned by the North American Division in 2009 revealed that more than 60 percent of those employed at summer camps retained their connection with the Church, moving on to become denominational leaders in Adventist churches and institutions.”
Committed to Christ

Last year alone, nearly 4,000 young people asked to be baptized as a result of camp ministry across North America. Wood explains that this is a natural culmination of camps working in cooperation with local churches and schools. “Camp ministry is youth evangelism at is best,” says Wood.

“There are so many ways God connects people to a saving relationship with His Son, Jesus,” says Rob Lang, camp director at Cohutta Springs Youth Camp (CSYC) in Georgia. “And God is using summer camp ministry all around the North American Division to bring about decisions for Christ and baptism into the church.” Lang shares how God worked in the life of Elise Jones this past summer.

Jones had been to camp before, but this summer she decided to sign up for two weeks. Her first week was Ultimate RAD Camp, a teen specialty camp that offers a different outdoor adventure everyday. Some of the week is spent tent camping at various destinations.
According to Lang, she tried mountain biking, rock climbing, and whitewater rafting—just to name a few. For her second week Jones chose Teen Camp 2. During both weeks, the teen grew close to her counselor, Lizzie Williams.

Williams encouraged Jones in her spiritual journey saying, “nothing beats getting baptized at camp!” Williams helped Jones realize God changes the person when they commit their lives to Him.

“Elise prayed about it and experienced such a feeling of peace,” says Lang. “She decided it was time to take her stand.” She was baptized at CSYC on July 16, 2016.

“I love how camp is just a fresh start,” says Jones, who will be entering high school this fall. “Everyone at camp is there to support you and help you grow closer to God because you are basically all family at camp.”

Elise’s father, Matt Jones, who serves as principal of Atlanta Adventist Academy is thrilled his daughter Elise attended camp. The proud father wrote to Lang: “I just want to thank you for the incredible ministry of CSYC. Words serve as insufficient containers of meaning and emotion watching my youngest come up out of the water at her baptism last Sabbath. I appreciate your leadership. Maybe you aren’t even aware, but it definitely shows in the staff, counselors, and kids’ experiences there. Special thanks also to the counselors who played a vital role in our girls being spiritually nourished at camp.”

The staff of 88 collegiate/young adults, mentored by Lang, minister to more than 1,800 campers each summer. And each year there are more than 1,100 decisions for Christ — and an average of 300 decisions for baptism.

Lang, who has been a camp director for 25 years, and at CSYC for 14, says, “I stayed in this work recognizing how important camp ministry is to the church. At Cohutta Springs, with God’s help and for His glory, we want to be a great camp that helps campers come face to face with Jesus while we develop young adult staff into top notch spiritual leaders for the church.”

Lang believes that summer camp is “one of the greatest educational environments ever created! The results are clear and undeniable. Every year, staff make choices to become teachers and pastors. The outcomes far outweigh the challenges. It is work worth doing!" 
He adds, “[Camp] is a great place to make decisions that can last for eternity.”

A Camp Victory Lake (New York) camper is baptized during summer 2016.
Photo provided by Camp Victory Lake


Through the Generations

Spiritual breakthroughs, erudite experiences, and firm commitments to Christ are not new to the camp experience, however. Many families across North America have rich histories with summer camp attendance; and they continue the tradition with their children. Erica Doswell is one such parent. Her daughter is a fourth generation camper at Camp Victory Lake.

“I sent my child to camp because it’s a growing, learning experience for her,” says Doswell. “Camp helps with her development and her personal maturity. Here she learns additional skills on how to get along well with others who are older and younger than she is. She has to show respect to strangers such as her counselor, instructors, and directors—this helps to make her more aware of and respectful to authority.”

Doswell, whose grandfather, Edmund Good, was camp doctor for many years and whose parents met at the very same camp, enjoyed her own camp years. She believes that camp makes a significant impact in the lives of young Adventists as important values are taught. “In my time there were about 300 campers, and while that number has dwindled to about 100 campers, my daughter is enjoying camp very much,” Doswell says. “This camp is a safe place where young Adventists can go and congregate in a positive environment.”

As Dancek writes in her blog, “I fell in love with all my campers. I fell in love with people. I fell in love with camp ministry. And most importantly, I fell head over heels for a God whose presence I can’t stop desiring more of. . . . This new, passionate kind of love I found in Him is here to stay. I can’t shake it. It’s not just a summer fling.”
— Kimberly Luste Maran is assistant director of communication for the North American Division.

The staff of year-round camps attend annual training conventions, coordinated by the Association of Adventist Camp Professionals (AACP) in NAD. Workshops cover all areas of camp ministry, with tracks for summer camp directors, camp managers, camp rangers, food service directors, etc. And the AACP meeting regularly during the year to plan conventions and marketing.

The North American Division Camp Committee, chaired by Debra Brill, an NAD vice president, gives oversight to all the functions of camp ministry in the division. And many camps in NAD are either accredited by the American Camping Association or working toward it. Adventist Risk Management strongly endorses the ACA accreditation and hopes that all Adventist camps will become accredited. For more information, visit adventistcamps.org.

Three staffers passed away this past summer during time off and away from camp. “Our camps go the extra mile to do everything we can to make sure we run the safest camp possible by meeting nationally recognized standards,” says Bill Wood. “While these unfortunate accidents in no way reflect the overall safety of those camps, we continue to mourn the loss of these three dedicated young adults.”

Brian Robak, 28, fell while returning from the summit of Mt. Washington, Oregon, on June 30. Robak spent eight summers and two winters as a full-time staff member at Big Lake Youth Camp (more at http://ow.ly/H4F7303rW9p).

On July 14, the Central California Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church was notified that 21-year-old college student Kevin Canavan, a summer camp employee from Camp Wawona, drowned while he and several others were on an outing during their day off (more at http://ow.ly/jtSm303rW7m).

George Jameson, a 19-year-old Seventh-day Adventist summer camp worker and recent high school graduate, drowned not far from Camp Au Sable while snorkeling in Michigan with friends during the weekend of July 23-24 (more at http://ow.ly/c8Wm303rW0R).

“The loss of these young people this summer has been devastating for those who have raised them, educated them, and mentored them in leadership and camp ministry,” says Tracy Wood, associate director of Young Adult Ministries for the NAD. “It has also been heartbreaking to the campers who they have inspired. We look forward all the more to the resurrection morning when Jesus comes and calls them back to life saying, ‘Well done my good and faithful servants! . . .  Enter now into the joy of your Lord!’" (Matt. 25:23).
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