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Before you know it, summer will be here, and with it, an opportunity for kids of all ages to enjoy the unique experience that only an Iowa United Methodist camp can bring. Naturally that includes fun stuff like swimming, hiking, canoeing, archery, and crafts – but there’s so much more to it.
Click here to listen to the Iowa Conference Conversations podcast with Bryan Johnson
“We have three core values,” states Bryan Johnson, Director of Camping and Christian Formation. “We want to make sure all of our campers and guests are safe, secure, and loved. We want to make sure they make a new friend. And, we want them to have an opportunity to share and learn about Jesus Christ.”
The two camps
Okoboji and Wesley Woods are the two camp sites available, and each is special in its own way. Bryan points out that for Okoboji, the lake is a big draw, and they also have cool features like go-karts and an aerial course. Wesley Woods is a huge site with fields, horses, and an outpost program with outdoor cooking. “Kids will come and they’re cooking their own breakfast over the fire and they’re staying outside. It’s such a unique experience,” he says.
Lessons in Eden
United Methodist camps stand out in other ways too. Bryan points out that even if you can do a high ropes course anywhere, the ability to debrief about that experience in a Christian context – for instance, comparing it to Peter walking out onto the water – is special. “What does that mean for that camper to put that faith-based story in perspective for them right in that moment?” he asks.
Bryan likens camp life as a bit like a return to the Garden of Eden. “We’re able to see nature and we’re able to have this mountaintop experience,” he says. “We experience God in the outdoors. That’s why this discipleship pathway is such a critical piece for churches.”
An adventure for life
Bryan’s enthusiasm for camp is infectious, and it’s not a wonder given what an important role it’s played in his life. Growing up in Urbandale, he was invited to camp for the first time by a friend when he was 10 years old – and pretty much never stopped going. Positive experiences as a camper led to him becoming a volunteer, then a summer staff member, and now it is a career. “Camp is an adventure that has lasted my entire life so far,” he enthuses, eager to share it with others. “You can have an adventure in a safe place with caring, Christian staff.”
Some of that adventure may be less than glamorous, but useful nonetheless. “The reason I can plunge a toilet or do laundry is because I developed those skills working at camps,” he says. Bryan takes pride in the messages he gets from former campers and staff who share how they are now keeping their college dorm bathrooms clean thanks to their well-honed camp skills.
Good experiences at camp can also have a big effect on youth attendance at church. Bryan relays the story of a church that made a commitment to send as many of its young people as possible to a camp site, and they found that not only did camp attendance double, but their own youth group attendance tripled. “If we can utilize one area of ministry, it multiplies.”
Something for everyone
There is a camp program suitable for just about everyone. Little ones can come for just a day and bring an adult to get their feet wet. There are one- or two-night programs for kids that aren’t quite ready to do a longer stretch. “Age nine and up is when you get to your full residential program – the five-day experience,” explains Bryan.
Some kids, and their doting parents, may understandably be concerned about the possibility of homesickness. The staff – which is comprised of about 80 people between the two sites each summer – is well trained to notice and address this problem. “Coaching a child through homesickness, it allows them to see they may be capable of more than they thought,” says Bryan. “It’s cool to watch them progress. Sometimes they’re struggling at the end of the week because they don’t want to go home yet!”
Creating a safe and healthy environment
During the two- to three-week staff training, they cover everything from safety to conflict management between campers. “How do you create a sense of empathy for one another?” asks Bryan. “That means finding commonalities between people who could potentially be coming from different places, different times in their life, different family situations, different economic challenges perhaps. We put them all together and try to create a cohesive unit throughout the course of the week.”
They also take great care to serve plenty of nutritious food, and will take campers’ dietary restrictions into account. “No one goes hungry when they’re at camp. We offer a heathy breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus snacks,” he emphasizes. And it’s not something you can take for granted, notes Bryan, recalling a time when a camper, asked what his favorite part of the week was, said happily how wonderful it was that he got to eat three times every day.
With the reality of many families’ financial hardships in mind, they never turn kids away for economic reasons and will figure out a way to ensure that anyone who wants to go is able to. To help ensure that they can continue to do this, the camp has begun raising its own funds. They recruited about a hundred volunteers recently to help get gifts and pledges, and the results were impressive. With some 150,000 pledges coming in, it’s clear that people understand how valuable camp is to kids and to the church community.
To see what programs are available and to sign up, visit www.IAUMC.org/camps, or call 800-765-1651. Bryan says that they will be happy to help identify the best program for you. “We’re excited about camp. We’re really looking forward to a good year!”