Campers, leaders celebrate past with eye to future

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Campers, leaders celebrate past with eye to future

Sept. 19, 2008     News media contact: Tita Parham* 
800-282-8011    Orlando {0913}

An e-Review Feature
By Erik J. Alsgaard**

Mike Standifer (left), director of the Warren W. Willis Camp, and the Rev. Roland Vanzant catch up during registration at the 60th anniversary celebration of the camp. Vanzant was among the group that participated in the first summer camp program at the new camp when it opened in 1948. Photo by Caryl Kelley. Photo #08-0994.

FRUITLAND PARK — Sixty years ago this summer, as workers pounded the last nails into shingles on the roof of a large building carved out of overgrown lakefront property, a group of kids gathered to do something new: pray over lunch at church camp. 

There were only “three girl’s cabins with a shower house and no boy’s cabins,” the Rev. Roland Vanzant said. “Just a scout hut where the boys were all in one big room, with an outhouse. No indoor plumbing.”

Vanzant should know. He was there that first summer, in 1948.

From that humble beginning, the Warren W. Willis Camp was born. Today, the prayers continue, and the ministry that started with the vision of a man for whom the camp is named has impacted the lives of thousands in countless ways.

More than 250 people who have participated in the camping ministry over the years in some way gathered over the Labor Day weekend to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the camp.

Bishop Dick Wills, who was elected a bishop from the Florida Conference and attended the camp when he was in high school, now serves as episcopal leader of the Nashville Area, which includes the Memphis and Tennessee conferences. He provided one of the weekend’s messages.

Using two different lumps of clay — one wet, the other dry and brittle — Wills said the only difference between the two was water. Using the story of the woman at the well, who thirsted for water and received from Jesus the gift of “living water,” the bishop asked the congregation: “Are you going to allow God to use your life? Are you going to be pliable, available?”

Bishop Dick Wills speaks with former camper and counselor Delia Halverson, a Christian educator and author who now lives in Georgia, after his message to participants at the camp celebration. Photo by Caryl Kelley. Photo #08-0995. For longer description see photo gallery.

Wills called the camp a “touchstone place” and encouraged his listeners to use it as a place to reconnect with God.

“It was at camp that we first heard that God loved us,” he said. “Many of us met Jesus here for the first time. Many of us committed to be his followers. Many of us felt our call here. It’s that sense that beckons us here today.”

Back to the future

Vanzant, now retired at age 78, was active in youth ministry in the Florida Conference before the ground was broken for the camp. Youth assemblies were held all over the conference, he said, with hundreds of people in attendance at each one.

“When we got the camps going, some years we could not admit them all,” said Vanzant. “We had over 500 kids here a week. It was just a great experience. A lot of lives were changed, and a lot of decisions for Christ and for people to go into the ministry were made here.”

Those decisions are still being made today.

“What’s amazing about this place is that I can name the places where I’ve sat in this chapel and prayed prayers and understood who God was in a new way and understood my own life and calling,” said the Rev. Alex Shanks, new chair of the conference board of camps and retreat ministries.

Shanks, who is an associate pastor at Christ Church United Methodist in Fort Lauderdale, served as a summer camp team member from 1996 to 1999 and was a camper before that. He was also the assistant camp director in 2001 and 2002.

Past campers, counselors and volunteers are reminded of their days at camp through a “get-acquainted” game held the first day of the camp celebration. Photo by Caryl Kelley. Photo #08-0996. For longer description see photo gallery.

Many of those attending the celebration said being a team member is one the gifts the camp’s founder, Warren W. Willis, gave to the ministry. It was a carry-over from the pre-camp days when high school and college-aged youth would help lead the young adult and youth ministry of the conference. Countless clergy and lay leaders emerged from this program.

“Serving on the team was where I began to understand what true Christian community was about and began to clarify what God had called me to do,” Shanks said. “This was a place that drew me closer to the depths of what it meant to live in community with other people. It’s here in this place where God continues, even today, to shape my own heart.”

Vanzant says he made an equally important decision at the camp — to stay “with it” even when he got “discouraged and disenchanted.” “I kept that commitment and went on,” he said, “and I had a great life in the ministry.”

Remembering Warren W. Willis

A highlight of the weekend was the debut of a 40-minute film that captured the history of the camp. Through interviews with people like Vanzant, who were present at the start, and those involved in the camping ministry today, the film showcased the power of God through one man: Warren W. Willis.

Willis, who served as the Florida Conference’s youth director in the days immediately after World War II, had a vision for a youth camp. After scouring the state for a suitable location, an overgrown, forested area on a spit of land outside Leesburg became the camp’s home. The road to the camp had to be bulldozed, trees had to be cleared, stumps were pulled out by college students on weekends, and countless other tasks were completed to prepare the camp for opening day.

The Rev. Dr. Waite Willis (center), Angelo Fuster (right) and Steve Jones practice before providing music for an informal sing-along the first night of the camp celebration. Willis and Fuster are two members of a singing trio called the Rainbeaux, which also includes the Rev. Bob Gibbs, pastor at St Andrew’s United Methodist Church in Brandon. The group sang semi-professionally while in college and seminary. Photo by Caryl Kelley. Photo #08-0997. For longer description see photo gallery.

“One of the things I learned from my dad was that he wasn’t bound to a particular building or a particular way of doing things,” said the Rev. Dr. Waite Willis, Warren’s son. Now a professor at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, he grew up at the camp. He continues to be part of the summer program and serves on the camp’s board.

“My dad wanted to do it the right way that would meet the needs of young people and enable them to deepen the Christian walk and come to know Jesus as their Lord,” he said.

Vanzant remembers his experiences with Warren Willis, driving around the state to various youth assemblies and then hustling back — sometimes driving through the night — to get back to college in Lakeland.

“Warren would wiggle in the driver’s seat just to stay awake,” Vanzant said of the man who later officiated at his wedding. “Warren was such an unusual person in the sense that he was able to create things and organizational structures. The genius of the program which he brought into being was that college students became leadership teams.”

Hopes, dreams for the future

Even as the Warren W. Willis Camp today experiences tremendous success, both spiritually and fiscally — there were only 92 empty beds during the entire nine-week summer camping season this year — there are no plans for the camp to rest on its laurels.

Instead, a plan of renovation and expansion is in the works that will keep the camping ministry movement strong for generations to come.

Joanie Joyner (left), Sara Beth Priest (center), and Garnet Smith Andrews are reminded of their camping days as they participate in a sing-along during the camp celebration. Photo by Caryl Kelley. Photo #08-0998.  For longer description see photo gallery.

“Part of it is continuing to make sure that we’re relevant with where kids are,” said Mike Standifer, director of the camp since 2005 and just finishing his 16th year as director of the summer camp program. “Certainly, the story doesn’t change; the story of where we fit into God’s story. He’s constantly with us and evolving through our lives and our stories. So, I think for us to be able to grow we need to be able to create new experiences.”

To that end, people are being invited to participate in a capital campaign throughout the Florida Conference, part of which will directly impact the camping and retreat ministry.

Shanks said for him, one of the most exciting truths is that the Florida Conference has decided to be very intentional about the future of its camping and retreat ministries across the state. The intent, he said, is to add one new lodge at the Warren Willis camp and renovate Barnett Lodge so it is more usable not just for summer camps, but year-round.

“To think that this capital campaign will ensure that this kind of a place, this holy place, is available for kids and families into the future is what God has called us to do,” Shanks said. “I think it’s one of the most exciting things happening in the conference.”

About half the total capital campaign funding is earmarked for camping and retreat ministries across the conference, Standifer said. A portion will go toward improvements at the Warren Willis camp.

Past campers and volunteers attending the camp celebration put hand motions to song during a sing-along the second day of the gathering, reminding them of their camping days. Photo by Caryl Kelley. Photo #08-0999. For longer description see photo gallery.

“The master plan … has some incredible plans for replacing existing buildings that aren’t up to what some of our others cabins and lodges are,” Standifer said.

That includes building an auditorium at the Willis camp so it can host the kinds of programs the retreat season desperately needs.

For Waite Willis, who has seen just about all the changes that have happened at the camp, it’s about keeping true to the vision of reaching people for Christ.

“There are always the hopes and the dreams to keep the facilities current, to answer the needs of the people,” he said. “We did that in the late ’80s and the ’90s when the cabins were rebuilt and the air conditioning was added to many buildings. When you do that, you feel like it’s not going to be exactly the same, but you don’t want it to be exactly the same because you have to attract kids to camp. That’s what it’s all about, and that’s what this weekend celebrates.”

The vision lives on

Those who have participated in the camping program — whether as campers, team members or volunteers — often find it difficult to put into words exactly what the Warren W. Willis Camp has meant to them. For many of the people gathered at the celebration, the camp is a sacred place.

“Many of us came to a deep relationship with Jesus here through the leaders, through the worship, though the singing, through the fellowship,” Willis said. “It’s holy ground. And every time that I round the corner and start to come through the gates, I get that feeling of being home, that this is a spiritual home for me.”

Today, that seed is being planted in youth like 11-year-old Emma Hartsfield from First United Methodist Church of DeLand. She’s already a veteran of three summers’ worth of camp experiences.

“It’s really fun. I really like it. I look forward to it every summer,” she said.

Future campers get a chance to experience camp life during the camp. Although the gathering was a time to celebrate the impact the Florida Conference camping ministry has had on countless numbers of campers, team leaders and volunteers over the years, it was also a time to renew the commitment to providing a life-changing experience for future campers. Photo by Caryl Kelley. Photo #08-1000. For longer description see photo gallery.

When pressed to say more, she said she liked the praise time the best because “you get to jump around with all your friends.”

“It’s like worship,” she said. “What you do, there’s a band here, and they play a bunch of songs, and they’ve made up all these dances, and you just get to jump around and get sweaty.”

And in words that show the vision is still alive and new generations of people will come to know that Jesus loves them, Hartsfield said she would recommend camp to other kids.

“It helps you get closer to God,” she said. “You have small groups, and there’s worship at night, and there’s a little sermon for you, and in small groups you do little things that help you get closer to God and your friends.”


*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Alsgaard is director of communications for the Florida Conference.

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