Summer camp offers prayer-filled experience

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Summer camp offers prayer-filled experience

By Lauren Woods | July 26, 2009 {1053}

FRUITLAND PARK, Fla. — The leadership team at the Warren W. Willis youth camp has been living on prayer this summer.

Campers take a moment to reflect and pray. Photo by Lauren Woods. Photo #09-1259.

It’s been the theme of the nine weeks they’ve dedicated to serving campers in grades four through 12 during the United Methodist camp’s 61st annual summer camps.

Most of the 103 college students comprising the team arrived at camp on or before May 28 for more than a week of orientation to prepare for the 3,600 elementary, middle and high school campers expected to participate in the camp program through Aug. 8. 

Counselor Kirsten McColl of Land O’ Lakes says she appreciates the mixture of work and play that comes with a job at camp.

“A lot of stuff has exceeded my expectations about how much fun it was going to be,” she says. “Sometimes I forget I work here because I’m just having fun.”

Leaders strive to provide a similar experience for campers — a place where they can learn and grow in their faith amidst the fun activities of camp.

Elementary school campers finger paint as an artistic form of worship during an experiential worship activity. Photo by Lauren Woods. Photo #09-1260.

It’s all focused on one goal, says Heather Pancoast, assistant director of the camp.

“We want to introduce campers to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” she said, “or to strengthen and deepen a relationship that may already exist because of involvement in their local church.”

Focus on prayer

Each year the summer camp curriculum is based on a different theme that’s woven throughout every activity, from chapel time and daily small group meetings to special activities like experiential worship. This year’s theme is “Pray.”

Elementary camp team leader Keri Smith of Jacksonville says emphasizing the theme beyond small groups and chapel is important.

“Kids learn in different ways,” she says. “Some kids will learn through hands-on activities, some through stories and some through song. We have to do things that capture their attention, but teach them, as well.”

Each Wednesday evening, fourth- and fifth-graders gather to paint images of God, write letters to God and make bracelets as a reminder of who God is, among other activities. These stations allow campers to experience and worship God outside traditional music and prayer.

Each age group also has a nightly chapel service, where prayer is the focus of the message.

High school camper Alex Mangueira, 15, says chapel has been among her favorite activities during the six years she’s been a camper.

A middle school camper takes a break from folk dancing and throwing pies at counselors to sign a birthday card for Old Man Jenkins. Photo by Lauren Woods. Photo #09-1261.

“Chapel is the one time at camp I’m actually serious,” she said. “I like both the music and message in chapel. Music sets the mood, and I like the message because it is directed toward our age group. It’s made for our situation.”

During small group time, campers like 16-year-old Rubin Mainor learn the specifics of prayer.

“The Lord’s Prayer is not something you say just to move church along,” he said. “It’s God telling us what to do and why he wants us to do it.”

Along with the spiritual emphasis, each age-related camp has a theme that acknowledges the need for campers to have fun during their summer break.

High school campers are introduced to the band Root Canal at the beginning of the week. Games and videos revolve around this group of counselors that gives a much-awaited concert on Friday. By then, high school campers can be heard proclaiming, “We gotta’ get the band back together.”

Middle school camp is terrorized all week by grumpy Old Man Jenkins, who threatens to take away the fun of camp. Campers celebrate his birthday at week’s end with folk dancing and pie-throwing at the counselors.

And elementary campers get to know and admire superheroes named Captain Obvious and the Razzler Dazzler. A skate part with the superheroes rounds out their camp experience.

Preparing for change

The ideas and details that go into providing nine weeks of camp for three age groups, plus a series of specialty camps, are birthed long before camp officially begins. Camp leaders and year-round staff begin preparing for the next round of camps when summer ends.

Team member Stacy Meadows helps a middle school camper with a sculpture in the ceramics skills class. Photo by Lauren Woods. Photo #09-1262.

In the fall, a team of people from across the conference begins writing and editing the summer camp curriculum. Pancoast and the camp’s director, Mike Standifer, begin recruiting prospective team members and adult volunteers. They also work on camp publicity.

Interviews with prospective team members begin in January, and meetings with a 10-member support team occur throughout the spring to prepare programming and other details that must be discussed before orientation.

Right before camp begins all leadership team members are required to be at camp for an 11-day orientation. Part of the team arrives a week earlier to make final plans and preparations and train as lifeguards and high ropes facilitators.

Counselor Zach Hutchinson of Tampa says orientation is essential for team building and learning the many skills of a counselor, but it doesn’t substitute for experience.

“You can tell someone all there is to say about being a counselor, but you’re not going to really know until you’re with the campers,” he says.

Pancoast echoes the sentiment and says the work is never done in terms of training and gaining experience. The first weeks of camp are a time when the flexibility and creativity of team members become extremely important.

“There are always changes to be made week one,” Pancoast says. “We have a great group of counselors that are ready and willing to jump in when needed to make programming great for campers.”

Team members Ryan Stoffer and Emily Sturm (center) teach middle school campers the lyrics to a song in sign language that they will present at the end of the week. Photo by Lauren Woods. Photo #09-1263.

That goal is often reached through the interactions between campers and counselors. Lindsay Bowling, 17, says counselors have had a great impact on her in her nine years as a camper.

“There have been a lot of counselors who have changed me a lot,” Bowling says. “I’d probably say almost every counselor I’ve come into contact with has changed me in some way.”

Pancoast says this year’s focus on prayer helps facilitate those changes.

“At its most basic level, prayer is one of the most important parts of our relationship with God,” she said. “Communication is at the base of any relationship. I think no matter what stage they are in with their relationship with God, every camper that comes through those gates will have deepened that relationship.”

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Woods is an intern with the Florida Conference summer camp ministry and e-Review Florida United Methodist News service.

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