LaBELLE – Going to summer camp is a memorable experience for kids of all ages. For David Weber, summer camp was much more; it became his aspiration.
“I’ve known since the seventh grade that I wanted to be a camp director,” says Weber, who was named director of the Florida Conference’s Riverside Retreat in April after the retirement of Martha Pierce.
“I’ve attended camps since third grade, and it really changed my life,” Weber says. “Camp gave me a place of acceptance, unconditional love and fun. And so after that, I said, ‘Why not do this forever?’”
Riverside Retreat has been a Florida Methodist recreation and worship center for over half a century and has gained popularity as a summer youth camp destination, primarily for South Florida churches. The 150-acre property is located on the north bank of the Caloosahatchee River, about 22 miles from Fort Myers.
Weber’s father was a Methodist minister and his mom, a registered nurse. Every four years, the family moved and by the time he was grown, Weber had lived in 10 states. He felt more at home at camp than anywhere else.
So much at home, in fact, he and wife Jennifer married at Camp Don Lee in Arapahoe, North Carolina. The couple actually met at a church youth camp. They now have three children — Loralei, 11; Freddy, 9; and Harleigh, 7 — with whom they spend a lot of time outdoors going to the beach, traveling and, of course, camping.
They also enjoy cruising in Weber’s 1957 Chevy that he bought when he was 16 and in his junior year of high school.
“I went to college in it, drove away from our wedding in it and brought all three children home from the hospital in it,” Weber says with a laugh. “The kids love it.”
A graduate of Grand Canyon University in Phoenix with a degree in recreation, Weber has been a camping professional since 2007. His last post was Bethelwoods Presbyterian Camp and Conference Center in York, South Carolina.
He says his first summer at Riverside Retreat has been a great experience. All the normal activities were there – fishing, canoeing, kayaking, swimming, archery and team-building – but he was able to add a few others, including disc golf, gaga ball (similar to dodge ball) and sling shots. The camp also hosted a fishing camp for youngsters with the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).
“In the beginning of the week, none of the campers seemed excited about fishing,” says Weber. “By end of week, their passion and knowledge grew so much they actually enjoyed fishing.”
Steve Marshall, who created the FWC’s “Hooked on Fishing” program, taught angler skills to both camp instructors and to the youngsters. Weber says Marshall “really poured out his heart and knowledge into it so we could be good teachers, too.” Weber plans to work with the FWC again next year to offer the fishing camp at Riverside.
“With David’s leadership, we were able to enhance our summer camp,” says Mike Standifer, Florida’s director of United Methodist Camps and Retreats Ministries. “We are thrilled to have David and his family at Riverside. He has the right gifts to guide Riverside’s ministries into the future.”
That future, according to both Weber and Standifer, will include more day camps in addition to the residential camp where the young people stay for a week. Day camp participants will be dropped off and picked up each day, allowing many more local children to have a camp experience.
Other changes include a soon-to-be completed fishing pier for the handicapped. The pier will have a walkway to the riverbank that meets Americans with Disabilities Act standards with handrails and wheelchair railings. A walkway will provide access to the water’s edge, as well as to the lodge.
“It was a great transition summer,” says Weber. “I saw over and over how people want this ministry to grow. Riverside is full of potential, and I plan to create a team that is going to show God’s love through everything we do.”
Riverside Retreat is a year-round facility with churches setting up spiritual retreats, as well as team-building workshops. Weber believes there is a true need for a Christ-centered retreat in the southwest Florida region.
“I always tell people that Riverside Retreat is a tool for their ministries or organizations,” he says.
Adds Standifer, “Any church group can come and use our site. We’d like to see more institutional connections with our South West District.”
“I have lots of dreams and I love that the [Florida] Conference and community around us are so supportive of this ministry,” says Weber. “I love being here.”
– Mary Ann DeSantis is a freelance writer based in Lady Lake.