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Building on a river of living water

Building on a river of living water

LaBELLE – It’s been a Florida United Methodist respite site for half a century, but Riverside Retreat has really sprung to life in the last few years as a youth summer camp destination.

Handprints on Lockmiller Worship Center at Riverside Retreat
Above, hundreds of campers' handprints on the Lockmiller worship center at Riverside create tangible memories for their return in future years. Below, Riverside director Martha Pierce shows expansion plans for the retreat as its usage grows. Photos by Susan Green.

Martha Pierce, who began overseeing the 150-acre property on the north bank of the Caloosahatchee River 13 years ago, has shepherded the metamorphosis. Churches from across South Florida are finding it easier to send youth to Christian camp programs closer to home.

“When Key West [UMC] found out about us, they were like, ‘You mean we don’t have to drive all the way to Leesburg?’” Pierce recalled, referring to the longtime youth mecca at Warren Willis Camp near Leesburg.

“A lot of the smaller churches are really enjoying the fact that we’re closer.”

Though Riverside’s facilities are comfortable, some of the buildings could use an update. The retreat center will celebrate its golden anniversary in October by kicking off a fundraising campaign aimed initially at renovating a screened, open-air structure known as the Red Pavilion.

The pavilion houses the camp kitchen and serves as the dining hall for large groups. Plans call for enclosing it, installing climate control and enlarging the kitchen. Pierce  estimates the cost will be $500,000 to $750,000.

The improvement would be the first significant addition to Riverside since 2008, when the generosity of the late philanthropist Alice W. Lockmiller led to construction of a $700,000 worship center that bears her name.

Future plans include adding lodging to the existing two large buildings that each hold 48 beds and a dormitory that can accommodate 28.

Pierce is hoping to include some environmental conservation features in the new design, including roofs that catch rainwater for recycling and solar-powered heat and lighting. 

Camper Cara Michaud visits with Riverside director Martha Pierce and her dog
Camper Cara Michaud, above left, visits with Riverside director Martha Pierce and her dog, Shomer, as Pierce makes her rounds of the retreat property. Below, campers learn about archery from certified instructor Chelsey Hernandez. Photos by Susan Green.
Archery lesson at Riverside Retreat

The environmental conservation element would dovetail nicely with a camp curriculum that already encourages young participants to think about Creation Care, or stewardship of the Earth’s natural resources.

After meals, for example, summer campers scrape uneaten food from their plates into a bucket instead of a garbage can in an effort to encourage conservation.

“We weigh the bucket so they see how much they’re throwing away,” Pierce explained.

As a reminder of where a lot of that food comes from, Pierce keeps chickens and pigs that have become part of the curriculum as well. The Riverside livestock is not destined for someone’s plate, but youngsters can hold them and listen to a lesson about where they fit in the food chain.

Pierce said she is continually amazed at the disconnection between young consumers and creatures bred for consumption.

For many young campers, “a Chicken McNugget has no relationship to a living creature,” Pierce said. “Many of the kids really find it shocking  … that the chicken they’re holding is what they’re eating.”

The Riverside property includes a half-mile of riverfront. Besides canoeing and kayaking on the Caloosahatchee, campers explore the river’s habitat for plants and animals and draw conclusions about the importance of clean air and water. They also learn about how people have changed the environment, including how the Caloosahatchee was channelized to drain land for development and flood control.

“Right across from us is an old oxbow that’s part of the old river,” Pierce said. “They [campers] get to go over there.”

The retreat is a haven for wildlife as well as humans. Such protected Florida species as the indigo snake and gopher tortoise make their home there, and sightings of painted buntings and swallowtail kites make it a bird-watcher’s delight. 

Campers dine at the Red Pavilion at Riverside Retreat
Summer camp youth of all ages have lunch in the screened, open-air dining hall known as the Red Pavilion at Riverside Retreat. Enclosing the pavilion is among construction goals for the facility. Photo by Susan Green.

In addition, camp participants are divided into elementary, middle school and high school groups for age-appropriate social awareness lessons that tackle topics like bullying, substance abuse, fair trade and human trafficking, Pierce said.

Mike Standifer, director of Camps and Retreat Ministries for the Florida Conference, said programs at Riverside and other camps in the conference used to be planned and carried out by a central staff based at Warren Willis. He said the ministry has flourished since staff assigned to each camp became involved in unique programming for each individual site.

He said he was especially impressed that Riverside led a group of young people on its first mission trip to Key West this year, where the group worked in a soup kitchen and on a Habitat for Humanity project. Riverside also is conducting its first fishing day camp  this summer, where 14 youngsters will learn how to use a rod and reel as well as conservation tips.

With steady growth, Riverside has been able to meet the conference goal of being financially self-sustaining, Pierce said. The conference did provide $25,000 for scholarships for young people with financial need this year. 

Riverside summer campers participate in worship
Summer campers get into worship at Riverside Retreat. Photo from Camps and Retreat Ministries.

“I don’t ever want a kid to not come to camp because of financial resources,” Pierce said.

Cara Michaud, 18, of Key West was spending time at the camp this summer for the second year in a row.

“I like that it’s small, so you can meet people and make friends,” she said.

Wendyvette Edwards, 15, of South Bay was enjoying her seventh summer camp at Riverside. “It’s a time for me to get closer with God, to get away and get focused,” she said.

Ta’Liseya McGee, 16, of Sarasota and South Bay was experiencing Riverside this summer for the first time. She said she came because she thought it would help her get closer to God, but the camp experience has offered even more.

“I thought it was going to be all about Jesus, but I’ve met people I can bond with,” she said.

For information about Riverside, visit