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Youth camp celebrates 60 years of ministry

Youth camp celebrates 60 years of ministry

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Youth camp celebrates 60 years of ministry

Aug. 10, 2008     News media contact: Tita Parham* 
800-282-8011    Orlando {0897}

An e-Review Feature
By John Michael De Marco**

They’ve been showing up for 60 years — swimming, kayaking, dancing, eating ice cream, singing, worshipping, and growing in their faith and ministry on what has become sacred ground for thousands across the Florida Conference.

For 60 years children, youth and young adults have been learning, growing in their faith and meeting life-long friends through the summer camp programs at the Warren W. Willis youth camp in Fruitland Park. Photo courtesy of the Florida Conference Warren W. Willis Camp staff. Photo #08-0955.

That sacred place is the Warren W. Willis Camp in Fruitland Park near Leesburg, and this year marks the 60th anniversary of the first summer camping program held there.

On Aug. 29-Sept. 1 — Labor Day weekend — camp supporters and those who have participated in the camping program as campers, team members and leaders, staff or volunteers will gather for a reunion to celebrate and reflect on the camp’s impact on generations of United Methodists and guests.

A vision of many

Although it’s taken many different forms over the years, youth and camping ministry have been high priorities of the conference for decades. So has fostering the call to ministry. The development of a camp near Leesburg was designed to support both.

In their report for the Youth Commission included in the 1947 conference journal, the Revs. John Branscomb and R. Ira Barnett, chairman and secretary of the commission, respectively, wrote, “We have won a victory for our young people of Florida and our preachers of tomorrow and we all rejoice.”

The two reported the goal to raise $85,000 “for our youth work, including $35,000 for the new dormitory at Emory University for the Candler School of Theology to serve the married students of the seminary, and $50,000 to be used in the erection of a youth camp near Leesburg, on Lake Griffin” had been surpassed. Districts, individuals and conference and church groups had raised a little more than $91,000 for the projects. The Central Florida Boy Scout Council contributed 47 acres of land for the camp, according to the report.

Campers, team members and staff clear out vegetation on the shores of Lake Griffin during the early days of the development of the Florida Conference’s Warren W. Willis youth camp. Photo courtesy of the Florida Conference Warren W. Willis Camp staff. Photo #08-0956.

The first summer camps were held on the property in 1948, and by 1949, the conference’s “seven Christian Adventure Camps and four Youth Assemblies” were held at the camp, according to excerpts in “The Florida Flame,” a history of the conference by the Rev. Robert Temple, a retired Florida Conference elder. As reported at the 1949 annual conference, 36 buildings were in various stages of completion.

The camp facilities were dedicated April 16, 1951. Barnett, who retired at the 1949 annual conference as executive secretary of the conference Board of Education, was the “principal honoree” because of his vision for the youth camp, according to Temple. The main lodge, which included a dining room, recreation and lecture hall, offices, canteen and screened-in porch, was named after him.

Barnett, in turn, acknowledged Eulalie Ginn, Margaret Dyke, Robert C. Boggs and Warren W. Willis, who, he said, “as our conference directors of youth work across the years, have built for us a youth program that calls for such housing and equipment as we see assembled here today.”

Barnett added an extra tribute, saying Willis had been part of the planning process from the beginning. “He has worked hard — mark what I say: hard … ,” Barnett said. “And while giving himself utterly to this camp enterprise, he has given himself faithfully to the promotion and supervision of a constantly expanding conference youth program.”

That youth ministry and activities at the camp, “which will engage our young people on these grounds through the years,” Barnett said, “will make plain to them that Christ came not to circumscribe their lives, but to enlarge and intensify them … . Thousands of our sons and daughters will here fall in love with Christ’s way of life and dedicate themselves to service in that way.” 
Space to listen, hear

Many youth and adults have been called into ministry through their camp experiences. Their children or grandchildren often felt the call at camp, as well.

The Rev. Dr. Waite Willis, his sister Diane Willis Stahl (left) and his mother, Evelyn, wait to be recognized during the report of the Florida Conference camp and retreat ministries at the 2008 Florida Annual Conference. Photo by Caryl Kelley. Photo #08-0957.

One of those children was Willis’ son, the Rev. Dr. Waite Willis.

“The camp has been a huge part of my life, because I did grow up there for 21 years, along with my sisters. We were there right from the start,” he said. “I was too little to be aware of a lot of the stuff going on early on, but so many of the people that came through the camp, particularly people on the leadership team and my father and my father’s co-directors, like Lee Pearson and Wayne Langford and Dick Wills and others — E.J. and Elizabeth Hogan, who were the caretaker and the dietician — they all played an important role in my life. It formed who I am.”

Today, Willis is a professor of religion at Florida Southern College. He is an ordained Florida Conference elder and has a doctorate in theology from Emory University, where he also teaches during the summer.

Willis said the camping ministry has been “a huge part of my life personally in terms of who I am and my character, my faith development and my own call to ministry.”

Wills served on the camp youth leadership team for five years and on the camp board for 12 years. He met his wife at camp; his three sisters met their husbands at camp.

“Since I’ve been involved in the camp ministry through the years, sometimes as a trainer, speaker or adult worker, I continue to have friends on the team today,” he said. “The camp changed so many lives and affirmed so many people who had already made a decision for Christ. It formed so many people for ministry.”

Willis said Don Nichols, dean of Candler School of Theology at Emory, told him that his father and the camping program “furnished the Florida Conference with pastors for several generations.”

The Rev. Lee Pearson, a retired Florida conference elder living in Leesburg, vividly recalls the Willis camp in its early years, having first attended as an older youth camper in 1949. He served as a counselor during the summer from 1950 to 1954 while attending college and then Candler School of Theology.

Singing and worshipping are a big part of the camp experience, just as they were in the early days of the Florida Conference summer camp ministry. Photo courtesy of the Florida Conference Warren W. Willis Camp staff. Photo #08-0958.
“Church camping was very popular back during the early ’50s, and we would fill the camp each week during the summer,” Pearson said.

In addition to several pastoral appointments, Pearson served as the first director of the Life Enrichment Center (LEC) across the road from the Willis camp and as a director of the Willis camp itself. He said the elder Willis was a personal friend and mentor.

“The camp for me was really an eye-opener to the church being more than someone preaching on Sunday morning and going to Sunday school,” he said. “Through the camp experience I felt called to the ministry. At camp I found people who were excited about the Christian faith. I had an opportunity to meet some of the young ministers of the conference, who allowed me to see that ministers could be serious about their faith and also very human at the same time.”

Pearson remembered being particularly affected by the softball contests that took place between campers and clergy.

“I was literally surprised that preachers could play softball, could hit the ball and catch it and be very competitive,” he said. “That had a great influence upon me.”

Even as he continues to regularly visit the camp today, Pearson is still grounded in the memories that shaped his young adulthood and call to ministry.

“I can almost hear kids laughing and singing and the things that went on at the camp,” he said.

The Rev. Tom McCloskey, pastor of Bradenton United Methodist Church, served as camp director from 1988 to 1995 and also as conference youth director.

“The camp provided me the opportunity to take leadership,” McCloskey said. “When I was in college, Warren Willis saw some leadership gifts and gave me responsibilities. He had this knack for taking folks and allowing them to be the kind of people they could be.”

During McCloskey’s tenure as director, the camp facilities were renovated. Original cabins with World War II surplus bunks were updated. Major work also took place at the other conference facilities, and McCloskey recalled being “always on the go, averaging better than 1,000 miles per week driving.”

Summer camp gives team members a chance to assume leadership roles and mature in their own faith. It’s also a time for them to just have fun. Photo courtesy of the Florida Conference Warren W. Willis Camp staff. Photo #08-0959.

“I had someone ask me once about my most proud thing from the ’78 to ’85 years,” McCloskey said. “I said at one point there were 26 young adults who were either in seminary or going to seminary and projected to work in the local church. I always thought that was a real privilege to be able to impact people’s lives. I look forward to seeing those folks (during Labor Day Weekend). We don’t see a lot of each other any more.”

McCloskey’s anticipation of returning to the camp property resonates with many.

“I’ve always said the camp was sacred,” he said. “For me, it’s a place where I can always connect or reconnect with God and feel the presence of God in a very special way. That’s not to say I don’t feel it other places, but when I go back it’s almost sacramental.

“When you come around that big curve going into the camp, it’s almost like you’re coming home. I can tell you memories exactly from that first experience. Having finished the sixth grade I can tell you about people I met that week, memories as vivid today as they were then.”

The celebration weekend’s festivities will include a communion service that McCloskey said will include some of the people who worked with him at the camp who are now members of the clergy. “That will be fun,” he said.

A new generation

Even as McCloskey looks forward to connecting with current conference leaders he remembers as youth, a new generation is emerging.

Roughly 50 years after Pearson’s feet first touched the camp’s grounds, camp staff member and Florida State University student Colette Mokry was making her first visit as a camper. Now in her fifth summer serving on the camp’s leadership team, her feelings about the camp are similar to Pearson’s and McCloskey’s.

Veteran summer camp team member Colette Mokry helps a camper record some of her thoughts about her week at camp during the last week of the 2008 Florida Conference summer camp program at the Warren W. Willis youth camp. Photo by Caryl Kelley. Photo #08-0960.

“It is always that place where you can reconnect with God. It’s like a refresher,” Mokry said. “It was kind of fitting after all those years that I would be on team. You learn so much, things you wouldn’t get the opportunity to learn as a counselor. You get a lot of experiences you would never see yourself doing. Not only do you learn new skills and new ways to reach kids, but it’s a place where you can always come back. You live among so many Christians; it’s a special relaxation from the world.”

Mokry recalled meeting Pearson her first year at the camp during one of his frequent visits and his advice to campers that it is easy to forget camp has been taking place for decades.

“He said, ‘There are hundreds of people each summer thinking about the time they spent here in your shoes,’ ” she said. “He reminded us of the bigger picture.”


The much-anticipated Labor Day weekend reunion is the culmination of this year’s nine weeks of summer camp, themed “The Story,” which connected the chronicles of the Christian heritage with the history of the camp.

Willis and Bishop Dick Wills, episcopal leader of the Nashville Area, which includes the Memphis and Tennessee conferences, and a former Florida Conference pastor, are guest speakers Aug. 30.

The celebration is in conjunction with the leadership team reunion that has become a regular event every few years. A 30-minute video will highlight the camp’s impact across the generations, giving historical glimpses and information attendees may not know.

“One of the things that’s so interesting to talk about with team members from the past and present is that the way we do camp has changed, but the overall goal of camp has never changed,” said Mike Standifer, director of the Warren W. Willis camp and in his 16th year as director of the summer camp program. “That is, to have a place where kids are invited to begin a relationship with Jesus Christ or strengthen the one they already have. That’s the bedrock of the entire place. You do it outdoors, you do it with friends — that hasn’t changed.”

“In addition to worship opportunities and connections with others, one of the draws (of the celebration) is just being back here on the grounds, participating in some of the things they did when they were campers,” added Heather Pancoast, assistant director of the Willis camp. “One of the pretty traditional things is folk dancing, which has evolved from very traditional, to guys and girls in circle dances, to more like line dancing. Music has always been a very big part of camp; we’ll break out the old yellow songbooks.”

The Florida Conference summer camp programs are for rising fourth-graders through high school students. Photo courtesy of the Florida Conference Warren W. Willis Camp staff. Photo #08-0961. Web photo only.

Pancoast said one of the challenges of coordinating a camp reunion is keeping everyone’s contact information up-to-date. She encourages people to spread the word about the Labor Day Weekend event to former campers, staffers or volunteers who may have fallen out of the loop.

Lindsay Zimmerman, director of development and community relations for Palm Beach County’s C.R.O.S. (Christians Reaching out to Society) Ministries, chairs the committee organizing the Labor Day weekend events.

She recalled how her five summers serving on camp team “taught me a lot about myself and about the ways that God could use me in just sharing his love with everyone.”

“It also helped me to see that there were other people my age interested in doing the same things,” she said. “It was a different experience to be working so hard to serve God for 10 to 12 weeks, with people that were there for the same reason: to serve God and to love kids. I met my husband there; I met lifelong friends.

“I encourage people to come to the reunion and just have fun, to take a break from the stresses of life.”

Zimmerman says the camping ministry is exceptional. “I think the conference has a really great thing going on with that ministry and being able to raise up leaders and help them grow and hear God’s call on their life — whether to go to seminary and that kind of stuff or serve in their local church or go back to school and be a disciple for Christ on their campus,” she said.

The upcoming celebration, she added, is “not just the past, but celebrating what God is going to do through that ministry now and in the future.”

What happens ‘around 60 years from now’

Standifer agrees the celebration will be a time of looking back, but also looking forward.

Campers write about their camp experience during the last week of the 2008 summer camp program at the Warren W. Willis youth camp. Photo by Caryl Kelley. Photo #08-0962.
“It is an exciting time to be a part of the camp and retreat ministry,” he said. “There’s a lot that’s going on in terms of master planning, development, the capital campaign. I really hope that we’re going to be here for another 60-plus years because of the faithfulness of the campers and the other leaders of the church that have given so much spiritually and financially.”

“We’ve moved from just doing summer camp here on this property to being here year-round,” Pancoast said. “We really see ourselves as being in partnership with the local churches and want to resource them and be a place they can come and do retreats throughout the year.”

The number of campers each summer has remained steady at the Willis camp, with 97 percent occupancy this summer. A total of 3,629 campers participated in the nine weeks of programs held at the Willis camp and specialty camps held offsite, with about 100 college students serving as counselors and 252 adults volunteering.

Adding the campers and volunteers participating in summer camps at the LEC and Riverside Retreat in LaBelle, plus 100 additional youth at a first-ever Hispanic summer camp, brings the total number of youth and children attending conference summer camp programs this year to 3,996 and volunteers to 335.

“That makes us almost at 4,000 for the first time ever,” said the Rev. David Berkey, executive director of the conference’s camping and retreat ministries.

Berkey said the goal moving forward is to continue focusing on “how this ‘story’ can continue for generations to come.”

“Around 60 years from now, how can folks be captured by what it could be for the future and participate through their prayers and their gifts to make that happen?” he said. “What has happened across the past 60 years is now needed to expand to our other sites across the state. We need to reach even more children, youth in the summers than we’re reaching now. Warren W. Willis Camp is almost filled to capacity every summer. There are still a lot of children who don’t get to have that experience.”

Volunteers are needed to tell stories to children at the camps, Berkey said. Church members are urged to invite camp staff to speak at their churches. “We can lead youth programs on Sunday evenings,” he said. “They should come out and visit our camp sites and see what wonderful places God has given us.”

Summer camp team member Colette Mokry (right) enjoys free time on the dock at Lake Griffin at the Warren W. Willis youth camp during the last week of the 2008 summer camps. Although glad to get a break from the all-consuming job of being a member of the summer camp team for nine weeks, team members say they’ll miss the closeness and friendships of the team. Photo by Caryl Kelley. Photo #08-0963.

Riverside Retreat in LaBelle held its first summer program in 2006 with 12 kids. This year the facility coordinated camp for 88 children across two weeks. At the LEC across the road from the Willis camp, the conference launched a “Grandparents and Me” camp several years ago, with only about 11 campers. This year about 80 participants enjoyed the camping experience there. Day camps also are flourishing across the four conference sites.

“It’s really all a part of expanding the same story that Warren Willis began 60 years ago,” Berkey said.

Notwithstanding some of the renovations that occurred during McCloskey’s tenure as director, Berkey said the “Willis facilities have been around a long time.”

“We need a renovation of Barnett Lodge, a new recreation center, a new lodge and a new auditorium,” he added. “We hope that people will be inspired by the anniversary celebration to help us seek out major donors who have a passion for this ministry and can help us grow into the future.”

Pearson believes the future of the Willis camp “is very bright.”

“The camp is filled every week with kids from all over the state, who are finding that the program is exciting in their lives,” he said. “From that there will be many, many young people who will go into either the ministry of the church or they will find ways to involve themselves in Christian service in their communities, whether they are in professional ministry or not.”

“I believe this camp will always remain, as long as it keeps youth at heart — as long as we have a similar purpose across the years of wanting to reach kids, but reach them in a way that is new and has not been done before or set by the world,” Mokry added. “We’re open to being re-created each year.”
A detailed schedule of the camp reunion weekend and a registration form is available at

Tita Parham and Caryl Kelley contributed to this report.

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*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a commissioned minister of the Florida Conference and a freelance writer, speaker and consultant based in Nashville, Tenn.