Summer camps inspire youth to ‘do amazing things’


Campers attend worship time at Warren Willis Camp.


As the summer camp season winds down, the directors at three Florida United Methodist Church camps are reflecting on how they’ve fulfilled the mission of serving their respective communities.

That service is a vital part of the experience at Warren Willis United Methodist Camp and Conference Center (Warren Willis) in Fruitland Park, Centenary in Quincy and Riverside Camp and Retreat Center (Riverside) in LaBelle.

Warren Willis campers go boating.

Over seven weeks this summer at Warren Willis, the largest of the camps, a staff of 89 led 3,000 campers, grades K-12, in activities that included swimming, canoeing, archery, a team-building challenge course and Bible studies.

The summer leadership team goes “pretty much straight from college to 23 hours a day here,” said Program Hospitality Coordinator Tanner Smith, who started at the camp as a counselor in 2006 after graduating from Florida Southern College.

“The secret of our summer camp ministry is the staff. The kids don’t come back for the swimming or games. They come back for the staff that inspires them.” 

The National Methodist Committee’s 2019 summer camp curriculum is “Speak Peace,” and “we adapted it to make it our own, inviting peace into our space,” Smith said.

Campers met in small groups and explored the meaning of a word in a different language each day over a week: Aloha, Ubuntu, Shalom, Heiwa, Si se puede.

“They responded really well,” Smith said. “We worried it would be a struggle, but they are natural peace-seekers. They brought a lot of concepts and questions; they picked it up and ran with it.”

Youths from Crystal River United Methodist Church work on restoring roof on an historic craft hut.

Warren Willis has recently undergone a big change: In 2017, the camp combined with the Life Enrichment Retreat Center to provide more accommodation and event options for different groups of all ages; the two ministries operated separately and successfully for decades.

Now it has a new name and a new logo, and can better fulfill “our year-round purpose mission,” Smith said.

“I’m always in awe of how many clergy and lay people have heard the call to Christ right here on our grounds. There’s something special about this place that inspires people to go back out to the world and do amazing things,” he said.

Summer camp has ended, but the work hasn’t. During the school year, Warren Willis holds After School Adventures for 30 students, grades K-5, in which they pick up the kids from school for activities and study.  The majority of participants come from Title I schools.

The mission at Centenary is strikingly different from Warren Willis. In Gadsden, Florida’s poorest county, there’s little to attract campers, so the traditional summer camp model doesn’t work.

A team visiting Centenary Camp in Quincy works on one of many community building projects in the area. Hurricane Michael devastated the low-income area when it hit in October 2018.

“What has attracted people is the damage done by Hurricane Michael and the great need it created. That has heightened and focused Centenary’s purpose,” said director David Torbett, who has been at Centenary since May 2018.

When Michael struck North Florida in October 2018, Gadsden communities lost 67 homes and 170 trees. After the hurricane, Centenary brought in supplies and housed 100 power line technicians for five weeks as they worked to restore power from there to Panama City.

Collaborating with local towns, charities and law enforcement agencies, “we worked to show the community here that we are a presence they could trust,” Torbett said.

They’ve built Centenary as a mission and outreach center, inviting groups to come for a week of mission camp from all over the country, matching their skills to projects and worshiping as they rebuild the communities.

Centenary also partners with Tallahassee Memorial Hospital on a week-long camp for kids with diabetes. In collaboration with Killearn UMC, it runs an eight-week day camp for about 80 low-income kids. 

Torbett says they are trying to reach out to Methodist youth groups who want to serve.

“I’m a big believer in Isaiah 60:22:  When the time is right, the Lord will make it happen,” he said. “This has been a good partnership with God in serving people.” 

At Riverside, which has both day and resident camp, campers ages 5-17 canoe, kayak, swim, practice archery, learn outdoor wilderness living skills and team-building conflict resolution. Campers can lead worship for a week; there’s small-group dynamic camping, in which 12-16 campers and two counselors form a “family group” for a week.

There were two new programs this year: Mission: Riverside, in which youth groups plan a mission project from fundraising to implementation; and LIT, or leaders in training, for campers age 15-17 who want to work at camp in the future.

Riverside campers enjoy tubing  tethered to a motorboat.

“This is my dream job,” said director David Weber, who’s been at Riverside for four years. “I found Christ at camp, and I want to open the door for Christ to work at a place where we care who you are, not what you are.”

The camp has grown from just 42 campers in Weber’s first summer to 600 this year. They partner with 11 churches and organizations, which bring from 25 to 110 campers over ten weeks.

“We estimate about 70 percent of campers don’t go to church,” Weber said. “We count this as a ministry opportunity, where we can teach them about commandments to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind and serve and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Weber stressed the important role of UMC camp as a stable force in children’s lives, as it was in his own. His father was a regional minister, and the family moved every four years.

“For kids who may be struggling, who may have a missing parent, this is their constant,"” he said. “When campers leave, we tell them, ‘You’re not saying goodbye; you’re saying see you later.’ Because this is your camp, where you can have God anytime you want.” 

Read more about the camps. Follow events at Warren Willis on its blog.

—Eileen Spiegler is a freelance writer based in Fort Lauderdale.


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