The other day my 3-year-old, Levi, tagged along with the intersession campers for part of the day. For my wife, it was a nice small break from a 3-year-old who talks incessantly. For me, it was just another day as a Camp Director - offering wonderful outdoor programs for kids. But when we sat around the table for dinner that night, I realized that it wasn't just another day for Levi. It was a day AT CAMP...
Levi went with the campers on a hike to Big Rock, which is basically a big rock out in the woods that juts out of the side of a hill. The campers like to climb it and sometimes slide down it. Levi described his experience something like this - "We went to Big Rock, which is a REALLY tall rock. At first I had to hold Reese's hand when I slid down. But then I got braver and braver and BRAVER! Then I was sliding down all by myself!" As Levi told me this story, he was very excited and wore a grin that stretched from ear to ear. He was so proud of what he had done, and the courage he had found that day. A simple thing like a rock, when utilized by capable counselors, turned into a tool for boosting self-esteem, courage, and feelings of independence and confidence.
Levi also told me about his experience at tetherball. Levi's description went something like this, "We played that game with the ball on the string that you hit. And I was on Andrew's team. And we were playing against the other team! Mostly Andrew hit it, but my team won!" It doesn't come across well through this typing, but the way that he said "team" and "my team" held great meaning. The most important thing to him about this story was not that he played or won, but that he was part of a team. He felt included, like he belonged - he was part of a community larger than himself.
For me, it was just another day at camp. But Levi's experience reminded me that every day at camp holds potential for positive, life-changing, transformation. Every day at camp, campers are trying new things, learning new skills, and being part of a team. These experiences translate into feelings of positive self-esteem, confidence, independence, courage, inclusion, and belonging - all hugely important tools kids need to live vibrant, healthy, connected lives.
What I've described above is one child's experience of one day at camp. But this process plays out over and over at Chestnut Ridge for thousands of campers and guests almost every day of the year. Some keys that make this experience transformational include:
- Campers don't experience these things stuck inside a building - but outside exploring the natural world.
- They don't experience it through a screen - but in the physical world with their bodies.
- Their friends are not virtual or pretend - but real living, breathing people that they can see, touch, hear, laugh with, and play with.
- Most importantly, campers don't experience these things by themselves - but in community. In a safe, nurturing environment that encourages them in positive ways, and loves them for who they are, not for who they can become.
As a parent, this is exactly the kind of experience I want for my child. My prayer is that all children who come through Chestnut Ridge this year will be positively impacted in both simple and profound ways.
Blog by Rev. Nick Jeffries, Director - Chestnut Ridge Camp & Retreat Center
Fame. In America, it's what everyone wants, and what everyone is striving to attain. Our culture worships celebrities and idolizes the famous. We gawk and scoff at reality shows, but also secretly admire that a "normal person" just became famous on TV. I think part of the attraction of Facebook is that it gives each of us a tiny sense of fame. We post a witty comment, or ironic picture on Facebook and watch to see if anyone will "like" it. We are delighted when the post gains in popularity, and we feel good about being "famous."
This summer at camp we shared the most famous story ever told. The story of God loving God's people. Of God constantly calling to us, longing to be in right relationship with us. Of God, our Creator, who created us in God's own image and intimately knows each and every one of us. Of God that will never leave us. And we talked about how our stories fit into God's story. Of how God works through each of us to bring about the kingdom of God, and how each of our stories is woven into the larger tapestry that is God's great story of salvation.
This summer I saw -
- A "tough," "cool" middle school boy crying his eyes out after the closing dinner celebration at the end of the week.
- A girl camper who left almost an hour later than everyone else on Friday night because she had to hug every last person at camp before she left.
- A staff member who showed up to staff training, unsure of who he was, and doubting his faith, leaves at the end of the summer with newfound confidence, self-esteem, and a renewed faith in Christ.
All of these things happened because these campers and counselors encountered a community, and a God, who loves them just for who they are. In a culture that focuses on the famous, we who are not famous often feel left out, or unworthy. But at camp, the staff attempts to share the love of Christ with the campers. A love that is unconditional and knows no bounds. A love that embraces your imperfections and just loves you for who you are. In a world that is quick to point out flaws, we attempted to point out gifts. The staff worked so that the campers may know that God, the One who created all things, also loves them - not for who they used to be, or for who they can become - but God loves them just for who they are.
It's not always easy to see the fruits of your labor during the week at camp, but luckily, we receive hundreds of survey comments from parents every summer. I am honored and humbled by God's ability to transform lives through camp. Here are just a few examples of what parents had to say about this summer.....
"Camp feels like home! thanks for always making us feel we are where we belong!"
"Both of my kids felt very "at home" and important as campers there."
"Our son struggles a bit with peer friendships, but the counselors give him so much love and friendship that he feels very much loved. They set a great example."
"My son did say that he knew his counselors were his friends after the encouraging words that allowed him to have the best experience of his life. The counselors are just gems. They always have been but for some reason, the group this year is just even better. This means so much to our son."
"Our daughter just returned from her first trip to Chestnut Ridge as a day camper and I am pleased to let you know she enjoyed her time immensely. The counselors were wonderful and you have set it up wonderfully for the children to feel loved, supported and as a special child of God. Thank you."
"All of the staff have been such a gift to my son and I. His afterschool and camp experience increase his self confidence, encourage growth and generally improve our overall QUALITY of life. I can't imagine trusting him to anyone else. I have been so impressed with your program I recommend it to everyone I know"
"Our daughter enjoyed every aspect of the camp. She developed new friendships, independence and a great deal of knowledge!"
"The counselors in his cabin even knew ME from just seeing me once at drop-off. They recognized me 5 days later and called my son right away when I pulled up to get his stuff. GREAT young men!"
"My camper is excited each year to return to CCR. She enjoys the total experience because it is a positive place for her to unplug from the craziness of the world and plug into to the Lord and all of His wonderful creations. This is a rare find today. Thank you."
"My campers experience with you all is just what we are looking for as part of her summer activities. We picked her up tired but full of life and happiness. You provide a safe, nuturing, loving and spiritual environment..What more could we ask for."
"I cannot say enough about my son's experience these past 2 summers. He has attended other summer camps in the past, but Chestnut Ridge is by far his favorite program and he's very sad his summer camp is coming to an end. My wife and I would like to personally thank your entire staff for nurturing him and allowing him to grow into the person he is today- confident, independent and fun-loving."
These are just a few examples, but time and again you see those same words. My child felt ...... Loved. Cared for. Nurtured. Important. Special. At Home.
We may all think we want to be famous, but what it really boils down to, is that we want to be known. We sometimes settle for the superficial ways of being known, like through Facebook. But if we are honest, our true desire is to be deeply and intimately known. We want to be able to be in a place where we feel safe enough to let people know our true self. Where we feel loved just for who we are.
For many children, summer camp is that place. Thanks be to God.
To give the transformative gift of summer camp, please join me in donating to the campership fund by going to this webpage and clicking on the donate button.
Blog by Rev. Nick Jeffries, Director - Chestnut Ridge Camp & Retreat Center
The other night my son and I built a campfire, roasted marshmallows, and ate smores together in the backyard. Was it a special occasion? Birthday? Friends over for dinner? Nope. We made smores just because it was Wednesday. We had no better reason than that. So we had a special evening together, collecting sticks, being mesmerized by the fire, and getting marshmallow goo all over our hands and face. Just my son and I. It was not a special occasion, but it was an occasion that we made special by spending quality time together.
Summer camp is full of ordinary occasions made special.
- An ordinary Tuesday at lunch becomes memorable when counselors dress up like super heroes attempting to "rescue" the squash.
- A normal day at the pool quickly turns into a party with a little music, a few pool games, and some energetic counselors.
- A climb in a tree becomes a self-esteem boost when that tree happens to be part of the high challenge course
- Digging in the dirt turns into a learning opportunity when a camper says, "oh! that's what a broccoli plant looks like!" and realizes where their food actually comes from.
- Time spent grooming and riding a large horse becomes so much more when a camper who is struggling to connect with peers and won't talk to her parents, connects with the horse she's riding and starts showing affection, love, and displaying a smile not seen in a while.
- A simple walk around the lake turns into a pivotal faith formation moment through the sharing of Biblical stories and God's love.
Summer camp is not about celebrating life's special occasions. It's about celebrating life and making occasions special. It's taking the simple acts of living in community - eating, worshiping, living, laughing, farming - and making them into special memories that last a lifetime. That's why our interviews with potential summer staff contain questions like, "What do you do for fun?" and "Tell me about the silliest, goofiest thing you did this past year" and "You've got a 30 minute time slot to fill with the youngest campers, what do you do?" Yes, we're looking for mature, responsible young people, but we also want to be sure that they are engaging, energetic, and have the ability to make any moment special. That's why so many campers come back year after year. It's not because we have a pool, some horses, and food. It's what the creative, energetic, imaginative staff does with those things that makes the moment, and thereby makes the memory.
Don't wait for a special night, go make this normal night special. Get those marshmallows out and go make a campfire with the family tonight.
Join us for Father/Son or Mother/Daughter Camp to make a normal summer special this year
A year ago my nose was pressed deep into the pages of The Leadership Challenge. Not being one to read a lot of books on leadership, I found affirmation within these pages. Affirmation that, at least by someone's standards, some things were very right here at Chestnut Ridge.
For starters, the diversity and unity of our team found loud affirmation. Not that I ever recall setting out to create such a team, but I do recall setting out to create an environment that felt more like "team" than "hierarchy." We're all in this thing called ministry together, and everyone pitches in to make it work.
Chestnut Ridge is a work environment like no other. It is a non-profit business, a ministry of the church, and a community of people banded together around the great goal of making the love of Christ visible in our world. This environment attracts a wide variety of people who come with an even wider variety of reasons. Some are tired of working for "the man" and want to do something meaningful with their life - make a difference in the world. Some come here to be in a community where feeling God's love is, perhaps, just a bit easier than other places they've been. And, others come because they need a job to make ends meet and find, sometimes to their surprise, what a healing and restorative place Chestnut Ridge can be.
At the risk of embracing one of the seven deadly sins, I am proud of the community of folks who serve at Chestnut Ridge - those who are paid and those who volunteer. Together, we create a team, a real community, that is making a difference in our world. It's hard for me when people want to give me the credit for their child's summer camp experience, their retreat group's successful event, or their student's incredible field trip. It's not really modesty - I'll take credit when it's due - it's more the realization that Chestnut Ridge is now so large that I cannot be intimately involved with each camper, each retreatant, each afterschooler, and each student. I long to be. I miss being that stage in our ministry's life-cycle. But, something wonderful has happened. A vision and a mission unifies former strangers, creating friendships, community and common purpose. The few have become the many and more continue to join in. What was a spark has become a fire. We all enjoy it's warmth.
The leadership challenges are different now. From my early days here where my hands were directly in every program, every family, and every meal, I've had to step back. Up may be a better description. I find myself in the balcony these days, looking out over the varied thriving ministries here, led by people who share a common love of God, others and the outdoors.
And, from the balcony I can see the whole of the ministry and glimpse it's future. And, it's exciting! I see where we're going - new programs, new spaces, and new people - the result of the gifts given by countless persons who have served and who continue to serve at Chestnut Ridge.
In the next blogs, I'm going to focus on the values that this community shares...the values that have brought us this far and that will take us even further in making the love of Christ visible in our world.
It may seem a bit strange that, as a camp director, I was a bit nervous about sending my kids to camp. The first time, I simply sent them "down the hill." (That's Chestnut Ridge lingo for the distance between the director's house where I live and main camp where all the action takes place). Sending them down the hill to camp was a little nerve racking - really. I worried whether they would make friends, have fun, sleep well, and if they would remember to brush their teeth (and if their counselor would remind them - hey, wait! I trained those counselors, of course they would get a reminder). I knew that if they forgot something, I could make the five minute walk to their cabin and drop if off. I would see them every day. Off they went for a week.
Back up the hill, the house felt strangely empty. Quiet, actually. No new piles of clothes accumulated in the laundry - although I knew that was coming on Friday. The sinks in the bathrooms were oddly devoid of splatters and splashes. The number of dishes in the sink dropped dramatically. This confirmed my long-held belief that 1 child does not equal one dish and cup at a meal. Suddenly, I was faced with something I hadn't known since BK (before kids)...I had free time .
So, what's a mom of three to do? In the day-to-day world of being a mom, a wife, and a camp director, the concept of free time falls largely in the realm of fantasy. When I have it, it's usually only enough to squeak in a walk or maybe read a few pages in a book. Now I had whole evenings - blocks of hours - and I could choose my own activity. Not wanting to squander the unexpected gift, I pulled out the photos and memorabilia from the past 12 years and got to work. As I slid pictures into slots and wrote notes about events, birthdays, vacations, and friends, I took stock of the blessings in my life. Thankfulness for my family grew ten-fold that night.
I took one evening to sneak away for a long and scruptuous dinner with my husband. No babysitter necessary. No worries about whether the kids were treating each other alright. We stayed and talked until late in the night. It felt like a first date all over again.
And, I took an evening to have all to myself. I indulged in a long bubble bath, a fuzzy bathrobe, and a good book. Didn't cook dinner. Just put my feet up and relaxed. Really relaxed.
At pickup on Friday, I couldn't wait to wrap my arms around my kids and hear all about their week. (I'd tried to keep a low profile so they could have as normal a camp experience as anyone else). They were so proud of themselves...and I was just a little proud of myself. In our short time away from each other, we'd all grown. I felt renewed and ready to step back into my full-time mom duties. The kids brought home great stories, and a new kind of self-confidence. Suddenly, they were taking more responsibility for their belongings, and helping out around the house. For months, every other conversation mentioned "at camp, we..."
At camp, my kids grew up in the very best of ways. They gained confidence in themselves, trust in others, and a deeper, richer sense of God's love for them as expressed primarily by our summer team. What I didn't expect is that I would have my own camp experience too - a time in my own house where I wandered. I remembered some things about myself and my dreams that renewed me as well. I'm a better mom for it. And, I'll keep sending my kids to camp. My Mamaw used to tell me that, "Absence makes the heart grow fonder." I think she was talking about boys at the time, but I'm talking about my kids. I thought I couldn't love them more...and then I sent them to camp...and found I do.