Written by Pyoca alumna Sammie Smith. Sammie is also an alum of the Young Adult Volunteer Program and is currently studying toward her M.Div at Vanderbilt University Divinity School. She is under care of Whitewater Valley Presbytery as she seeks ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA).
It’s not uncommon to hear about church decline in mainstream denominations right now. Statistically, membership and participation are falling and there’s no hiding from that. So, how should we be in community with each other when we have this morbid thought in the background? I think that the best way to stay connected in to invest deeper into camp ministry.
Yes, I come from a church home that I was really active in growing up, but I’m not sure how connected I would have been if it wasn’t for camp in my life. Pyoca has been an integral part of my life for as long as I can remember. I started going to camp as soon as I was old enough, which was when I was eight years old. In the beginning, I started going to camp because my older brother went every summer, and he loved it so much. When I was that little, I didn’t think much of camp other than the fact that it was a fun place for me to play games, swim, hike, and sing silly songs for a few days.
As I grew older, camp had much more of a presence in my life. I started to understand what it meant to be a person with a faith identity, which was Presbyterian for me. The worship time started to last for longer chunks of time, and I actually started to enjoy it. I loved the fact that I could connect with it because it’s hard for a child to really connect with the Presbyterian traditions of hymns, worship structures, and prayers that we said in unison. When I was at camp, we sang contemporary Christian music that a middle schooler, like myself, could understand. Don’t get me wrong, I much prefer hymns now, but as a kid, it was hard enough to understand what the hymns were saying let alone begin to connect those words with my own life. We also had small group time at camp, which we called family group, where we would do a Bible study and hash out what it meant to be a person of faith.
Another aspect of camp life that I truly cherish are the relationships that I formed with the people there. We would go through a week of being together non-stop and experience tremendous emotional and spiritual growth together. That is, we learned what it meant to be in Christian community. Experiencing the same week of camp together for years formed a bond with those friends that I can’t relate to anything else. I think this is even more true for the people that I worked on staff with as a camp counselor. I was able to experience some of my toughest moments with the same people for an entire summer.
One of my favorite parts of camp was graduating from simply being a camper to working on summer staff. I worked at Pyoca for four summers, with three different job titles. Working at camp seemed like it lasted a lifetime and, at the same time, flashed before my eyes. A cool part of working on staff was seeing how much really went into a summer of programming in terms of time, energy, planning, and funding. It also made me realize the tremendous weight of responsibility that was placed on people who were in college and basically still kids.
I think I learned more about myself and life skills during my summers on staff than I learned in my life outside of camp. I learned how to balance the safety of campers while also trying to maximize the fun that they could have. I learned how to take care of myself in terms of rest, physical activity, diet, and emotional and spiritual support in order to ensure that I could last an entire summer. I also quickly figured out that I was learning more from the campers, who were several years younger than I was, than I could ever teach them.
I vividly remember during my third summer on staff: it was my first time directing an on-site program and I had this perfect schedule that was jam-packed with activities. The trouble was that it rained every single day of camp that week. We had to figure out on a minute-to-minute basis what we were going to do next, and I’m pretty sure that we played every single indoor game that we had available in our resource room during the first two days. But, my favorite part of the week was when we embraced the rain and the waterlogged playfield, and we played barefoot ultimate frisbee for the afternoon. I remember the joy I felt seeing campers who I never expected to run and slide on their bellies through the mud and actually get up smiling.
Pyoca has played such a crucial role in my life and I truly believe that churches need to invest in camp. It is the place where I am the most at peace, and it’s where I have met some of my closest, dearest friends in my life. I genuinely believe that I would not be the same person that I am now if I hadn’t grown up at camp. During my summers on staff, I was able to learn how to be a positive role model to kids in the church. I learned the most random tactile skills, such as demolishing a stone wall with a sledgehammer, and I was given the opportunity to be a leader to other people my age. If we take our commitment to the life of the body of Christ seriously, then we need to invest our time and resources into kids who are the future of the church and who can be spiritually nourished through camp ministry.