Camp Traditions: Southport

Many people may not know that Pyoca has a number of camp programs, many over 30+ years old, that have been coming to camp each summer. The first week of June begins every summer with Southport Presbyterian bringing down their campers to kick off the summer. This year, we wanted to introduce each camp program that is hosted at Pyoca so that our larger community will get a glimpse into the broad reach of Pyoca’s ministry. 

Written by Matt Smith of Southport Presbyterian Church, Indianapolis

I’ll be honest, I’m not much of a blogger, but I hope you read this for no other reason than to know that God does some pretty incredible things here at Pyoca.  Pyoca is the week our students get most excited about and this year has been no different.  The partnership between Southport Presbyterian and Pyoca spans more than 30 years and multiple generations. Overwhelmingly, the link between each camp, each year, each camper and each memory has been the faithfulness of God experienced through His son Jesus.

There is something special about Pyoca, and I have confidence it is because of God’s goodness.  We intentionally come to Pyoca because it allows us to disconnect from the world and pursue the Lord through quiet times, worship, devotions, small groups and teaching.

This year, Southport brought more than 100 campers, directors and support staff to camp.  They are dedicated fathers, mothers, teachers, youth leaders and friends who see the eternal value of investing into youth to proclaim the gospel for the sake of God’s kingdom.  During the first week of June each summer, we get energized to drive into the lodge parking lot to receive a warm welcome from the summer and full time staff.  It’s at this moment that we are reminded how good a place Pyoca truly is.  The site of the picturesque lodge to the old chapel brings an excitement you cannot get anywhere else.  Here is just a sample of some of the things we have done this week: hikes to Mt. Baldy, canoeing on Lake Pyoca, games, the high ropes course, 9 Square in the Air, worship, fellowship, eat some good food ;), swimming at the lake front, and so much more.

This year, we saw campers commit their lives to Jesus and allow the Holy Spirit to do work in their souls in ways we have not seen in years past.  Campers were vulnerable, caring, compassionate and honest as they discovered the reality of God’s love for them.  As leaders, it was a gift to witness the Lord work powerfully through them and listen to the accounts of how their hearts were being transformed.

It’s hard to capture all of what happens during our week at Pyoca, but I hope this gives you a snapshot of how much we enjoy our time here and how we count down the days until we come again.


Matt Smith




Camp Traditions: Southport

The Magic of Mail

Written by Program Director, Molly DeWitt

There’s just something about receiving a handwritten note in the mail that cannot be described. Seeing someone else’s familiar handwriting provides a sense of glee, gratitude, and connection. It has the inherent ability to make you feel special.

In my experience, few people write handwritten notes anymore, aside from birthday cards. Mail nowadays seems boring, something that only brings bills, ads, and the occasional newsletter. Handwritten mail, however, is something to be cherished and often saved to look at over and over.

Camp mail is altogether extraordinary to receive. You know if you have camp mail that someone has taken time out of their day to write to you and see how you are doing. Very rarely do we write friends or family notes anymore. It takes a lot more effort than we are accustomed to in regard to communication, which is now essentially instant.

I remember being so annoyed at my mom for forcing me to write thank you notes by hand as a kid whenever I received a gift, yet at the same time being delighted when she would take the time to send me a card at camp.

I received cards every year I was at camp, nine years total, even when I was in high school. I have many of them still saved in a box. My mom continued to send me notes while in college, during my two years as a Young Adult Volunteer, and as recently as when I was Pyoca’s seminary intern. Even now as a soon-to-be seminary graduate and camp Program Director, my mom sends me handwritten notes in the mail.

In our technological age, handwritten mail is almost unheard of. Generally, if we want to know how someone is doing, we just text or email them. We have camper email at Pyoca, but somehow it’s not quite the same as receiving a real letter. Email often has a sense of urgency, whereas postal mail signifies intimacy and precious time spent to convey a message to a loved one.

We’ve started encouraging campers, particularly the younger ones, to write home about their day or if they’re feeling a little homesick. One short note and one email a week is typically what I would receive from my mom and it was just enough to encourage me to have a good time at camp, while not making me homesick. “Hope you’re having fun! We can’t wait to hear all about it!” was just enough to remind me that I was loved.

I have parents and grandparents tell me often that they have saved the notes written to them by their children from 30+ years ago at camp. What a family treasure it is to be able to look back on a week of one’s life and remember the transformative experience of camp, all encapsulated in one letter.

If you are interested in sending your child a letter at camp, be sure to send it with the addressed formatted as below:

Pyoca Camp & Retreat Center

℅ Camper Name (i.e. Susie Camper)

Camp (i.e. Discover)

886 E CR 100 S

Brownstown, IN 47220


*Note: We greatly encourage letters and cards, but discourage sending packages to campers.

The Magic of Mail

Grief, Camp, & Remembrance

Written by Acting Executive Director, Mike Davis.

Last weekend, in the midst of a very busy retreat weekend at camp, volunteers young and old from near and far descended on the Pyoca grounds. They carried with them garden implements of every type, plants purchased and plucked from their own yards, and heavy hearts.

Days of service and volunteer projects are a common occurrence at Pyoca, but Saturday was different. As always, we worked to give back to the place where our lives have been changed, but we also worked to honor the saints who have gone before us. They helped to create this place, encouraged us to go Pyoca as retreat guests and campers, and mentored us every step of the way.

From the latter months of 2017 into early 2018, Pyoca lost two active board members and another retired board member. I was in utter shock and dismay announcing the losses one after another to the board and Pyoca community, especially considering losing my grandmother suddenly in September. These were all people that shaped me, pushed me, and cared for me, as well as countless others.

During the day of service we told stories of these saints, both of their caring nature and of their wit, as well as a humorous blunder or two.

In between weeding and leaf raking tears and laughter were shared. Grief was embraced and gaping wounds were not healed, but given aid. The day was capped off with a worship service and memorial tree planting.

Grief, sadness, and heartache are not things you often associate with camp, but are nonetheless present in the lives of our campers, retreat guests, volunteers, and staff. We can’t expect our campers to explore, grow, rest, and play without first reflecting on the weight they may carry to camp.

As our Program Director and soon-to-be minister, Molly DeWitt, said in her homily on Saturday, grief is a healthy part of life and not something to be ignored.

It has always been said that Pyoca is not just a place, but an experience. We believe that the experience comes from the people who shape the place. As the hands and feet of Christ we are called to care for our neighbors. I have never seen this call so fully expressed as I have over these past few months, and particularly this weekend.

At Pyoca, we give thanks to God for a community that comes together and surrounds one another with love in good times and bad.

Grief, Camp, & Remembrance

Growing in Faith

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.

Growing in Faith

More Than A Scrapbook Memory

Written by guest blogger: Rev. C. Allen Colwell* of St. John Presbyterian Church, New Albany, Indiana.

Last summer a volunteer and I drove one of the children who live in the neighborhood of our church to camp. Even before it officially started, they giggled and smiled at even the experience of driving down a two-lane, hilly, country road — something that they had never done before. For them, it ended up being a week of “never having done somethings,” from sleeping on the top bunk of a bed to swimming in a lake, from campfire songs to making new friends. It was for them an experience as many of you all have experienced for yourselves — the type of life-defining experience that only a place like Pyoca can offer.

That child would not have had the opportunity to go to camp that week if it hadn’t been for the faithfulness of our congregation. St. John Church has a long history of supporting Pyoca and shares a passion for making it possible for any child to spend a week at camp, whether they can afford it or not. Every year we gather for a fundraising luncheon that raises thousands of dollars, donated by persons who pitch in everything between $5 to the cost of an entire week of camp. These funds get used to offer half-scholarships and full ones, both for the members of our church family, but also our extended neighborhood family as well.

One of the persons who helps coordinate the event, which also features testimonials from previous campers, says that the idea is to invite the church to “meet some of the kids whose eyes light up when you mention Pyoca.” Another sees it as a chance for people to draw upon the camp experience in order to “spark a desire to help provide that experience to other kids,” again, those who by circumstances would not have the means to go.

We are by no means a large church but take pride in being able to send one of the largest numbers of campers every summer. And we pray that you all might consider doing the same. Because it is an immense blessing to hear about the joy of a camp that is more than a place and an experience that will forever change a child’s life by a week that is more than a scrapbook memory.

*You can check out Pastor Allen’s own blog Growing in Grace at:

More Than A Scrapbook Memory

The Fellowship of Quilting

Twice a year Pyoca hosts a devoted group of local quilters under the energetic direction of Peggy Burns for the Annual Mystery Quilt Retreat in the spring and the Unfinished Project (U.F.O.) Retreat in the fall. This past weekend was the 15th Annual Mystery Quilt Retreat, as well as the celebration of Peggy’s 20 years of service at Pyoca. The basement of the lodge was bustling with over forty quilters, ranging from novice sewers to experienced professionals.

One may imagine that quilting is generally a solitary activity, but I have come to find that it is actually quite communal. Quilts are meant to encompass a great deal of memory and legacy, because a quilt is meant to be passed down from one generation to the next. In my own family quilts have been passed down from my great-grandmother, to my grandmother, to my mother and aunt, and eventually to my generation. My grandmother has carried on the tradition of her mother by making quilts for me, my sister, and my cousins.

These gifts are precious. Many quilts take hundreds of hours to complete. They are stitched with love. Seams are ripped out and fixed. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pieces of fabric are cut, sewn, ironed, and stitched together one after the other.

It is no wonder, then, that during the “Show and Tell” portion of the Mystery Quilt Retreat, there was a great deal of pride and emotion shown by every woman presenting her work. There were even multiple generations of the same family sewing side by side, sharing the legacy of their family.

Many women shared the history behind the quilts they were currently working on, in addition to the mystery quilt they had been assigned. We learned about friends and family members who would receive these works of art that were still in progress. We learned of the loss and grieving that can be associated with making, giving, and receiving something handmade. Everyone grew closer by sharing the stories of those close to us.

Quilts are a sign of communal healing. They can be full of the shirts of a loved one. They can be filled with camp shirts from the last twenty years. They can be completely new, or they can be made of leftover scraps of fabric. They are even full of theology: Remembrance. Tradition. Resurrection.

Quilting is not for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of time and devotion to complete just one. From an outsider’s perspective I was able to see how sacred the act of quilting can be, and what a joy for our ministry at Pyoca to be able to facilitate such a sacred space. There is no doubt that the fellowship of these quilters will with continue to flourish beyond this weekend.


Mystery Quilt model made by Peggy Burns.

The Fellowship of Quilting

All Are Welcome

Many people may not know that in the past year Pyoca officially adopted a new mission statement: “Where all are welcome in God’s love to EXPLORE, GROW, REST, and PLAY.”

The process started in the fall of 2015 as members of Pyoca’s Advisory Council, and various alumni, gathered for a strategic planning process at camp. Over the course of 2016 the new mission statement was fine-tuned by the Advisory Council, and officially adopted in early 2017.

This new mission statement embodies how we hope to grow as an organization. Pyoca is continually seeking to further its partnerships and work with people from all backgrounds and experiences. Particularly in such a divided world, we hope to be a shared space where people feel at peace gathering in their differences.

We are committed to exploring God’s creation with others and sharing all of the wonders it has to offer. That means learning about and protecting the environment around us, as well as the people around us, for they too are created beings.

We seek to empower others to grow in their faith, as well as gain confidence in the skills and spiritual gifts bestowed upon them by God.

We are committed to rest: the sabbath that God intends for all to experience. In such a busy world, so many people do not take the time to care for themselves as a spiritual practice. At Pyoca we hope you will take the time to slow down, be still, and know God.

Finally, we know the importance of play! As children of God we are free to let our inner kid shine. Play is also an integral part of rest. We hope that all who come to Pyoca will feel free to let loose, be silly, and challenge themselves.

We are excited to grow as an organization and as a community. We hope you’ll join us as we look toward the future of our ministry.


All Are Welcome