After a year of virtual camping, outreach efforts, and no camping at all, the five camps of the Great Plains Conference are making a comeback for the summer of 2021.
Several of the camps are making big changes to their operations, guided by COVID restrictions and cleanliness guidelines. Others are returning to semi-traditional camp, with some new rules, regulations, and procedures.
“It’s going to look different at each camp,” Sara Shaw, coordinator of camping ministry, said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen with COVID numbers, what’s going to happen with these variants. We are prayerfully hopeful that we are nearing an end of this pandemic, but we also are being very realistic about the variants out there. COVID is still out there, it’s not gone.”
Thanks to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, fast-response COVID testing will take place weekly for staff members and campers, Shaw said.
The goal of all five camps, Shaw said, is to give top priority to safety, elevated cleanliness, and the campers’ growth spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and socially.
“We want to resource campers/guests with the space and the programming for them to truly grow in Christ,” she said. “But we also know that it’s going to be different this summer because of COVID and the COVID variants. We want to do what John Wesley said, and ‘Do no harm.’”
“What led our decision in the end was that we felt like we could stay true to our mission and our purpose and still have a powerful camping experience, even by reducing a few of the high-risk pieces,” Horizon director Joel Wilke said.
Rather than bringing in campers from throughout southern Kansas to interact with each other, groups are encouraged to come to camp as cohorts from their own church.
“We decided instead to focus on strengthening the local church and local community, where they can have a powerful camping experience,” Wilke said.
“While we lose the piece of making new friendships and meeting people from all over, we still feel like there is so much to be gained by being in camp together with your own community,” he added. “If there was the potential for COVID concerns, we didn’t want to be responsible for being a spreader beyond a community.”
Those who do not have a church family — Wilke said 40% percent of campers in years leading up to 2020 were not affiliated with a congregation — can still attend as a group of at least four people or find a local church with whom to attend camp.
Curriculum at the camp is geared toward three levels: elementary, middle/high school and intergenerational.
“No one’s excluded,” Wilke said. “It’ll be a different experience.”
As many activities as possible will be outside, Wilke said. The same philosophy holds for Camp Fontanelle, near Nickerson, Nebraska.
All meals, registration and activities are planned for outdoors, said the Rev. Joel Coleman, Fontanelle program director. Even shopping for items at the camp store will involve a shopping list with items retrieved by staff members, he said.
“We’re adapting all of those activities so they’re more COVID-friendly,” he said. “We’re not going to have activities with supplies passed between people. We’re really thought down to the details.”
Fontanelle was open for limited hours last summer, inviting family groups for daytime activities.
“We learned a lot from those experiences in how we would handle certain things the next summer,” Coleman said. “We learned a lot of helpful tips and tricks.”
Every activity at the camp was contemplated and either adjusted or, in the case of a few attractions, eliminated. Swimming, for example, will still happen, but no items will be allowed in the pool.
“We don’t have the manpower to clean thousands of pool noodles,” Coleman said.
Masks will be required in the dining hall and worship services, no matter the condition, he added.
Coleman said young people are in need of camp this year more than ever.
“In-person camping is so fundamental, so important to faith development,” he said. “I think a lot of what’s happening in our society with the culture and the screens and everything that’s going on they regularly confront, is affecting their ability to develop meaningful and long-lasting relationships. It is damaging in a lot of ways. Camping helps provide that incredible alternative, and you can actually see their brains switching over after a couple of days at camp.”
Norwesca has seven weeks of camp with 15 options, while Lakeside is running throughout July with separate weeks for various age levels.
“Between the risk that is out here in western Nebraska and listening to what our families wanted, I think it would have been a harder decision not to have camp,” Norwesca director Ethan Porter said. “We’re listening to our families and trying to find ways to keep everybody safe.”
Porter said camper numbers are running even with 2020 before camps were canceled, and slightly ahead of this time of year in 2019, the last full year of camp.
“We have a variety, but we’ve got everybody in July. It’s a very compact schedule,” new Lakeside director Alysia Downs said. “We’ve got some things that are familiar to folks, but maybe structured a little differently.”
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