A summer of Salvation

by Hugo Bravo

Staff members from three Salvation Army summer camps in the USA Eastern Territory enjoyed welcoming children back after a long break during COVID–19. Exciting sessions were the catalyst for important lessons and favorite memories.

Kids being kids

The summer of 2022 marks the second year that Camp Wonderland in Sharon, Ma., has been open since the COVID lockdowns. It offered fun and affordable vacation activities for families that now face inflated food and fuel prices.

“This was a huge thing for a lot of families that were struggling,” says Jen Forster, camp director at Wonderland. “We’re still hearing from parents about their gratitude for a camp like this for their children.”

“There was one family who told us that every time they wanted to do things with their son, he wasn’t interested. But when camp was brought up, it was the first time that he showed real excitement in getting out of the house,” says Forster. “Even now after the lockdowns, kids are still very much isolated, and that’s where camp comes in. It allows kids to just be kids.”

Summer camp allows them to disconnect from their phones, tablets, and social media, and discover new activities that can positively influence them, whether outdoors with others or reading alone in the shade. Last summer, Wonderland put libraries in every cabin, so campers always had access to books. Counselors also read to the campers before they went to bed.

“You might not think of camp as a traditional way to get more reading in, but it’s something important that kids should get in their everyday lives,” says Forster.

Wonderland counselors also unplug themselves from the pressure to always be connected to social media. The staff, ranging from 13 to 16 years old, put away their electronic devices to enjoy what camp had to offer. At the end of the summer season, the counselors mentioned how good it felt for them to be kids again.

“I’m always pleasantly surprised by how positive the response is to being disconnected, although I shouldn’t be by now,” says Forster.

New beginnings

Camp NEOSA in Caroll County, Ohio, remained closed for two years, but camp leaders still invited eight interns from local Salvation Army corps to a training session in 2021. This summer, most attendees returned to be camp unit leaders for as many as 60 new Camp NEOSA employees.

“After two years of no camp, many of the kids had aged out,” says Randall Evans, program specialist for youth ministries at Camp NEOSA. “This gave us the opportunity to try new things and experiment with new schedules and ideas.”

One of the new activities that had been planned since before COVID–19 closings was Jesus Theater, the dramatic retellings of the gospel message performed by the campers.

“There were huge numbers at Jesus Theater. Campers really reacted positively to it,” says Emilee Evans, Christian Education program specialist at NEOSA. “But my favorite thing to see was the staff spending time with our campers afterwards. They explained every performance and what it meant. You could see Jesus at work in His theater.”

This summer at NEOSA, 307 out of the 319 campers came forward to accept Jesus as their Savior.

“This was a summer to remember that, throughout everything, God is always faithful, and His promises are done to completion,” says Emilee. “When something is not going as you hoped or needs fixing, have faith that He will see you through.”

“We almost started from scratch this summer. We all had to learn to think outside the box and make changes as needed,” says Randall. “Traditions are important, especially in an institution like camp. But don’t hold on to them when they are detrimental to the camp experience. If you see something that isn’t as good as it can be, change it. The staff and campers will be receptive to what you’re doing.

“You need to be flexible when something doesn’t work. Fortunately, over the past few years, everyone seems to have gotten good at being flexible.”

Sports and summer weddings

Hannah Denecke, former program director at Star Lake Youth Camp in Bloomingdale, N.J., says that this summer was one of the best she has experienced while working for The Salvation Army.

“Last year, we did in–person programming, but no kids stayed overnight at camp,” says Denecke. “This year, campers stayed overnight again, and with testing, it all felt normal.”

Star Lake was the location for some unique visitors and experiences for the campers. Rapper/evangelist Christopher Slager, also known as Big C, performed, and led prayer at The Tabernacle. During the sports week, former New York Giants players Roman Oben and Keith Elias visited the camp to talk about their careers in the NFL and what inspired them. Marc Lora, owner of the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves also visited Star Lake to play basketball with the campers and camp staff.

Another unique camp activity was a wedding reenactment that combined a ceremony with camp activities, and included every camper and counselor as a guest.

“David, our assistant program director, and his wife Haley had gotten married right before camp. So, we did a second wedding here for them, with Major Tony Rosamilia officiating. But we added certain twists that the campers could participate in, such as a scavenger hunt for missing rings. For many of them, it was the first time they had seen an actual wedding.”

Even with so many special visitors and new activities, Denecke says that her favorite memory was seeing the hard work of Star Lake’s young adult camp counselors. Many of them had come from other states and countries such as England, Zimbabwe, and Mexico. It was the first time since COVID that some of them had traveled away from home.

“These counselors are the life blood of camp,” says Denecke. “They were an example for our campers on how amazing life as a Christian can be, in college and beyond.”