We’re Going to Have Camp!

Marci Menchaca hiked through the Frio River Canyon this past January. It felt good to be back in God’s creation. “It doesn’t get much better than the Canyon,” she said. “I was just thanking the Lord for the gift of being out there.”

Last year forced many of us to shutter in our homes, increase our screen time, and face troubling news of a raging pandemic. We all needed a tranquil respite to stir our souls and calm our minds. That’s what Menchaca and her team from House of Faith found at the Headwaters campsite.

The San Angelo-based ministry was invited for a two-night stay after a busy Christmas outreach program. Not only could the team and their families find a little fun and relaxation, but the Foundation’s camping staff could practice its pandemic protocols ahead of reopening later this year.

Family Camp First to Reopen

Staff erred on the side of caution last April when David Rogers announced the decision to close camp; too much uncertainty about the COVID-19 virus made continuing retreats and hosting camp too great a risk. After a year of evaluating and determining the best safety practices as well as monitoring the latest guidelines and health reports, the Foundation staff is confidently welcoming people back.

“Our sights have been set for 2021,” said Erik Silvius, senior director of risk management. “The most important factor being the safety of everyone involved. We would not open our doors without a plan in place. We’re going to do everything in our power to protect our campers, guests, and staff.”

Part of the plan involved conferring with other staffs in the Christian Camp and Conference Association whose camps could not afford to close. Armed with helpful tips, camping staff continues to develop procedures for guests to enjoy the outdoors while still following safety guidelines.

Masks? On.
Social distancing? Yes.

So much of camp already happens outdoors. Guests can still safely hike, bike, and swim. Campers can still enjoy a rocking chair on their cabin’s porch or look up at the blanket of stars on a clear night. Everyone might just be doing those activities in a smaller crowd for a while.

Many family camp registrants who couldn’t come to the Canyon last year were rebooked for micro-retreats, which began in March. (The first retreat had been set for February, but a winter storm delayed the reopening.) Smaller retreat groups this year have half as many attending families and two-thirds fewer staff members on site.

“I think the feeling will be refreshing—it’ll be slower, but in a good way. It’ll be quieter, but in a good way,” said Cary Hendricks, senior director of Laity Lodge Family Camp. “I think relationships are still going to flourish.”

Summer retreats will also host fewer people at a time in the Canyon. While building relationships has always been a highlight for guests, with smaller groups, those relationships could become much deeper this time.

“No doubt it’s going to feel different,” Hendricks said. “We’re really excited to get families back out there and confident that what we’ll offer will be an excellent experience.”

LLYC to look a little different

Without campers last year, Laity Lodge Youth Camp focused on building for the future, replacing 47-year-old cabins with brand-new lodging. Those new cabins will be equipped with hand sanitizing stations, as will many other buildings.

Attendance should be similar to previous years, with last year’s registration rolling over into 2021.

“We’re going to have camp,” said Chandler Pruitt, senior director of the Laity Lodge Youth Camp. “Our campers and staff are hungry for it. We’ll try to preserve as much normalcy as we can.”

Youth camp staff are making adjustments—staggering arrivals, tweaking Roundup and activities, and reconfiguring dining practices. One of the biggest changes will be limiting campers’ interactions with each other, instead emphasizing inter-cabin activities.

“In some ways, we’ll be running 15 different camps,” Pruitt says.

Like the micro-retreats at Family Camp, this set-up could enhance relationships and reveal new traditions that last beyond the pandemic.

Of course, the LLYC plan will continue to be adjusted as COVID realities shift in the weeks and months ahead.

The Canyon is calling

Desire for returning to the Canyon has been pretty universal, both from staff and guests. For staff, it’s getting back to serving and fulfilling that calling to serve others. Foundation Camp faces the longest delay, and they look forward to welcoming guests in August.

“We want to be there,” said Mike Maddry, vice president of family and camping programs. “I think it’s going to be a great sense of relief and joy once we can start hosting again.”

For guests, it’s unplugging for a bit and recharging one’s soul. Megan Luevano and her team with the Boerne-based YoungLives, a ministry devoted to teenage mothers, also visited the Canyon in January for a planning weekend. She appreciated the COVID-19 protocols. While the team members stayed on task, they were also able to unwind and enjoy each other’s company.

“It was definitely encouraging to our souls,” she said. “That was probably the most quiet space we’ve had in a long time. We did not want to leave.”

The quiet time allows for reflection and realization. For Menchaca, she was reminded of what’s still in store as she hiked by a rock etched with a message: “This was beauty waiting to be uncovered.”

“There’s a lot of beauty God has planned and that he shared with us, even in 2020,” Menchaca said. “Even in what seems bad, as Scripture tells us, God can use for good.”

Little Tweaks, Big Impact

Because of COVID-19, the kitchen and dining hall at Headwaters are areas for intense scrutiny, and for very good reason. Kitchen staff handle and share many objects between each other and with guests.

“Our people are incredibly gifted in thinking outside the box to make it all work,” said Mike Maddry, vice president of family and camping programs.

For example, salt and pepper shakers. Passing them around won’t work, so Family Camp staff invested in individual seasoning packets. They also installed plexiglass barriers in the buffet area for kitchen staff to serve. Covered dishes may also be taken to the tables, so guests can serve themselves, family-style.

Salads or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches can be premade. Silverware can already be rolled in a napkin instead of stored in a shared bin.

“These are little tweaks that go a long way,” said Cary Hendricks, senior director of Laity Lodge Family Camp.

More from this issue

The Answer Everyone Wants to Hear

"Are you going to have camp this summer?”

Introducing Mike Maddry

Meet our new Vice President of Youth and Family Camping.

More Outdoors

San Antonio teachers join the first Outdoor School cohort and commit to bring outdoor education back to their home campuses.

Winter Storm Uri

Many of you asked what snow in the Canyon looks like. These photos are for you.

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