Just for Kids

For a veteran LLYC camper, the feeling begins at the four-way stop at Garven Store in Mountain Home.

It grows at the turnoff from Highway 83 into the camp gate. It intensifies with the slow, windy descent down the caliche Canyon road with a brief glance across that expanse of treetops.

Then the car tires hit the river—that’s the moment every kid is waiting for.

Every veteran LLYC camper knows the experience that awaits them on the other side of that river drive. What’s more, they know it’s an experience meant just for them.

That may be a tough idea for us parents to fully embrace after we’ve done all the hard work of registration and packing and investing resources in our kids’ camp experience. It can be tough to let go.

But in those precious moments when we squeeze our kids tight for the last good-bye and for the next week or two we are invited to relax and allow our kids a gift—this unique and special experience of LLYC, created just for them.

For many of us, childhood memories involve playing outside and exploring on our bikes with the neighborhood kids for hours, only braking to check in with someone’s mom here and there. We remember our parents saying things like “Get outside! Go play! Just be in when the street lights come on.” The sounds of Kick the Can and Ghost in the Graveyard filled our neighborhoods until well past dusk.

It is a different day for our kids. They know fewer and fewer of the freedoms that we knew. They live in a Life360, Bark, and FamilyTracker world. They don’t know the same kid-directed, carefree days that lasted until the street light came on.

But at LLYC, those days are here again.

Singing Hills and Echo Valley are safely tucked away in the Canyon, girded by the craggy cliff walls and Frio River. The sounds of summer and kids being kids echo from end to end. Campers trek through the river and down the road to Blue Hole, met halfway by Work Crew offering an ice-cold Gatorade and a slice of watermelon. A group of Singing Hills boys scoop tadpoles in the rocked-off pool below the dam, while the girls wade, sun, and paint nails with their counselors on the rocks.

Long after the sun has set, when the playfield spotlight comes on, Echo Valley campers know a late-night event is in the works. It might be a giant slip-n-slide or a Barn-y rave. Whatever it is, there will be cheers and laughter.

“We want our young campers to learn that you can experience God just sitting still by the river or listening to the crickets. [Camp is] the beginning of a long-lasting journey with him.”

Beck Marlar

Similar to the autonomy we knew within the boundaries of our childhood neighborhoods, LLYC is a space for our kids to explore, imagine, question, and grow.

“That’s what make the experience so right for our Singing Hills campers,” says Beck Marlar, Singing Hills’ camp director. “There’s a simple innocence in our programming and activities— a real sweetness in just getting to be kids. It has a really different feel than the culture they are growing up in.”

Likewise, at Echo Valley, directors Karla Heath and Tom Bowyer have spent a great deal of time and energy developing activities and a schedule that focus on the needs of older kids. As Karla explains, “Our EV schedule very intentionally gives kids age-appropriate independence, choice, and downtime. Campers choose a lot of what they want or don’t want to do. At free time, they can swim if they want, or they can just hang out in the rockers with their friends.”

The time and space created makes room for all sorts of benefits, including spiritual benefits that are hard to describe. “There are so many intangible life skills they are working through at this stage,” says Karla. “They are critically thinking and trying to become their own person. We work hard to create a safe place where they can express questions and even doubts. A place where they can grow socially, in activities, and in faith.” Adds Beck, “We want our young campers to learn that you can experience God just sitting still by the river or listening to the crickets. [Camp is] the beginning of a long-lasting journey with him.”

Rachel Johnston, a mom to three veteran LLYC-ers, remembers first learning about the unique quality of an LLYC experience when her own boys—now teenagers—were just babies.

Rachel had a seasoned friend with an older son. “He was an outstanding boy,” says Rachel, “the kind of kid I hoped my own would grow to be like.” Rachel told her friend what an amazing job she had done raising such a fantastic boy.

Her friend responded, “Well, it was a little me and a lot Laity Lodge Youth Camp.” Rachel and her husband, Bill, decided from that moment that they wanted their boys to have that same experience.

Fast forward a few years, and now Rachel is the seasoned mom with older (and outstanding, we might add) boys—one on the brink of a college decision, plus twins gearing up for high school. For the Johnstons, the past seven summers have been marked by trusting that something deep and true was happening in their boys each summer at camp, even when they didn’t always get lots of detail.

“LLYC is one of the very best things we as parents did for our three boys.”

Rachel Johnston

As Rachel and Bill prepare for the next chapter—sending their oldest, Will, off to college—Rachel thinks back over Will’s years at LLYC. In the early years, his attention was really focused on the fun, surprising elements of camp—the funny program, traditions, and events. In the later years, his focus shifted more to the friendships he made.

As a mom, Rachel deeply valued that “at camp each year, he was allowed the right kind of space, freedom, and atmosphere to choose what he wanted his camp experience to be. He had this unique, safe opportunity for independence.”

Rachel adds with a chuckle that her boys “didn’t always or couldn’t always articulate every detail or feeling of their time at camp.” Yet the Johnstons have learned that those details tend to emerge in the most simple, unprompted moments.

Rachel recalls one such brief conversation following Will’s last summer as a camper. “We were on vacation, and out of the blue, Will simply stated that he loved camp and really took the time that year to focus on his own relationship with God.” That was all he said.

And for Rachel, that was everything—the ultimate hope as a parent raising a son about to go out into the world.

“I see that his time at camp has been a building block of growing experiences,” said Rachel. “He’s had time to enjoy the kid fun. And time to enjoy the friends. And ultimately, because of the space and freedom he was given at LLYC—surrounded by amazing leaders and counselors—he gained an independence and a maturity level to seek out and grow in his own faith journey.

“LLYC is one of the very best things we as parents did for our three boys.”

Campers may not have the language to articulate all that camp is to them. But that is okay. Camp is time and space set apart for them to safely be themselves—to play, to learn how to make friends, to grow in age-appropriate independence—developmentally, socially, emotionally, and spiritually.

Whether your camper is 8 or 11 or 15, LLYC was made for them. So moms and dads can park their helicopters at the gate and enjoy a rare gift of their own—peace—knowing that they are doing a really good thing for their kids.

More from this issue

A Story in Motion

Ask this couple what pressures they’re facing day to day, and you get the most relatable reply in the world.

An Outdoor Education Anniversary

For 40 years, the Texas Outdoor Education Association has gathered in the Frio River Canyon to enhance its mission.

Somos Familia

With the help of Foundation scholarships, Bonham Academy lets the Frio River Canyon be their classroom during their first Outdoor School retreat.

Setting the Table for Everyone to Share

Creating space for families from different backgrounds to be together in an unusual way.

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