A Decade of Camp Counseling

Ten years ago today, I became a camp counselor.
Ten years ago today, I arrived for the first time at Camp Yolijwa at Luther Village in Yucaipa, California.
Ten years ago today, my life changed.

The semester leading up to the summer of 2003 had been a rough one for me. A series of poor choices plus a total lack of direction in life had compounded themselves one upon another, leaving me feeling adrift. I had talked to Christina Beecher from Luther Village about doing camp during the summer of 2003, but I didn’t think I was going to follow through.
Then, during a trip to Parker, while talking with a couple of fellow NAU Lumberjacks about camp, I made the snap decision that I was going to apply to Lutheran Retreats, Camps and Conferences of Southern California for a job that summer. That was probably the best decision I had made to that point in 2003.
When June came, I was one of eight NAU students working for LRCC, along with Holly, Jen, Henry, Maddy, Stefanie, AJ, and Matt. But once I arrived there, I met many, many more new people, some of whom are still my friends today. That summer was quite the initiation – day camps in Ventura and Glendale, a week of Beach Camp (which I IMMEDIATELY fell in love with), and a summer of middle and high schoolers at Camp Yolijwa. Camp got into my blood that summer, and it hasn’t left yet.

Chris Smith and Jeff Howick sink the SS Yolijwa
Chris Smith and Jeff Howick sink the SS Yolijwa

After my first summer of camp, I got my life back on track somewhat. However, I had an itch all throughout the school year – an itch to go back. And so, when the spring rolled around, I applied to LRCC again – this time as a day camp lead.
There were fewer of us from NAU that summer, but that allowed me to build even more friendships. The summer of 2004 took me all around southern California once again – day camps in Glendale, San Diego, and Palm Desert (and oh, the stories I could tell about THAT one), another week of Beach Camp, and more camp at Yolijwa as they prepared for ACA recertification.
But then… I didn’t leave. I wasn’t yet done with my degree at NAU, but I felt the tug to stay in California… and so I did, as an Outdoor School instructor at Camp El Camino Pines. It was the experience of a lifetime, spending a school year in the mountains of southern California, teaching kids about the environment.

Nikki and Allyson pose with me, shortly after I ponied up my end of a clean cabin award bet
Nikki and Allyson pose with me, shortly after I ponied up my end of a clean cabin award bet

2005 may have been the best summer I have ever had. I came off of Outdoor School ready to go, and got to spend the summer working as the assistant director for LRCC’s Beach Camp program in San Diego and San Clemente. The only two weeks I spent NOT at Beach Camp were right at the very beginning, when I filled in as an emergency replacement Day Camp lead in Santa Monica when Liz (who I did not then really know but who would become one of my best friends) got sick and ended up in the hospital with a blood infection, and at the very end, when I did Teen Camp at Camp Yolijwa.
At the end of the summer, I moved to Los Angeles, believing that I would only be there for ten months, and then, come June 2006, I would be returning to camp as the lead director for Beach Camp. What I did not know at the time was that I had worked my final days with LRCC.

"Occupations Night" during staff training at Camp El Camino Pines
“Occupations Night” during staff training at Camp El Camino Pines

During the spring of 2006, unfortunate circumstances (some of which I was personally responsible for) conspired to keep me from working for LRCC that summer. I was extraordinarily angry, and the first few days after I received the news were spent in sheer uselessness, sitting around and moping.
But then something occurred to me. What if I returned to the place I had once myself been a camper – CYF Conference with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Arizona? So I sent an email to the regional youth director, who in turn sent an email to Wendy, one of the CYF directors, who in turn signed me up pronto.
So in June of 2006, I found myself in Prescott, counseling CYF Conference for the first time. That was the year of a family group that I like to call “The Orange” – a family group rivaled in awesomeness perhaps only by 2010’s “Jesus Truckers”. Much as I was disappointed that I didn’t get to return to LRCC that summer, I found myself grateful for the opportunity to be at CYF Conference – and especially for the job that I was able to get in Beverly Hills as a result of NOT returning to LRCC, as that job would eventually be my foot in the door for the hotel industry.


By the summer of 2007, I had grown somewhat disillusioned with Los Angeles and the job that I had there. Yes, I was paid quite well, and yes, living in L.A. provided unparalleled opportunities, but it was still enormously stressful.
When I got to CYF Conference in the summer of 2007, I for the first time worked with the Rev. Erin Wathen, who was at that time the still-fairly-new pastor of my home church, Foothills Christian Church. I made my displeasure with Los Angeles known to her and to my Youth Council camper, Katie, and the two of them instantly began conspiring to get me to move home to Arizona.
They were successful.
By the end of the week, between the pressure from Erin, Katie, and our family group (Las Ranas Locas), and the fact that my work WOULD NOT LEAVE ME ALONE, I had made the decision. I would be moving home to Phoenix at the end of the summer, and seeing where things went from there.

Five members of the Arizona CYF Class of 2007
Five members of the Arizona CYF Class of 2007

When CYF Conference 2008 rolled around, I had been back in Arizona for nearly a full year, and I was looking forward to getting my camp on. I got to hand-pick the “perfect” cabin, and the counselor lineup in 2008 was maybe the best of my five years as an Arizona CYF counselor.
That summer was the summer I for the first time met Tiffany, a Disciples Peace Intern who would become a pretty good friend of mine. The following January, we would travel together to DC for President Obama’s inauguration. Beyond that, Erin braved her first pregnancy to nonetheless still come to camp, and the kids were pretty fantastic that year too.

Seeing the "Star Trekkin'" dance for the first time
Seeing the “Star Trekkin'” dance for the first time

CYF Conference 2009 was slightly bittersweet for me. You see, this was the year that the first full class of campers that had been through CYF with me graduated – Parker, Nathan, Michael, Andrea, Jessica, Kevin, Jose, and Emily. But much as I hated to see such a great group of campers go, I was pleased to see them all moving on to bigger and better things.
Of course, the scary part is that they are ALL now old enough to BE CYF counselors.
This was also the first year that Lindsey and I worked together as co-counselors. Back while I was still working for LRCC, I had been volunteering to work at CYF retreats in Arizona, and while I had known Lindsey since she was much younger, I got to know her much better between March of 2004 and March of 2005. By the summer of 2009, she had graduated from Chapman University, and arrived at CYF Conference ready to make my life a living hell (which I of course mean in the best possible way).

The "That's NAAAASTY" crew, led by Michael C., gets ready for Camp News
The “That’s NAAAASTY” crew, led by Michael C., gets ready for Camp News

CYF Conference 2010 was REALLY bittersweet for me. I knew going in that it was going to be my last CYF Conference in Arizona indefinitely, for five weeks after CYF Conference, I would be bound for North Carolina and the Wake Forest University School of Divinity.
It was a great week of camp, with the family group that challenges The Orange for all-time supremacy – the Jesus Truckers – and a staff that I really loved working with, especially when we played our immigration justice large group game based on Dr. Seuss’ The Sneetches. And this was the year that Lindsey and I decided to play a horrendous game of oneupmanship, coming up with worse and worse “that’s what she said” quotes. Fortunately, it didn’t get out of hand.
I was sad to leave at the end of the week, but glad to know that I had spent the last five summers making a serious impact on the lives of CYF campers in Arizona.


The summer of 2011 was a little different. I hadn’t expected to be working at camp that summer, but then, in April, I got a call from a colleague of mine who was interning at Trinity Lutheran Church of Manhattan, in New York City. She wanted me to come to New York for the summer and work with her running Trinity’s summer day camp.
So I did. And it was pretty fabulous. Four weeks working with the same kids. It was a very different atmosphere than I had encountered in any of my previous camp environments, because these were a bunch of low-income kids from Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Some of the kids were real problem children, but over the course of the summer, I really came to love working with them, and I was sad to see them go at the end of the summer.
Things I was not sad about: getting out of New York City. It’s a great city, and I could see myself living there SOMEDAY, but it was so night-and-day different from North Carolina that it was difficult to deal with it at times.

Small groups meeting during the day at Trinity
Small groups meeting during the day at Trinity

As I approached the summer of 2012, I wasn’t even THINKING about camp. I had orders to report to the US Navy’s Officer Training Command in Newport, RI, on 13 May, and that was as far ahead as I was thinking. But, a couple of weeks before I was scheduled to report, I got an email from my friend Michael. He wanted to know if I would be interested in counseling CYF Conference in Indiana, a week after Officer Development School ended.
I thought about it for about half a second, and then came back with a response along the lines of, “Does a bear potty in the woods?”
And so, the last week of June, I drove up from North Carolina to Indiana, and found myself in the midst of something simultaneously very familiar and foreign. It was foreign in that I was in Indiana, with a group of counselors and campers I had never met before, yet familiar in that CYF Conference is CYF Conference, no matter what state you’re in. It was a great week of camp, and I was really glad that I went.

Singing "Soft Kitty" with a group of guys at the talent show
Singing “Soft Kitty” with a group of guys at the talent show

And that brings us to this last week. At the end of 2012, as planning started for my Service of Ordination to Christian Ministry, I discovered that camp in Arizona this year would be a week after my ordination service. So you better believe that I got my forms together, filled them out, volunteered to do CYF Conference, and was expecting to return for the senior year of my last class of freshmen, from 2010.
Except it was not quite to be. Why? Because Chi-Rho needed me more. Chi-Rho, which I was unsure about doing. Chi-Rho, an environment into which I had not set foot since my last day of Chi-Rho as a camper in 1996. Chi-Rho, which ended up being an absolutely fantastic week of camp, working with two counselors who were Chi-Rho counselors when I WAS IN Chi-Rho, and two other counselors who were my CAMPERS in CYF from 2009-2010.
The multi-generationalism there was excellent.

Allen looks quite bemused about being surrounded by teenage girls
Allen looks quite bemused about being surrounded by teenage girls

But now… I don’t know what next summer holds. I do know this: wherever I end up working, I highly intend to do what several other pastors I know have done, and make sure that part of my contract with that church includes counseling a week of camp for whatever region I’m in. But next summer could be tricky… because I’ll be getting married and going on my honeymoon, which will take away a sizable chunk of my summer.
I explained that to a number of campers this last week when they asked me if I’d be back next year – “If camp is the same week in 2014 that I was in 2013,” I told them, “then I’ll be getting married the day before and on my honeymoon during.” Not to be deterred, of course, they suggested that I bring Caitie along to co-counsel with me, to which I had to gently let them know that I didn’t imagine she would think that was a particularly GOOD honeymoon idea.
But if I can get to camp next summer, either in Arizona, in Indiana, or wherever I’m serving… I definitely will. I intend to keep on doing camp every summer for as long as Disciples camps will have me. I’ve done a decade now… I expect there will be many more decades to come.


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