Editor’s Note: This article was published in the recent spring issue of the Camp Gray Gazette. You didn’t receive a copy? Send us an email to let us know, and we’ll drop one in the mail for you.
By: Phil DeLong
As winter begins to yield to the warmer and longer days of spring, my thoughts frequently turn to my friends at Camp Gray, as they turn up the intensity of their preparations for the much-anticipated summer camp season. With most or all of the summer staff hired, attention turns to preparations for staff orientation, improvements to facilities, communication with staff and families, and program preparations. There’s nothing quite like it.
While I no longer participate first-hand in those preparations for summer camp, I’m still keenly aware of the changing “seasons” at camp, and find myself reflecting on how Camp Gray contributed to who I am today. For the better part of 14 years, Camp Gray was not only my employer, but a ministry, a vocation, a labor of love, a calling, my home, and the source of many close relationships. My wife CW and I were blessed to raise our children, Maggie and Christopher, with the help of colleagues who also called Camp Gray home. I was blessed and fortunate for those 14 years to work for an organization (a ministry, really) which afforded me the opportunity to be my authentic self, and to live my faith and values as part of my daily labors.
My 14 years with Camp Gray began shortly after the camp Board of Directors hired, in 1994, camp’s first lay director, Jake Czarnik-Neimeyer, to succeed Fr. Larry Bakke. Jake, a “can-do”, empowering, relationship-building leader, turned our attention to making camp the vibrant, year-round ministry that Fr. Larry had always envisioned (but, as pastor of a large, growing parish in Sun Prairie, had insufficient time to devote to it). As Jake’s associate director, I focused my efforts on program enhancements and expansion, and began facilitating retreats at camp for diocesan youth groups and schools.
The summer camp program, though, has always been the core of the Camp Gray experience. Our goal 22 years ago was to build upon the solid program foundation laid by Fr. Larry and his predecessors, and to reach more campers with the ministry of camp. An initial ambition of ours was to meet the changing needs of campers as they moved into their teen years, and to keep them coming back to camp throughout their high school years. This required some program differentiation and innovation, which we addressed through the addition of new summer camp programs.
One of the first of those new programs was the Explorer program, launched in 1996. Those first two groups of Explorer campers that summer, under the leadership of counselors Melanie Carter (now Melanie Pfeil) and Daniel Kirwan, created Explorer Village, and established many of the traditions and routines practiced by today’s Explorer campers. Teenage campers finally had a special place of their own, and a program that was fun, engaging, empowering, and nurturing of them as young adult leaders. It brings me joy to see eight sessions of Explorers on the 2016 summer camp schedule, as I think about all that those campers will experience in their time in the “Village.”
Explorers was the first of numerous enhancements to the summer camp program, as it was followed, over the course of several years, by the introduction of the Pathfinder, Voyageur, Leaders-in-Training, and Ranch programs. Each of these programs was designed to meet the particular interests and needs of campers as they grew and matured, allowing them to experience the transformative power of camp all the way through their high school years. As a result, over the course of less than 10 years, summer camp enrollment grew by nearly 80%.
When I stepped down as Camp Gray director eight years ago, I knew that I was being called to something else. In part, it was time to minister in a new place, in a new way. I was blessed to find my way to Conserve School in Wisconsin’s Northwoods, where I serve as an administrator of this boarding school that inspires high school students to environmental stewardship. I often tell people that the skills needed to direct a camp are called upon in equal measure to contribute to the operation of a successful boarding school. At Conserve School, like camp, we create a safe, nurturing community that empowers young people to learn and grow. God is using me here to help nurture young women and men who will care for creation, just as Pope Francis calls us to in Laudato Si.
I believe, too, that I was called to step aside eight years ago to create space for new leaders to take Camp Gray further than I was able. It brings me joy to see how camp is thriving and growing under the leadership of Rebecca, Jeff, Topher, and those they’ve called to join them on the journey (as well as camp’s dedicated Board of Advisors). While I may live and minister somewhere else these days, Camp Gray will always feel like home to me.
Editor’s Note Too: We can’t know where we’re going unless we know where we’ve been. We’re abundantly grateful for the work done by those that served at Camp Gray before us. Thanks to Phil and the great leadership that he displayed over his time at Camp Gray! Exciting things are coming to Camp Gray, and it wouldn’t be possible without Phil, his wife CW, and the thousands of others that have served at Camp Gray over the years. Stay tuned for updates on the many great things coming our way in the comings months!