By: Chris “Topher” Aderhold
It was early on a chilly Thursday morning, and I was heading east in my pickup truck on Wisconsin Highway 12 towards Madison. I was driving towards the sun as it was peaking over the horizon, throwing bright beams of light across the cornfields that are so ubiquitous here in south-central Wisconsin.
I was traveling to Madison to meet up with my friend Taylor Eveland. For several years, Taylor has served on our Summer Camp Staff. Prior to that, she was a longtime camper here at Camp Gray. Currently, Taylor is a senior at UW-Madison, majoring in history. Someday soon, you’ll find Taylor in a Wisconsin high school teaching U.S. and European History.
When Taylor was a freshman at UW, she wrote an essay about her time at Camp Gray. Though she had just completed her first summer on the Camp Gray staff, much of her story centered on her time as a camper. She was an ordinary camper – she says so herself in her essay. She hiked in the stream, fished for Walter, sought to achieve Table Number One, and “emerged victorious and paint-stained from Capture the Flag.” Her camper story is like the thousands upon thousands that have come before and after.
Her staff story is ordinary, too, she insists, but I wanted to write about it. She now has four staff summers under her belt. She’s worked in various roles, striving at all times to be a bright shining light to each of our 1,300 campers. Her staff story is like the thousands that served before and the thousands that will serve in the future.
I could have simply emailed her a list of questions, but I wanted the full “Taylor Eveland Experience.” Spending the day shadowing her on campus seemed like fun to me, and surprisingly, she agreed to show me around. After a day of pestering her with questions about all things CG, UW, and Winston Churchill, she likely wished I had simply sent an email.
When I first arrived on campus, I parked on the orange floor of the nearest-to-campus parking garage that I could find. I wore flannel and a ball cap to blend in. I’m a proud alum of Oklahoma State University, but on that day, I was a Badger. At least, I hoped to look like one.
Taylor met me outside of the parking garage, and the journey began. Our first stop that morning was at the St. Paul University Catholic Center for adoration. Later in the day, Taylor talked about how difficult it is at the conclusion of each summer to leave Camp Gray. However, it’s an enormous blessing that there are so many opportunities right there on campus to continue nurturing her faith.
“Leaving Camp Gray after my first summer on staff was especially difficult, but when I arrived here at UW, I knew exactly where to go: St. Paul’s. That has continued ever since.”
At the conclusion of adoration, we turned left out of St. Paul’s, and atop a large hill I saw an impressive pillared building with Abraham Lincoln perched in front. I wanted to climb the hill to get a closer look at Abe, but instead we turned and walked across campus towards the Student Activities Center.
It’s there, on the 3rd floor, that the offices of Badger Catholic can be found. Badger Catholic is a student organization that gives students an opportunity to grow deeper in their faith by providing peer mentoring, bible studies, and service opportunities.
Taylor has been around Badger Catholic for much of her time at UW, taking part in each of these opportunities. For much of the rest of the morning, we sat in the Badger Catholic office sipping coffee and talking about Camp Gray.
Taylor first attended Camp Gray after her 6th grade year in 2005. Early on, during that first summer, she knew that she wanted to be on the Camp Gray staff someday.
“I remember staffers were so confident in who they were and comfortable with themselves and that rubbed off – it taught me that I could be that way. That was probably the best lesson I took from Camp Gray early on – that it’s okay, and even great, to be myself.”
She continued coming back every summer, except for one.
“I think we forgot to sign up early that year. For whatever reason, I didn’t get signed up, so I went to a different Camp. I figured then that all Camps were the same. I was wrong. I loved Camp Gray then, and continue to love it now, because it’s a place that kids are allowed to be kids.”
She returned to Camp Gray the first few summers as a camper because of the fun and the goofiness. Eventually, as she got older, she certainly still loved the fun aspect of Camp, but it was the faith, and the Camp Gray community, that drew her back.
She told me that she was one of those campers that knew every staffers name. That they knew her name, and would remember her from year to year, blew her away. This had a big impact on her. She knew early on that if she ever worked at Camp Gray, she would know the names of not just her campers, but of all campers.
“The culture at Camp Gray is so genuine,” she told me.
“Genuine” is a word that Taylor used often to describe Camp Gray.
While she dreamed of working at Camp Gray from nearly the beginning, it was during her summer as an LIT that she knew for sure that she wanted to serve on our staff.
“Camp Gray had played such a big role in my life. I wanted to give back – to give other kids the opportunities I had.”
She served as a part of our kitchen crew during her first summer on staff, and since then has been a counselor for nearly every one of Camp’s summer programs.
I asked her if time at Camp Gray has helped her navigate being a student at UW.
“Oh, I’m certainly a better leader because of Camp Gray, and that’s especially because of the emphasis Camp puts on servant leadership.”
We continued the conversation as we walked across campus to get a burrito for lunch.
I was curious how it was that she balanced everything – work, study, faith, clubs, class, football games, etc.?
“I know for a fact that my relationship with God needs to be my priority. I surround myself with people that help me on that journey – roommates, friends – they push me to stay centered on Christ. And honestly, it was at Camp that I learned time management and it’s where I learned how to prioritize my life.”
“What would your life be like today if not for your Camp Gray experience?” I asked.
“Oh, it would be completely different,” she replied.
She continued, “I believe that you don’t truly know yourself fully unless you explore your faith and you know yourself in God’s eyes. I wouldn’t be where I am today without Camp Gray helping me on my journey.”
This was a school day for Taylor, after all, so later, I tagged along to her European Cultural and Intellectual History class in the Humanities Building. As we walked into the building, I followed her lead by grabbing a copy of the student newspaper, The Daily Cardinal. By then, I was really feeling like a Badger, and sitting in class with the student newspaper helped the cause.
I sat off to the side of the class, so as not to distract the students from their discussion. France in the early 1700s was the topic that day, and when I walked out of class later, I felt quite enlightened. Throughout the class, I tediously took notes, and I reflected on something Taylor had said earlier in the day. She spoke about the gift that young people are to the Church.
“The Church needs us to just be who we are. We need to face our flaws, to see who we really are. Camp Gray is incredibly unique in that it gives kids an opportunity to be genuine. Camp Gray gives kids an opportunity to see and appreciate who they are – created by God.”
As we learned about the history of France, I couldn’t help but wonder how Camp Gray has played, and continues to play, a role in history. For more than 60 years, lives have been impacted here at Camp Gray – lives are changed at Camp Gray.
Following her European Cultural and Intellectual History class, Taylor had another class across campus. One class was enough for me for the day, so I asked her if she wanted to add anything before I bid her farewell.
She thought for a moment and then answered. “Yeah, I want campers to know that we think about them everyday. We pray for them all the time. Not just last summer’s campers, but years past, as well. Stories and memories come to mind all the time. I know I’m not alone in that.”
Two of Taylor’s roommates are also former Camp Gray staffers. She told me that it’s fairly often that stories about Camp Gray come up. Sometimes it’s the goofy times of Camp, more often it’s the stories about the profound impact Camp Gray has on young people.
We said our goodbyes, and though it was fun being a Badger, I was happy to be returning to Camp Gray.
I found my pickup truck on the orange floor of that nearest-to-campus parking garage, and I began the journey home. On my return, late that afternoon, heading west on Wisconsin Highway 12, I was again driving toward the sun – its bright beams of light were again being thrown across the cornfields of south-central Wisconsin, this time as it was setting behind the horizon.
On my drive home, I reflected on Taylor’s ordinary Camp Gray experience. Except, her experience is anything but ordinary. The Camp Gray experience is only ordinary insofar as many others have experienced Camp Gray. However, just because something is common doesn’t make it ordinary. “Ordinary” doesn’t have a place at Camp Gray.
A Camp Gray experience is extraordinary, and it’s because of our staff – humble servant leaders like Taylor – that Camp Gray remains a bright shining light in the darkness.
Thanks for reading, and thanks for your great support of Camp Gray!
Camp Gray is open all year-round. Come experience the extraordinary mission of Camp Gray during summer, and during the school year!
(Summer Camp 2016 registration opens at 12:01am this Friday, November 13th, 2015!)