Exactly a year ago, Dan Ziegler walked around Camp Koronis to the sound of “screams and laughter and joyful noises of family and kids.” The children’s camps were just wrapping up after a full season, and the intergenerational family camps were in full swing. Campers could be spotted at the beach, on the playground, hiking in the woods, and simply sitting and enjoying the beauty around them. Forty-five staff members were fulfilling jobs ranging from waterfront supervision to meal preparation to leading campers.
This summer is very different. Dakotas and Minnesota United Methodist camps, like many camps across the country, ceased summer operations amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. So while cottages are housing small family groups, the guest lodges are all empty—and the camp is mostly quiet. Just two full-time staff and six-part timers are employed.
“Camp is about bringing people together,” said Ziegler, who has served as Koronis’ executive director since 2015. “Social distancing is the opposite of what we’re about, so there’s definitely a sense of loss about the interpersonal relationships and spiritual growth that won’t be able to happen at camp this year. We’re about kids walking arm-in-arm and families hugging and singing and laughing together.”
While camp leaders are confident that the decision to suspend summer camps was the right one in order to prioritize the safety of campers, guests, and staff, it has resulted in financial challenges for Dakotas-Minnesota Area camps. Each campsite’s operation—including salaries and benefits, maintenance and upkeep of the property and facilities, program-related expenses, and fixed costs—are funded almost entirely by camper and guest group fees. Because of that, the suspension has resulted in an estimated $1.8 million loss in revenue for the area camping program, $1.1 million of which is attributed to Minnesota’s three camps—Koronis, Northern Pines in Park Rapids, and Kowakan Adventures near Ely, which offers Boundary Waters expeditions.
“Our camps are part of the fabric of our Dakotas and Minnesota Annual Conferences,” said Keith Shew, director of area camp and retreat ministries. “For generations of Dakotans and Minnesotans, time spent at your camps is part of their faith story. Now more than ever, our world needs camp. We desperately seek the sacred and safe spaces, set apart from the world, where we experience Christ, creation, and community in the meaningful and impactful ways that only camp can provide. We want to gather around the glowing campfire at the end of a fun day, to be still, and to know that God is here and that we are loved even in a hurting and broken world.”
Rev. Tony Fink, who now serves Pine Island UMC, brings kids to Northern Pines every summer—and it’s always been a deeply impactful experience. He points out that for many youth, camp the highlight of their year in terms of coming closer to Jesus and reconnecting with God. “If they are not at the place that seems so sacred to them, will they find another chance to have this special and meaningful connection in their faith walk?” he wonders.
What will it take to keep the campfires glowing? Staff reductions and furloughs at all of the camps have helped control costs, but estimated operational costs for 2020 total $938,000, including $578,000 in Minnesota. Dakotas and Minnesota United Methodists are invited to give to a special “Keep Our Campfires Glowing” campaign in order to position camps to survive and thrive through and beyond the pandemic.
“In the history of camp, it has never existed without your support,” said Rev. Nate Melcher, a longtime camp supporter who serves Richfield UMC and serves on the Dakotas-Minnesota Area Camp and Retreat Council. “Yes, servant heart support to help build our sites into great places to experience God and build great teams—and yet, it’s the financial support that helps get those campers there in the first place so they can grow, experience Jesus, and learn more about the people they want to be in this world. Thank you for your extravagant generosity to support your camping ministry during this very crucial time.”
Looking ahead, Ziegler hopes next summer looks a lot more like last summer than this summer, and he looks forward to brighter days ahead.
“My prayer is that the quiet that we have this summer will next summer be filled with laughter and joy and song and conversation and arm-in-arm walking and all the good things that happen at camp as people connect with God, connect with nature, and connect with each other,” he said.