Rooted: Children’s Growth Through Summer Camp

In honor of Camp Lor-Ray beginning its 2014 season… This piece was written for an advanced creative nonfiction course. I wrote it during the first semester of my sophomore year at Western Michigan University (2011). After spending more than ten summer at Camp Lor-Ray I decided to construct a manuscript explaining the importance of summer camp in a child’s life. Interviews with past campers and current staff members were conducted through face-to-face meetings, telephone, and email.

The dock may not be the sturdiest, but as I sit and look out onto the calm water, toes barely skimming the surface, I feel no fear. A slight breeze causes the dock to rock slightly, allowing soft ripples to dance under my feet. Following the ripples, I raise my eyes to look across the lake and notice the roots of many trees twisting their way down to the water. The roots lead to the trunks of tall and powerful trees. They are alive, as the wind tangos with their leaves and needles. I smile slightly, thinking how the trees and I are quite a bit alike; we both have our roots in this place called Camp Lor-Ray.

Camp Lor-Ray is a remote camp on the outskirts of Muskegon, Michigan. Throughout its entire lifetime, Lor-Ray has been a form of Christian fellowship between Michigan and Illinois congregations, allowing diverse people to spend time together under one belief. Actually, it started as an endeavor of Rev. Robert Moldstad’s in hopes to would align congregations of Evangelical Lutheran (ELS) and Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synods (WELS). The ELS had gone through a largely disputed split with the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS) in 1955, but WELS had waited until 1961 to follow suit. This change was uncomfortable to many members and the promotion of fellowship began to take a favorable ring among church leaders. So in 1965 Moldstad, along with his friend Dr. William Langrader, began to appraise possible land. Both men were from St. Timothy’s Church in Lombard, Illinois, but the first available parcel came from Michigan. Upon inspection, the men were enthusiastic that the 165 acre plot would make the perfect location for their scheme.

This plan has become a reality. Roughing it since 1965, members of ELS and WELS churches have met together among the woods of Camp Lor-Ray. A man-made lake, dug to fill in parts of US 31 when it was being built to freeway status, was the only constructed thing on the 165 acres of land. As 1966 rolled around, the only addition to the land was Pioneer Trail, an entrance road weaving to the center of the plot, near the lake. So it came to be that campers lived in close proximities, hiking tents and cooking together during their visits. As the years passed, buildings were built and more campers came. The 1990’s marked a new era of Lor-Ray, the separation of the camping experience. To the left of Pioneer Trail, Family Camp was established and new campsites added, a new bathhouse was begun, and electricity was to be run throughout the whole site. On the right, the buildings added since 1965 are now used for Kids Kamp.

The modest style of Camp Lor-Ray does not diminish the outlooks of the campers in Kids Kamp. A bathhouse, bunk cabins, and dining hall supply the daily needs of each child, but it’s the fellow peers that truly impact each person’s connection. Everyone has specific memories concerning Camp that influence their experience. Shannon Kruschel, who was a camper and a counselor during her time at Lor-Ray, recalls that being a camper was different than counseling, “Going away from home for an entire week for the first time ever, forgetting what my parents looked like, but it was okay, because I wasn’t afraid. It was comforting to know that everyone else at camp believed the same thing as you, so it was easy to talk to someone about any troubles. It made the best part of the day around the campfire, singing songs, devotion, and watching shooting stars.” Just as Moldstad hoped, fellowship with one another brings about the biggest impacts for campers at Camp Lor-Ray.

For Kaylin Pappenfuss this rings true as well. When speaking to her about Camp Lor-Ray, she continually mentions the people around her at camp. Activities and the luxuries of life are mentioned simply in passing.  As Camp Lor-Ray now recruits many Lutheran day-school students from the state of Michigan, so campers from different areas do not know one another. The most well-known spectrums are Michigan Lutheran High School (MLHS) and Michigan Lutheran Seminary (MLS). As many ELS/WELS elementary students choose to attend a Lutheran secondary school, MLHS and MLS are the only two available in Michigan. MLHS is in Southwest Michigan, surrounding the city of St. Joseph, whereas MLS is by Saginaw. The two areas are on separate sides of the state and result in unfamiliarity between those associated with either.

Camp Lor-Ray has diversity once MLHS students mix with MLS pupils. Kaylin, who hails from the MLHS region, comments, “The big thing is meeting and learning to get along with so many different people from different backgrounds, but still all having something in common.” This rationality is exactly the purpose for Camp Lor-Ray: the youth of ELS/WELS congregations coming together in one fellowship. Children have always been a large focus at Lor-Ray, it’s even the thought behind the camp’s name. Lorlie and Raymond Reiser, members of St. Timothy Church, were both youth minded and active church members, involving themselves heavily with the congregation’s teens. In 1963, they lost their lives in an automobile accident and Moldstad honored their memories by naming the camp after them.

As one walks through the shaded paths at Camp Lor-Ray, it becomes apparent how true it is that fellowship is happening. Not only does the endless chatter result in numerous laughs, smiles, and friendly gestures, but it allows for true feelings to be shown. Similar beliefs lead to profound questions being asked, such as “What is the meaning of life?” I experienced this question as a counselor last year, while sitting around the campfire one evening. I was caught off-guard as the camper’s eyes bore into my own, seeking the answer. We discussed what the meaning could be for nearly two hours, as camp songs were sung around us. It was a memorable moment, as I discovered new and challenging concepts by someone nearly half the age of myself. Our similar beliefs and the ability to discuss such things are only some of the offerings Camp Lor-Ray brings in the aspect of fellowship.

Not only does Camp Lor-Ray allow children to mingle with new peers, but it provides a foundation for life-long friendships. Kids Kamp used to begin with students entering third grade. (As of 2010, weeks have opened for students down to the age of kindergarten.) Gus Gulick has been a faithful camper-turned-counselor since 2000, and remarks on why he comes back every year, “Reconnecting with old friends and meeting new ones is a vital part of my camp experience.” Gus is from the MLS region but makes a point to visit MLHS friends at least once during the winter months. “Most of my friends have been involved with camp in some way, shape, or form. And I feel it’s because of that, that they are that much more important to me.” Even when the weeks of Kids Kamp are over, the campers find ways to stay in touch.

As a past-camper myself, I find it refreshing when a camp story or inside-joke is shared among friends via Facebook, email, or text. When Lor-Ray friends wish one another good luck, a happy birthday, or congratulations on some event, it shows true friendship. A week or two at camp is not simply something that passes without impact, that time leaves impressions on all involved, creating a deeper connection to Camp Lor-Ray than outsiders realize.

It is not as if Camp Lor-Ray aggressively pushes for an influence on a camper’s life, though. Some may think that the Lutheran camp is too strict in its schedule, as summer camp is supposed to be fun. However, as Bible studies are held for only a short portion of each day, this is not the case. Camp Lor-Ray’s officials understand that the function of a successful summer camp requires numerous activities for children, but weave such events into strengthening each individual’s faith. This means that Lor-Ray is a time for kids to take a break from everyday life and act like themselves. “At camp I always feel comfortable being my true self, but other places I feel I have to act a certain way to please certain people. I like being myself better,” states Eric Pankow.  Linda Kenyon seconds this opinion, “You can just let go and be goofy… Everyone has fun!”

At Camp Lor-Ray, there is something for every person to enjoy. If the child likes activity, there are periods for kickball, sabotage, and Nuke ‘Em. For those with more laid-back personalities, crafts or archery may suffice. Dance classes, snorkeling, and hiking adventures allow for new experiences. No matter what sort of person a camper is, Lor-Ray has something for them. The fact that Camp is established on Lutheran teachings merely adds to the overall outlook of the experience. Campers are relishing their time doing what they love while acting in positive, friendly Christian natures. It’s an enjoyable environment for all involved.

This past year has marked new expansions for Kids Kamp at Camp Lor-Ray. The Board of Directors at Lor-Ray knows that Camp leaves a positive influence on the lives of the children and staff members who participate during the summer. For many years, camp was offered to student entering fourth grade through ninth. In 2010, KinderCamp was begun to provide a place of fellowship for the youngest members of ELS or WELS congragations. And in 2011, to further its ability of outreach, a Teen Retreat was held. Teen Retreat opened the door for high school students to interact with one another also. As high school marks a period where many teenagers are looking for ways of expression and understanding themselves, Camp Lor-Ray offered a location for students to talk and spend time with one another, discussing common problems. Most participants being past campers, Teen Retreat was hailed a success and will be held this following summer.

Also, as the number of campers has continued to rise since 2005, construction of a new bunk cabin is underway. Currently the cabin is on schedule to be completed before the 2012 season begins. This will offer more space available for new campers. And in yet another form of fellowship, the first annual Chili Cook-Off was held in October to benefit financially-struggling campers. The resonating tone at Camp Lor-Ray seems to be that no child should be unable to attend camp if it’s what they want.

From the 1965 forest get-a-way where tents were the only shelter, to a fully functioning campsite with running water and electricity, Camp Lor-Ray has seen major changes. However, the central reason for Lor-Ray has not shifted; it remains a place where campers can be strengthened and nourished in their Christian faith through fellowship. Camp Lor-Ray is a treasure to all who have experienced it; it’s a little known jewel in the depths of Michigan, holding a value more precious than most can realize. I fully believe without having roots at Camp Lor-Ray, I would not have grown to be the same person I am today. And as the breeze plays with a lock of loose hair, I stand from the dock and walk towards the chapel, where the bell chimes for evening devotion.

4 thoughts on “Rooted: Children’s Growth Through Summer Camp

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