By: Christa Meland
After suspending operations in summer 2020 due to concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Camp Minnesota returned in 2021 and provided 923 campers a meaningful experience while taking extra precautions to keep them safe.
“It was amazing to welcome participants back to camp in 2021,” said Keith Shew, Dakotas-Minnesota Director of Camp and Retreat Ministries. “Campers of all ages returned to their favorites spaces and activities, including swimming, boating, horses, group games, campfires, singing, and of course…s’mores!”
In light of ongoing COVID-19 safety concerns leading into the 2021 camp season, a return to offering camp programming was not taken lightly, Shew said. Significant effort and preparation went into helping ensure campers, staff, and guests stayed safe. Camp leaders partnered with local and state health officials, the American Camp Association, and the Centers for Disease Control to implement COVID-19 safety best practices specifically developed for overnight camp settings. They included keeping campers in small pods and spending as much time outdoors as possible, including for worship, meal times, and activities.
“And, we did it!” said Shew. “No spread of COVID-19 at your camps in 2021. Zero cases! The camp directors, their staff, and your central office camping team worked hard to ensure safety protocols were implemented and followed. We’re also grateful for the ways our camper families helped care of the camping community by adhering to pre-camp COVID-19 safety recommendations.”
Thirty percent of Minnesota United Methodist churches sent people to camp in 2021, and 38 percent of this summer’s attendees were from outside of The United Methodist Church—some without any church home.
Koronis Ministries this year received a $3,200 grant from United Methodist Camp and Retreat Ministries to identify and recruit more ethnically and racially diverse leaders. Koronis partnered with Brooklyn UMC in Brooklyn Center to bring children from the church and community to camp. A total of 33 campers came, most from Liberian and West African immigrant families; the grant primarily covered transportation to and from camp, and the Camp Minnesota office provided additional campership (camp scholarship) support to help each camper attend the camp of their choice. The campers had a phenomenal experience; they acquired new skills, learned about God, and when they left were already talking about returning next year. Two camper families are now worshiping at Brooklyn UMC because of this outreach.
Both Koronis in Paynesville and Northern Pines Camp in Park Rapids had fewer campers than in 2019, but only by about 30 percent, which felt like a win given the difficulties presented by the pandemic.
Leslie Hobson, Northern Pines Camp director, noted that some camps exceeded attendance expectations. For example, grandparent-grandchild camp welcomed 44 people, the most since she started at the camp in 2016.
When asked about a story from the summer that sticks out to her, she recalled a Teens camper with a disability who was at Northern Pines for the first time. The girl’s mom knew it would be difficult for her daughter to be away from home and said she hoped the teen might be able to stay at least two of the six-night camp experience before needing to be picked up. Not only did the girl make it the whole week, but she helped lead worship one night and did her part—exploring a specific scripture text—without any notes.
At both camps, COVID precautions made way for experimentation and innovation.
A junior high Christian Youth Camp led by Mike Solberg, youth and families director at Normandale Hylands UMC in Bloomington, has always included a dance. This year, the dance was outside so that campers wouldn’t be all together in a contained space, but the dilemma then became how to offer music without disturbing neighbors around the lake. Solberg brought wireless headphones for each camper that allowed them to tune in to one of three channels and listen to the type of music they preferred. Campers loved it, and even those who opted not to dance and instead engage in other activities were still connected with the rest of the group through the music.
Northern Pines also offered a drive-through check-in process for families that eliminated long lines from years past and will likely continue in some form even after COVID subsides. Each vehicle drove to several stations before dropping off the camper inside: one to provide paperwork, another to collect campers’ spending money and mail, and a final stop for a temperature/health check.
Again this year, camperships (camp scholarships) enabled many kids to attend camp who might not have otherwise been able to do so. Camp Minnesota awarded $43,000 to 193 campers to attend the camp event of their choice.
Unfortunately, nearly all of Camp Minnesota’s offsite programs were not able to be offered in 2021. For example, the ever-popular Canadian Fishing Camps were forced to suspend their camps due to border-crossing issues.
But fishing campers and leaders are eager to gather in 2022, and planning is already underway at both Northern Pines and Koronis for next year as well.
Camp leaders ultimately hope that the 2021 camp experience stays with attendees for a long time to come.
“I hope they realized that even in the midst of a non-typical year, they can still grow and develop relationships,” said Hobson. “I hope they saw that God is in the midst of everything and had a chance to reflect on that.”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church