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Camp Hanover gets ‘magical’ to minister to virtual campers

Intentional focus positions camp for future success

by Scott O’Neill | Presbyterian News Service

When COVID-19 kept campers away from Camp Hanover, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)-related camp near Richmond, Virginia, camp staff brought the camp experience to campers. (Photo courtesy of Camp Hanover)

LOUISVILLE — The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour avant-garde film wasn’t well-received back in 1967. But its iconic status and concept proved stunningly successful in the middle of a 2020 pandemic.

In the hope of providing a small slice of camp life for registered summer campers who couldn’t attend because of the pandemic, Virginia-based Camp Hanover staffers loaded up their own “magical” camp van with yard signs, T-shirts, and a songbook to embark on their own tour. They surprised unsuspecting parents and children at home with a socially distant visit and regaled them with camp songs at their front door.  The tour was just a small part of the camp’s Isaiah 40 project, an initiative that allowed camp leaders and a small set of staffers to provide outreach ministry during a pandemic.

“We identified a bunch of campers who had registered for summer camp, and midway through the summer loaded up our van with yard signs and shirts and hit the road,” said Harry Zweckbronner, associate director of programs at Camp Hanover. “We didn’t tell them we were coming so we surprised them at home. We knocked on the door, sang some camp songs and left a yard sign that said, ‘Camp Hanover loves you.’”

Camp Hanover, located about 30 miles northeast of Richmond, Virginia, likes to call itself “a place apart.” A summer camp and retreat center with Presbyterian roots, it’s focused on lifting up Christian community and hospitality and providing campers and participants an opportunity to practice faith through mission service and outreach. And like most, if not all, Christian summer camps, the COVID-19 pandemic turned its ministry and model upside down this spring.

“When the decision to suspend traditional summer camping program was made, we started looking for ways to continue to do ministry and have an impact on people’s lives. The Isaiah 40 project was result of that,” said Doug Walters, executive director at Camp Hanover.

“Camp Hanover is not just a ministry to school-age kids, it’s a home; it’s a faith point for the young adults who serve as counselors, life guards, and activity leaders — and they were also going to be missing out on the camp experience. (We wanted) to form an intentional community where young adults could come, live together in Christ and community, serve, grow in their faith, and do some spiritual discernment.”

As part of Camp Hanover’s Isaiah 40 project, a handful of young adult staff spent the summer at the camp. (Photo courtesy of Camp Hanover)

The Isaiah 40 project team consisted of eight young adults (state guidelines limited indoor gatherings to 10 people) invited to live at Camp Hanover during the summer. Part of their mission included doing service projects to fix up and freshen areas of the camp that would typically be neglected during a busy summer. With no campers on-site, their week consisted of:

Monday — leadership skill development.

Tuesday — personal devotion time, including Bible study and preparation for the weekly vesper service.

Wednesday — discernment, which usually featured an hour-long Zoom conversation with different people around the country, including pastors and camp professionals. The emphasis was that one can do ministry in different ways.

Thursday — devotional and spiritual growth.

The team also put together and ran a virtual vesper service that was put out on social media every Sunday evening.

“One of the things I love about this ministry and this place is the amazing young adults that serve here each summer,” said Zweckbronner. “We knew we had a great resource in them.”

Young staff members spending the summer at Camp Hanover worked to clear the camp’s trail system. (Photo courtesy of Camp Hanover)

Additional outreach initiatives included Zoom reunions, where previous year campers, some as recent as last year but others going as far back as the 1970s and 80s, got together virtually in the evenings. “Hanover at Home” groups were twice-weekly Zoom meetings that featured participants segmented into similar age groups and led by counselors. These meetings served as “check-ins” that were ongoing throughout the summer and sometimes featured creative themes like show-and-tell and Pictionary contests. The team even held virtual campfires where participants were encouraged to light a fire, a candle or whatever they could while the group sang camp songs in their virtual space.

Coming up with the myriad of creative ideas in order to live out the camp’s mission was a group effort.

“It’s been a team effort. When we were faced with the prospect of not being able to have our traditional summer camps, we still wanted to live out our mission to be a place apart for renewal and growth and let folks know they are loved by God, that they are part of a community and that we’re all in this together,” said Walters. “So, we just started coming up with ideas and putting it all together.”

“Harry Zweckbronner and Colleen Earp, associate director of outdoor ministry, were an integral part of the process,” said Walters. “We also talked with camp ministry folks across the country who were trying to figure it out just like we were. There’s a very strong community of camp professionals who are tackling this head-on, so we were picking their brains, getting their advice and stealing their ideas. That’s all part of how camp ministry works: We help each other to build and grow stronger.”

A number of Camp Hanover facilities got a spruce-up this summer. (Photo courtesy of Camp Hanover)

While the pandemic has affected nearly everyone this year in a variety of ways, summer camps were hit particularly hard. Camps and their personnel were required to quickly adapt and come up with ultra-creative solutions in order to not only keep their doors open but also continue their mission. Camp Hanover certainly exhibited that; their creative efforts have seemingly paid off with a recent fundraiser that raised more than $100,000. But equally important, the pandemic experience has seemingly affirmed Camp Hanover’s future and mission.

“This experience reaffirmed for me that camp matters,” said Zweckbronner. “Even though people couldn’t come here, camp is more than the ‘place.’ It’s the way we care for each other, living in community, taking care of one another. The reactions we had on the Magical Mystery Tour, and parents told us how much their kids looked forward to Hanover at Home. It reaffirmed for me that camp community matters. We’re not meant to be isolated; we’re meant to live in community and care for each other.”

“As we talked with other camp folks, the thing that we’re recognizing during the pandemic is the idea of connecting with each other and having community and places where folks can go and rest, recharge, and renew is going to become even more important as we go forward,” said Walters. “There is so much stress and burden and the idea of camps being a place where folks can get away and be closer to God, be still, and listen for God’s voice. This is a chance for camps to play an even bigger role coming through the other side of this.”

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