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Guacio is a Presbyterian youth camp and much more


While it looks like many mainland summer camps, Puerto Rico’s Campamento El Guacio has been a school and hospital — and now a base for hurricane recovery

By Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

A cross and amphitheater overlook Campamento El Guacio in western Puerto Rico. (Photo by Rich Copley).

GUACIO, Puerto Rico — It is not hard for visitors from the mainland United States to draw comparisons between Campamento El Guacio and Presbyterian camps back home.

“You can just imagine kids there in the summertime,” says Bryce Wiebe, director of Special Offerings for the Presbyterian Mission Agency, reflecting on the facility with the requisite dorms, dining hall and fields you expect at a summer camp.

For Alonzo Johnson, coordinator of the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People, the camp in the western mountains of Puerto Rico brought to mind Camp Johnsonburg in New Jersey and Camp Kirkwood in the Poconos, near Philadelphia — camps he has attended and worked with.

“I can’t imagine having a camp this beautiful,” Johnson said, recalling his December visit to Guacio.

Wiebe and Johnson were part of a delegation of representatives from the church’s Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries that visited Puerto Rico in mid-December to see some projects they were already supporting and explore potential new collaborations.

Guacio was one of the initial recipients of funds through Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) in the days following Hurricane María’s landfall in late September 2017.

Campamento El Guacio features facilities like a basketball court, a staple at many mainland Presbyterian camps. (Photo by Rich Copley)

“We made a connection early through José González-Colón,” PDA Associate for Disaster Response (U.S.) Jim Kirk says, referring to the moderator of the Sínodo Presbiteriano Boriquén in western Puerto Rico. “We awarded a grant to meet the needs at Guacio to help them continue to do the good work they were doing.”

Though the camp itself was hard hit by María, a high-Category 4 storm when it made landfall, it quickly became a resource for the surrounding community in the weeks and months following María, helping supply needs from water and ice to a psychologist to help people shattered by the storm and its aftermath.

“In my head, I had Guacio being this cute little Presbyterian camp,” Johnson says. “When you go there and look at the expanse, you’re like, ‘My God. Look at all this land, and what can be done,’ especially after listening to Roberto talk about what this camp meant to their lives.”

Johnson is referring to Guacio community leader Roberto Lebrón, who was part of a group that met with the Presbyterian leaders to talk about the camp’s historic and present-day role in the community, which are not all that different.

Some of the community leaders that participated in a late morning meeting with the Presbyterian delegation included Marizol Vélez, Director of Presbiterianos En Servicio A La Comunidad (PESAC); Rev. Iris Dalila, Pastor of Guacio Presbyterian Church; Carmen and Carlos Umpierre, farmers working with the camp; members of the camp’s Board of Trustees; and Wilmari Vargas, director of the camp.

Jim Kirk, associate for national disaster assistance, and Wilmari Vargas, director of Campamento El Guacio in western Puerto Rico, talk during a morning visit to the camp. (Photo by Rich Copley)

The director, whose father built the mountaintop cross that overlooks the camp, received widespread praise from the group for reviving the camp, which was at one point on the verge of being sold, even before the storm hit.

“We saw how the facility after Wilmari’s arrival has grown from scratch all the way up,” said Keyla Candelario, who attended the camp as a child. “We came with a lot of young people to help her and other volunteers.

“She approached me, still being a young person, to be part of the governing board. Although I may not be sophisticated in a lot of the processes it takes to be on the board, I know I can be a voice for a lot of the young people, and I can share a lot of ideas that young people have for this facility.”

An illuminated cross overlooks Campamento El Guacio in western Puerto RIco. (Photo by Rich Copley)

González-Colón says Vargas was the key to reviving programs and community involvement in the camp, and then, “Lo and behold, here comes María.”

While sustaining a lot of damage, including to its extensive stand of bamboo near the mountaintop cross, the camp remained a beacon to the community, able to supply necessities like power and water, which still have not been restored to some places in the surrounding community.

Campamento El Guacio has been very active in relief efforts following Hurricane María. (Photo by Rich Copley)


Kirk says that the lack of government support for areas outside major population centers and tourist destinations makes PDA’s work in communities such as Guacio particularly important. In addition to providing agricultural opportunities to the community, Guacio is at the forefront of projects such as helping introduce solar power to the community, and it is restoring one of its dorm complexes specifically to house volunteers who come to work in the area. There are also ambitions to revitalize decades-old projects, such as functional crafts and construction from the bamboo.

“Instead of dampening the revitalization efforts, the storm lit a fire under them,” Kirk says. Since the first time he visited Guacio, Kirk says, “There has been exponential progress to improve the camp’s appearance and functionality, which has put it in a position to serve the entire community.”

Click here to donate to continued hurricane relief in Puerto Rico.

Read more:

PC(USA) delegation to Puerto Rico impressed by church-sponsored work

Fifteen months after Maria, PC(USA) leaders find Puerto Rico devastated but determined

Couple struggles to revive Puerto Rican farm after Maria


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