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Presbyterian camp thrives on bringing camp to kids in the Rio Grande Valley


Staff: ‘It’s the best week of ministry we do, because the children’s gratitude is infectious’

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

Campers in the Rio Grande Valley say they’re grateful to Mo-Ranch for bringing camp to them. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — As President and CEO of Presbyterian Mo-Ranch Assembly, a camp and conference center nestled on 500 acres along the Guadalupe River in Hunt, Texas, Dick Powell had a problem.

Children from the Rio Grande Valley weren’t coming to Mo-Ranch for camp in any recognizable numbers.  Powell thought he knew why.

“By car, we’re five hours away,” he said. “I figured with the distance and cost of the camp, it was too expensive.”

But then he had a conversation with Anglo pastors from the Rio Grande Valley. They told him the main reason children weren’t coming was the many 12-mile checkpoints along U.S. highways near the Mexico-United States border.

The parents of children born in the U.S. and attending Presbyterian churches were afraid. They were worried that they might not have the right documentation — or that if they sent their kids to camp, the children might not come home.

Powell found himself blurting out, “Then we’ll take our camp to them.”

As soon as he said it, Powell wondered how in the world he’d get it done. He knew about the history of the valley. The Anglo and Hispanic churches didn’t work together because of years of division, and the Hispanic churches tended to be small — sometimes they held only one or two families.

After thinking it over with his staff, Powell told pastors in the valley that he wasn’t going to do an Anglo or Hispanic camp. But he would bring one camp to them on this condition — that they supply the people and come together to plan it.

Eighty people came to the first planning meeting. Anglos and Hispanics were equally represented.

The sales manager for Mo-Ranch, Blanca Barrera, who was born in Piedras Negras, Mexico and is now a U.S. citizen, went down to the valley to talk with those who had been at the meeting.

She was key in building trust with the families.

Eventually, thanks to the First Presbyterian Church in Mission, Texas, and First Presbyterian Church in Weslaco, Texas, logistics for the camp were worked out.

The first year, 36 children stayed at the camp. The number jumped to 62 in the second year. Last year organizers had space for 70, but 93 children wanted to attend for the week — and Mo-Ranch made the space for them so that no child was turned away. This year, to keep up with the growing demand, organizers have been asked to do two one-week camps.

Camp in the Valley campers participate in team activities. (Contributed photo)

According to Powell, taking camp to the children in the Rio Grande Valley has turned Mo-Ranch around. What the Anglo and Hispanic families wanted for their children — to grow in Christian living, collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking — has become Mo-Ranch’s 5 Cs for camping and is now being implemented in all of Mo-Ranch’s summer camping programs. This emphasis is deeply impacting children’s lives.  As a result, they’re literally outgrowing their campus space.

When the opportunity to take camp to the valley presented itself, Powell had been asking Mo-Ranch staff questions like, “How do we get people to come here? Are we making a difference in people’s lives? Are we strengthening the local churches?”

Taking 30 counselors with up to four vans packed with equipment and driving five hours to set up camp in a place no one was familiar with initially seemed impossible, he said. But he knew it was a way for Mo-Ranch personnel to think differently about what they were doing.

Which is just one of the reasons why he reacted the way he did when he heard that the children in the Rio Grande Valley weren’t coming to Mo-Ranch because of all the checkpoints.

“It’s morally wrong and cruel,” he says. “These kids were born here. They were going to a Presbyterian church, but afraid to go to camp.”

“My dad always worked with children less privileged than we were,” he said. “I learned early on that we had an obligation to give back.”

“The way I look at it, if it’s something you ought to do, then you should trust in God’s providence—God’s abundance—because there’s always a way to do it,” Powell said.

Across the board now, Mo-Ranch support staff, nurses, cooks and counselors tell Powell that taking camp on the road is the best week of ministry they do.

“They say, ‘It’s because of what they get from children,’” says Powell. “Their gratitude is infectious. Our staff had campers come up to them and say that they had never experienced this type of support or had anyone say they were proud of them.”

Mo-Ranch spends about $40,000 for its week-long camp in the valley. On average it spends $25 on each camper and counselor, per day, on lodging alone.

Despite the cost, the camp has been underwritten for each year through the generosity of Mission Presbytery, churches, foundations and individual donors.

Mo-Ranch is in the process of launching a $5 million capital campaign for space to accommodate its growing number of campers and to ensure the future of programs like this. Within the capital campaign plan is a $1.5 million endowment to fund Mo-Ranch Camp in the Rio Grande Valley and underwrite its youth programs so that they will be funded in perpetuity.



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