After suspending operations during the summer of 2020 due to concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dakotas United Methodists camps returned in 2021, offering nearly 900 campers an opportunity to grow in their faith at camp. Safety precautions were put into place, resulting in no reported cases of COVID at any of the three Dakotas camping sites.
“Camping leaders made the difficult decision to suspend summer camp programming at all Dakotas and Minnesota camping sites in 2020 due to safety concerns surrounding COVID-19,” said Keith Shew, Director of Camping Ministries for the Dakotas-Minnesota Area. “It was amazing to welcome participants of all ages back to camp in 2021. Campers of all ages returned to their favorite spaces and activities, including swimming, boating, crafts, group games, campfires, singing, and of course, s’mores!
Significant effort and preparation went into helping ensure campers, staff, and guests stay safe. “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.
Camp leaders adhered to advice and guidelines from local and state health officials, the American Camp Association, and the Centers for Disease Control to implement COVID-19 safety best practices. Safety precautions include lower numbers at each camp and spending as much time outdoors as possible for worship, mealtimes, 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-six percent of the United Methodist churches in North and South Dakota sent people to camp in 2021, and 15 percent of this summer’s attendees were outside the United Methodist Church—some without any church home.
Wesley Acres saw more use of their ropes course compared to previous camping seasons. “We really worked hard to promote as many outdoor activities as possible,” said Brenda Lint, who serves as co-director at Wesley Acres with her husband, Paul. “Bishop Laurie and Pastor Joel Winckler (who serves as the Northwest District Superintendent) tried out the ropes course!” View a video here.
Wesley Acres hosts Minecraft Camp, led by Rev. Clay Lundberg, helps campers learn important life lessons about collaboration, virtual and real space, and faith. This year the camp created an opportunity to build some things outside in the real world.
“Campers work together to build bridges virtually. But they also take that same concept outdoors kayaking and building a prayer labyrinth,” said Lundberg. “It was cool to see how campers connected, building together respectfully. Important life lessons for everyone.”
All three of the campsites, Lake Poinsett, Storm Mountain, and Wesley Acres had fewer campers than in 2019, by about 45 percent, which felt like a win given the difficulties presented by the pandemic.
Christy Heflin, director at Lake Poinsett Camp and Retreat Center in South Dakota, noted that lower numbers at camp allowed for a time to create community and build relationships. “At some of the camps in the past, we might have 100 campers for one of our camps. This year only 40-50 kids at that same camp. It was an opportunity to get to know the campers and build relationships,” said Heflin.
"Smaller numbers created opportunities for relationship building," said Heflin. "In order to keep everyone safe during COVID we limited the numbers at each of the camps. It was nice to have smaller groups. We could really get to know the campers."
Davis Anderson served as the chaplain at Lake Poinsett this summer. Besides leading chapel services, he found himself mentoring younger, less experienced staff at Lake Poinsett. “I spent time with the new staff in conversation, asking questions, and encouraging them to be positive as they were doing God’s work,” said Anderson. “It was a lot of fun to see staff grow in their faith and into the work they were being called to do.”
Getting staff in place for the summer was challenging, especially at Storm Mountain Center, near Rapid City, South Dakota, where tourism is a significant business. Storm Mountain usually hires about 12-15 staff members in the summer. This summer, seven staff members kept things running smoothly.
“There was a big staffing vacuum in the Black Hills area this past summer,” said Lara Ziegler, who is the co-director of Storm Mountain Center with husband Levi. "There are usually hundreds of international students and young adults who come to work in the area in the summer. Because of COVID, that did not happen. We put out the word for help, and volunteers showed up to help keep us moving.”
COVID precautions prompted all three camps to try out a new way of registering campers as they arrived. A drive-through check-in process for families eliminated long wait times 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’ items, and a final stop for a health check.
Again this year, local churches made an extraordinary effort to send kids to camp. Local churches contributed a combined amount of $67,152 in financial support to help Dakotas children, youth, and families to attend camp in 2021.
Wesley Acres and Lake Poinsett were up for re-accreditation this summer. Each site hosted trained visitors from the American Camp Association who thoroughly reviewed the property, programs, policies and procedures, staff and volunteer training, and safety systems.
Shew said, “While we will not learn the results of the re-accreditation visits until later this fall, each site was well prepared and moved smoothly through the review process.”
Campers and leaders are eager to gather in 2022, and planning is already underway at Lake Poinsett, Storm Mountain, and Wesley Acres for next year as well.
Camp leaders ultimately hope that the 2021 camp experience stays with attendees for a long time to come.
“It was special to see the joy in the faces of the campers. Campers were resilient and were beyond excited to be in community in nature and grow in their faith,” said Ziegler.