Camp Connect adapts, hosts sold-out day camps


By Kara Witherow, Editor

Even during a typical summer, Camp Connect leaders have to be prepared to deal with challenges, from homesickness to hurricanes to health issues.

But this summer proved to be one of the most challenging in Camp Connect history.

Because of the global coronavirus pandemic, in early May – after the summer staff had been hired, a theme had been set, and camp registration was in full swing – director Suzanne Akins made the difficult decision to cancel overnight camps.

Although a heartbreaking decision, it was the wise and safe one, Akins said.

“We wanted nothing more than to have our full staff on campus, running camps for hundreds of campers the way we always do,” she said. “But the risk was just too high.”

While disappointed that the summer wouldn’t be as expected or planned, the Camp Connect leadership team – Akins and head counselors Wesley Hanson and Gabriela Reincheld – didn’t let themselves mourn too long.

They did what they do best: they prayed, got creative, and began dreaming about what the summer could be.

Instead of the planned six sessions of summer camp, they created day camps designed to give children a much-needed time of fun and play during an extraordinarily unusual summer.

“The main need we saw was to give kids a normal day. That was our goal,” Akins said. “We felt they needed to have a normal day of playing, interacting, being outside, and swimming. Just a normal summer day.”

With safety in mind, they designed one series of day camps for elementary students and another for middle-school students. Camps were kept small to allow for social distancing. Temperatures were checked at drop-off, most activities were outside on Epworth By The Sea’s large lawn, masks were required for anything done inside, and lunches were brought from home. All six camps sold out in less than 24 hours.

Meeting kids’ and parents’ needs was top of mind when planning, Akins said.

“For parents, it filled a need for childcare, but it also gave them and their kids a mental health day,” she said. “They really wanted that for their kids. A lot of parents teared up telling us how much it meant.”

It was important, too, that the day camps – “Field Day Fridays” for elementary students and “Middle School Mondays” for those who had just completed sixth, seventh, or eighth grades – included elements of Camp Connect.

“We wanted to try and incorporate a lot of the main camp games and camp experiences into one day,” Hanson said. “We bottled up a week of camp into one day, which was pretty challenging!”

For 13-year-old twins Susannah and Samuel Duke-Barton, Middle School Monday was a chance to have a new camp experience during a summer when much had been cancelled.

“It was good to feel a tiny bit of camp,” said Samuel, a rising eighth-grader at Arthur Williams Middle School in Jesup. “We didn’t get to have the full week (of camp), but it was still fun to have one day, and it was good to get outside.”

They enjoyed swimming, the ropes course and rock wall, and familiar games like Gaga Ball and Mafia, Susannah said.

“It was fun to experience the camp all in one day,” she said.

Camp Connect has been an important part of Susannah and Samuel’s spiritual development since third grade, said their mother Rev. Rebecca Duke-Barton, pastor of Jesup First United Methodist Church.

“We are so grateful for the Camp Connect staff to find a way to add a little bit of camp into this summer,” she said “It refreshed their souls to be there and reminded them that even in a time of uncertainty, the love of God remains.”

While being adaptable and creative is embedded in the DNA of camp leaders, their passion is to remind kids of God’s love and the hope that they have because of Him. And even though it wasn’t how they initially planned, it’s always good to be with campers, Akins said.

“It felt very hopeful,” Akins said. “Like the world is not going to be as it has been, forever; that we will return to some sort of normalcy at some point. This is our passion, and to have time with the kids was just right.”