Camp Staff Saints

May 15, 2009 |John Thomas

If you're planning to get a job on a summer camp staff this summer, you're not joining a staff; you're joining a legacy.

Did you ever go to camp as a kid? I did.

I was a scrawny 12-year-old kid, and obviously hated by my mother, whom I had begged to not make me go. I'd dreaded it for weeks. I was sick to my stomach and sure that at any moment I would either sob uncontrollably or throw up. This sounded like a good idea when I filled out my registration card in January, but when it was time to go, I just wanted to turn the car around and go home. She would hear none of it as she coldly drove me to some undisclosed location in the yonder hinterlands where strange looking yokels sat whittling on their front porches, staring at us "city folk" driving by.

Is she really going through with this? Is she really just going to drop me off at this summer camp and leave me with all of these total strangers for a whole week? How could she do this to me?

For those of you who will spend your summer as camp counselors, this next part is crucial.

We finally arrived, checked in, and stowed everything carefully under my bunk. I gave my mom a hug goodbye and she drove off, disappearing in a cloud of hot, Arkansas June dust. Standing there alone, I had half an inclination to run after her, throw myself on the hood of the Chrysler station wagon, and scream "No! Don't leave me!" But I didn't want to make a scene. So, I quietly sat on my bunk — me in my new no-name tennis shoes, big blue shorts, white shirt and a ball cap three sizes too big, counting the days until Saturday, when this nightmare would be over. My head was pounding from choking back the tears that had been pressing on my throat since we left the house.

I was shy and withdrawn. I despised meeting new people. I never knew what to say to them; didn't know what to do around them. I just sat there, trying to blend in with the surroundings, hoping no one will notice my presence. There could be nothing worse for a kid like me, in a shell like mine, to have to endure a week at camp. My parent's divorce was recent, and already my world felt like a confusing, 12-year-old mess.

I could still hear my mom's voice as she sat me down in the family room to break the news: She and dad were splitting up. And although I wasn't completely sure what that meant, the lingering pit in my stomach was a constant reminder that something had gone dreadfully wrong.

But most of all, I felt alone. Pitifully alone.

It wasn't long until a frizzy-haired "staff" named Dave plopped down on the lower bunk across from me. With his fingers intertwined in the springs of the bunk above his head, I wondered what he could possibly say to make me feel better.

"So, John, do you have a dog?"

Those seven simple words began a friendship that would last many years — and start me on my long journey of healing.

That journey continues today, some 23 years later. But as I look back, I am amazed at how pivotal that week with two camp counselors, Dave Warnock and Ricky Allen, was in my life. Those two were the first in a long line of "staff" saints who in so many ways are responsible for sharing God's joy with me, forever changing my life's journey.

If I had to list the most significant influences in my 35 years of life, the camp counselor would be very nearly number one. For two weeks every summer, they made me feel as if I was the center of the universe. They opened their lives to me on the wagon rides, sharing their trials and triumphs. They searched for me in a sea of kids and asked if I wanted to play pingpong, always letting me win. They let me have the best line in the skit that made the whole audience laugh. They showed me what manhood means: responsibility, leadership, respect for women, submission to God. They talked with me. They asked about my life, about school and girls and sports, about family and hurts and healing. They drew me out of that shell that otherwise would have become my home.

And at the end of the day, they came to my bunk, closed their eyes, and thanked God for me. I desperately needed that. I very much needed to know that I mattered, that I counted. They made sure of it.

After being around those counselors for just one week, I knew that joining them was my destiny. The people that wore that staff shirt embodied everything I wanted to be.

And on a hot Monday morning in June of 1980, I donned that hallowed shirt for the first time. Looking in the mirror, "Camp Staff" stared proudly back at me. It was a dream come true. No, this wasn't a uniform. To me, this was a legacy. I had joined the long list of those before me who had reached out to thousands of kids like me and altered their lives.

Of all that I've been privileged to do over the years, wearing that cotton, red staff shirt has been one of the highest honors. Putting it on was like putting on a medal. It symbolized perseverance under trial, integrity in life, grace under pressure, faithfulness to Christ, and, for so many kids like me, it symbolized hope in a hurting world.

If you're planning to get a job on a summer camp staff this summer, you're not joining a staff; you're joining a legacy. You have an important chapter to write in God's story of the camp where you'll be working, a story that has gone on before you and will continue after you leave. This is your chapter. You have partnered with God to share His love with a simple yet profound message: "You matter. You matter for all the world."

They're coming from every corner. They're coming in their new summer shorts and white tennis shoes and shirts and ball caps. They're coming with fresh faces and freckles and pimples and new braces and all of the awkwardness and uncertainty that comes with adolescence. But in their eyes is the hope of youth.

The newspaper headlines remind us of the dangerous world in which they live — broken homes and broken lives and crushed spirits and stolen innocence. But God is always up to the challenge, no matter how difficult the task. And He always brings the right people to do the job that needs to get done.

For you camp counselors, this is your hour — your chance to give a kid a dream, the kind of dream that comes wrapped in a simple T-shirt that says "Camp Staff."

Copyright 1999 John Thomas. All rights reserved.

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