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Timber-lee Christian Center, Classic Camp

East Troy, Wis.

$310-$370, one-week sessions

Ages: 3rd grade through high school

More than 60,000 stream through Timber-lee Christian Center's rolling hills to partake in various resident camps, day camps and retreats. To handle this type of volume and the sheer number of programs ongoing at any one time, you have to be strong.

That's why the name Timber-lee was chosen for this diverse camp setting. Though you might not be able to pinpoint what it is about the name that embodies strength and dedication to mission at first blush, it still seems to embody those characteristics.

"We chose the name Timber-lee for the big oaks on the property, the big beams in the buildings, and the cross of Christ for our spiritual heritage," says Brian Ogne, president of Timberlee Ministries. "The 'lee' came from the place of shelter or protection, like the leeward side of an island. It's a combination of the big sturdy timber with a place of retreat and quiet reflection. We also chose the name Christian Center, rather than just camp, because we wanted to move into the conference center realm."

Generation of Heritage

By the looks of things, Timber-lee Christian Center has been successful on all counts, literally living up to its name. It has almost seamlessly integrated seemingly disparate functions -- as day camp, resident camp and conference center -- with year-round programming, while staying true to its mission.

"Our mission is to impact kids for Jesus Christ and to be a place where families, as well as kids, come away from the busyness of society and life," says executive director John Welch.

The mission has not changed since the camp's inception in 1946 as an outgrowth of the Evangelical Free Church of America. The church bought five acres from the Northwestern Railroad in downtown Williams Bay, Wis., right next to the rail yards. The camp began using simple tents.

By 1972 the camp, called Camp Willabay at the time, happened upon one of those "camp miracles," as Ogne calls it, and found the 500-acre property near East Troy that the camp currently occupies.

The property, owned by the Chicago-area Hull House organization, included 50 buildings, all in good working order. The "miracle" was the price, which was just the cost of the land itself.

The name was changed to Timber-lee, and since that time the camp has met many of its goals, expanding while maintaining the spirit of that original tent camping program.

It's a year-round facility, serving about 300 schools each year, where students attend environmental and outdoor classes from two to five days mid-week. There are also summer day camps and four-season retreats ongoing with its more traditional summer residence camp.

It sounds like a logistical nightmare, but Timber-lee's leaders are calm and confident about the center's ability to handle it all, and add new programs and facilities when needed.

This confidence comes from its dedicated staff (45 full-time, 46 part-time). For example, the center runs a working ranch, with full-time staff dedicated to its operation.

"They see it as part of their ministry and job to care for the kids and not just the horses," says programming director Roger Johnson.

In the summertime, the part-time staff balloons to more than 150, mostly college-aged counselors and support staff, with a smattering of older high-school students.

"The best recruiter for college staff is the college students who were here last year," says Welch. "If they had a good experience and were positively impacted, they'll talk about it to their friends at school."

This word-of-mouth recruiting also tends to bring in counselors of like quality. They're more likely to know the camp's expectations and desires, so a recommendation for a new counselor from a great former counselor is as good as gold.

Timber-lee makes the rounds of regional college and Christian college campuses. These road trips typically kick off right after the Christmas season, utilizing schools, churches and former counselor contacts for recruiting venues.

To help combat the staff pinch all camps have felt in the last five years or so as other opportunities and activities vie for potential counselors' time, Timber-lee began offering a bonus for people who signed for all eight one-week sessions, plus the two weeks of training. The offer was a hit, as 47 students signed up for the full term.

Timber-lee has also expanded staff training, going from 10 days to 14, for more intensive sessions on the basics, like first-aid, and the camp's philosophy and how it should integrate into daily dealings with campers.

Ogne says that there are many staffers with anywhere from five to 30 years of service, and there are also a number of staff who have met at camp and later married.

"We average about five marriages a summer out of our summer program. The students meet here and a year or two later we hear they're engaged, then a year or two after that they're married," says Ogne. "Couples are finding their life’s mate in a Christian camp setting; and that's another value of camp."

Stay the Course

With more than 400 campers running around on any given summer day at Timber-lee, it's no wonder attention to detail on the staff side is so important, but so is simply keeping it all straight. It's really a matter of staggering schedules and facilities to accommodate everyone.

For its eight weeks of summer residence camp, Timber-lee is changing its sessions a bit, doing four junior age sessions, two junior high sessions, then a high school session. It's scheduled in such a way that the high-school week falls before school athletics start and allows high-school kids to take on a summer job, then come to camp.

Given the volume, programming additions are a must, but must not be delved into lightly. Timber-lee is insistent that a perceived need fulfill the mission requirements, be financially viable, and as Johnson says, "that it has an actual ministry function; not just activities for the sake of activities."

In recent years the camp has added high and low ropes courses and a 40 foot climbing wall, more waterfront activities and whole slew of other programs. A portable skate park is one recent addition that met the requirements. It fills the need that many of the junior high and high school kids had expressed and, given the right counselors, offers an opportunity to communicate camp values.

"We'll have someone who's skilled at skateboarding, but his appeal to the kids is not just that he knows how to skateboard, but it's someone who can teach spiritual values," says Johnson.

The new addition Timber-lee is most excited about is its science center -- which features a hands-on animal room with snakes, turtles, fish, rabbits and other animals -- a human skeleton room, a room with 24 different science experiment stations, lecture rooms and a seven-room Creation Walk.

Ogne likes to use a breakfast cereal analogy to describe the thinking behind Timber-lee's programming decisions, and its decisions in general, "When you come to camp, you don't want Kix, you want Total."

"The basics from the early days are still in place;

learning to work together, play together, enjoy each other's company, and be in the outdoors and away from everyday distractions." Ogne continues. "Parents are looking for results.

They want to know that their children are making friends, having positive experience, learning good values and morals, and learning more about creation.

"The parents want safety, the kids want fun, and we as a ministry want spiritual learning. At Timber-lee, we combine those three together to make a meaningful experience. Our goal is to send the kids home prepared to face life, make decisions, defend their faith and learn how to prepare for new experiences - and camp can do that."

Bryan BuchkoComment