Did you notice the influx of children and bandana-wearing young people in Hillsboro?
Last week 340 counselors and campers converged on the Tabor College campus for the Mennonite Brethren junior camp.
“Junior camp has been something from our Southern District Conference for awhile,” said camp co-director Russ Claassen. “When I was a kid, I went to a camp; at that point it was out at Quaker Haven.
“I had a good time out there, kind of an assurance of salvation experience. So from there, junior camp’s always had a solid place in my heart.”
Claassen has directed junior camp the past six years, after the Southern District youth committee lost both former camp directors due to life circumstances.
“I committed to just the one year while we were finding someone else, and I just loved doing it,” Claassen said. “So here I am six years later and it’s been really good.”
After going to camp as a child, Claassen said, he participated as a counselor for six to seven years.
He took a break for seminary studies, but then returned for his present role: splitting his time between youth pastor for Koerner Heights Church in Newton and youth minister for the Southern District.
Claassen said junior camp relocated to Tabor when he was in college, making it a 20-plus year tradition.
“Tabor’s been great to work with,” he said. “You’ve got campers who are fourth, fifth and sixth graders, and for most of them this is their first camp experience. For some of them, this is their first time away from home overnight and for an extended period of time.
“To have it in a place like Hillsboro, in a safe place and on a college campus that isn’t necessarily so rustic, I think it’s just more comfortable and comforting for both parents and campers.”
Claassen said Tabor’s facilities were a huge bonus, with ball fields, gyms, dorms, a cafeteria and other buildings already in place.
The campus provides plenty of space for the camp’s many activities, including sports classes (basketball, football, soccer, tennis, dodgeball, Frisbee golf, whiffle ball), drawing, crafts classes, newspaper, digital photography, movies, bowling, swimming and table games.
Each camper is allowed to sign up for three activities.
“One of the really cool ones is miniature golf,” Claassen said.
He said the husband of activities director Ellen Funk, Donavan, approached the staff two years ago about building a miniature golf course.
“So they spent some days of that camp building sections, and they put them together,” Claassen said. “On the last day, they have a couple holes they can play.”
In addition to the physical activities, campers are challenged to memorize verses and concepts from the Bible and participate in chapel times.
Ben Marquez, a youth pastor from Wichita, was the speaker while Ebenfeld’s youth and worship leader, Brandon Voth, supplied the music and sound equipment.
Claassen said both men did an excellent job. But the primary spiritual influencers are the camp counselors.
“I tell that story (of his camp salvation experience) every year with our counselors as we’re getting ready, because it’s an assurance for them of what they’re doing,” he said.
Each group of 10 to 12 campers is supervised by at least two counselors. Most counselors are in high school and college, though they do have some who are out of college.
“I love having the 17-to-22-year-old counselors because you just see a lot of growth,” Claassen said. “Not only are they given responsibility, we lean on our counselors a lot for their interaction with the campers and driving home the biblical points and leading and teaching and caring.”
He added, “One of the benefits for them is their own faith is solidified as they are teaching and leading and guiding and mentoring and caring for these campers.
“That’s really a neat experience to see them really empty their lives into the lives of their campers and see how they rely on God and his filling them while they’re pouring out.”
Claassen said junior camp is a great time having fun and worshipping God.
“We have kids that come to know Christ every year,” he said, “and it’s just an amazing time to see the Lord working in the lives of counselors, staff and the campers.”