SHARON – “Hey, relax, you’ve got this.” Alex peered up into the trees at a small body clinging to a pole. She made a small adjustment to the belay line and tried again. “Just put one foot out onto the log. I’ve got you.”
Slowly, uncertainly, the camper unfurled, stepping out onto the Catwalk. With cheers from below, and continued encouragement from her belayer, she made her way across the obstacle. When her feet finally touched the ground, her face erupted into an enormous grin.
“I didn’t think I could do it!” she said.
Alex held out her hand for a high five. “I knew you could.”
This scene played out multiple times a day over the seven weeks of the Silver Lake summer conference program this year. Each summer for the past 60 years, the camp and conference center has welcomed young people for one-week sessions that support their faith journey through outdoor experiences of God’s love.
“We had another incredible summer at Silver Lake in 2018!” said The Rev. Ryan Gackenheimer, Executive Director at Silver Lake. “It is amazing to experience the ministry at Silver Lake, to witness life-transforming experiences with God’s Love. Young people – both counselors and campers – try things they never thought they could do, and succeed! And they do all of this in a loving Christian community where everyone is received just as they are and invited to become all that God has called them to be.”
What that Christian community looks like has changed a lot over the years. In the 1980s, every bed in camp was full, and the staff would often turn to creative solutions to make room for just one more, or just three more, young people each week.
As the years went on, as the recession hit, and as church membership decreased, Silver Lake saw lower summer enrollment. The numbers held steady around 1,000 for several years, but then began to slip. In 2016, enrollment reached a low of 810. It became clear that the tradition of relying on member churches to send campers was no longer enough to keep the ministry vibrant.
Silver Lake also underwent a change in leadership at the same time. Gackenheimer arrived in early 2016, bringing a new enthusiasm and a different perspective. With experience at a number of other UCC camps across the country, Gackenheimer was able to implement new initiatives that introduced Silver Lake to more people across not only Connecticut, but also Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
With the support of the Connecticut Conference staff and the guidance of Kaleidoscope consultants, Gackenheimer oversaw an outreach initiative that resulted in an increase of 110 campers in 2017. Silver Lake kept the momentum going in 2018, adding another 20 campers to the summer program enrollment.
Gackenheimer makes an effort to visit as many churches as he can throughout the year. He has been invited to preach all over the state, and in Massachusetts, spreading the news about Silver Lake’s outdoor ministry. Campers, parents, and retreat participants frequently come up to Gackenheimer at Silver Lake to remind him of his visit to their church.
Silver Lake has also made intentional efforts to reach out to communities that have not traditionally been represented at camp. Through partnerships with urban churches and non-profit organizations that target underserved youth, Silver Lake has welcomed an increasingly diverse group of campers – both racially and economically. This year’s summer staff was the most diverse in recent memory, with 20 percent identifying as youth of color. Summer staff members came from eight U.S. states, England, and Poland.
In the midst of these efforts, Silver Lake also ran a fundraising campaign for a new high ropes course, which opened in Spring 2018. The new course offers more teambuilding elements to better support the community-focused program. With the new, state-of-the-art course, Silver Lake hopes to invite more retreat groups, especially from schools and the local community, to use and enjoy the camp.
“It was really inspiring to see how positive communication directly impacted the overall physical, emotional, and mental safety of the groups at the ropes course,” said Alex Barolli, who was serving on summer staff for the first time this year. “Conferees were able to comfortably expand their comfort zone knowing that, with the support of their team, they could reach new heights.”
Another change in 2018 was to move the Clergy Camp program into the summer weeks. A half-week program designed to introduce clergy to Silver Lake and to give them the opportunity to be campers, Clergy Camp had also suffered from declining numbers over the years, and actually had to be cancelled in 2017.
“We made name tags, did the ropes course, enjoyed the waterfront, as well as enjoyed each other’s company and the programming that was offered,” said The Rev. Jackie Hall, pastor at Winchester Center Congregational Church in Winchester Center, CT, and one of the deans of Clergy Camp. “The clergy got not only a bit of retreat in God’s big backyard, but also a true taste of what camp is really like for the kids that come.”
The pastors left energized and excited about Silver Lake. They brought their newfound – or newly rekindled – passion home with them to their congregations. The Rev. Patricia Hayes, senior pastor at Christ Congregational Church in Brockton, MA, even sent two campers a few weeks later.
“Our two girls from Christ Church Brockton absolutely LOVED their week at Silver Lake,” Patricia reported. “And here’s how it worked: If you didn’t offer Clergy Camp, I wouldn’t have pushed Silver Lake, and they might never have gone – so thank you! Better reserve a bigger lodge next year for Clergy Camp. I’m going to be encouraging colleagues.”
Though the 2018 summer program has ended, things are still busy at Silver Lake as planning gets underway for 2019.
Volunteers need to be recruited, conference curriculum designed, and social media posts pushed. Not to mention the ongoing retreat ministry that happens at Silver Lake in the Fall, Winter, and Spring.
“Silver Lake has changed over the years, but the heart has stayed the same,” said Gackenheimer. “There is nothing like outdoor ministry in the world. There are very few places where you can arrive as a total stranger and be received and loved just as you are. At this camp, you will be surrounded by folks you would never otherwise meet, all sharing an experience outdoors in creation while you learn about justice, worship daily, try new adventures, and return home transformed to be the change in the world God so desperately longs for. Simply stated: Camp changes lives.”