It was the first full day at Camp Stevens at Julian, California, for 31 sixth graders, and every step along the hiking trail brought fresh discoveries.
Camille Furby, 12, a first-time camper, was part of a group receiving a mid-May mini-lesson on discerning dog prints from cat tracks. "I like it. I'm learning a lot," said Furby, whose class curriculum included spending a week at the camp about 60 miles north of San Diego.
From merely taking time out to stop, be still and listen to meadow grasses shifting in the wind to contemplating varieties of energy, recognizing poison oak or settling in amid charred oak and pine trees for an impromptu fire safety lesson, "we want them to have this experience," said Erin Brennan, a teacher at Furby's school, All Hallows Academy.
The 260-acre camp, a shared ministry of the dioceses of San Diego and Los Angeles, is a yearlong living witness, environmentally and ecologically and â especially in the summers â is one of the Episcopal Church's best evangelistic tools, said director Peter Bergstrom.
"What draws campers back is they've had a powerful experience of Christian community that stays with you," he said. "They hunger for that community and develop the values that make them want to continue to be involved in the church."
The United States has more than 12,000 day and resident camps, according to the American Camping Association. About 60 are Episcopal camps with varying programs and budgets, serving about 500,000 campers year 'round. Camping fees vary, depending on locale, but average between $300 and $600 weekly in the peak summer season, when about 300,000 are served, said Bergstrom, also executive director of Episcopal Camps and Conference Centers, a national association of 114 conference centers and summer camps in 84 Episcopal dioceses in 47 states.
The difficult economy is affecting enrollments, which are "slow so far this year," from Vermont to California, he said. That includes Camp Stevens, which is rebuilding from devastating November 2007 wildfires that destroyed 15 camp buildings, said Bergstrom. He and other camping advocates say the Episcopal Church needs to devote more time and attention to this activity.
General Convention, meeting in Anaheim, California, from July 8-17, will be asked to allocate $60,000 and assistance to help develop curricula, resources and training events in English and Spanish, said Bergstrom.
"Since 1976, there have been no personnel or financial resources from General Convention dedicated to camping ministry," the proposed resolution to convention says. "Now many dioceses are in desperate need of assistance with resources, training and leadership development for camping ministry."
Horseback riding, archery, arts and crafts remain summer staples at the Sheldon Calvary Camp in the reorganized Diocese of Pittsburgh, said David Dix, a third-generation camper whose daughters Maddy, 16, and Abby, 14, "are already packing. They can't wait to go, even though it doesn't start till next month."
Especially appealing is the camp's intentional lack of technology, he said. "It helps my kids appreciate what they can do when they get away from Play Stations, Game Boys, TVs, phones and iPods and all the stuff that is so demanding and all the pressures of being a kid," said Dix, 46, in a telephone interview from the East End Cooperative Ministry, where he is development director.
For Dix and, he hopes, also for his daughters, camp becomes a place "to be yourself.
"The friends I've had for 30 years are those I met at the camp. I haven't made any friendships comparable anywhere else in my life."
On the shores of Lake Champlain, enrollments are slow as the Diocese of Vermont's Rock Point Camp there faces "a transitional moment," said Interim Director Jenny Ogelby, 56. A former camper, she still passionately yearns for the experience of "holy ground," she said. "No matter what happens, I feel safe here. Here, I've discovered a lot about Christian community, and I am very, very passionate about that."
Facing an operating deficit and major capital repairs, she hopes to draw at least 85 summer campers as Rock Point experiments with its marketing and programming in the increasingly competitive world of athletic, computer, music and other special-interest camps, she said. "This year, we've added a day camp. It's a little less expensive; it competes with some of the local recreation camps."
Sheldon Calvary Camp also added two "mini" programs for just a few days for 7- to 12-year-olds, and also for their parents, in response to another recent trend â parents reluctant to send their children to camp for an entire week.
Calvary, which typically draws about 1,000 summer campers and a total of 2,000 yearly from 25 states, is experiencing increased enrollment, said Executive Director Tim Green, 40, who discovered Christian camping as a boy in 1980 when his father took a job as caretaker at the camp.
Amazed by the community "and being in an environment where people could appreciate you for who you were, I realized this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, to preserve an environment where young people can be raised and valued and supported in ways you don't just find anywhere else," he said.
Camps are "a point of access" for the church for young families, he said. "It isn't just about going out and having a fun time. It's a place where, when run well, the most integral piece of church we have going happens, where young people can interact with faith, spirituality and religion and make sense of it.
"Camps have a role in growing the church," he said. "It's why they were established in the first place: People who understood being outdoors had [a] valuable place in terms of growing young people."
Successful camps typically are actively and passionately supported by bishops, camp directors and their boards of directors, as well as by diocesan clergy and laity, "who work to promote the program, to keep it fresh and to help raise money," added Bergstrom.
"To the extent we're not promoting Christian summer camps for kids, we're losing a great opportunity to help young people develop those values we all hold in such high esteem," he said.