For those of you, like me, who cherish memories from a Christian summer camp, I invite you to imagine what it takes to provide youngsters that exuberant, life-changing experience. Consider, for example, what you’ll find at Camp Canaan in Rock Hill, South Carolina.
On the front lines, look for attentive, patient, fun-loving camp counselors like Palm Beach Atlantic University senior Brenna Brown, who loves romping through a mud-fest with a passel of screaming teens.
Brenna at Camp Canaan
“I just fell in love with Camp Canaan,” said Brenna. “There’s so much passion there, passion in teaching about God and passion for just making all the kids feel loved, feel like they have a purpose and like they matter.”
Brenna was recruited to be a counselor after a Camp Canaan staffer visited our campus, for the camp has deep PBA ties. Founders Nick and Tiffany Wimmer are Palm Beach Atlantic graduates from 2001. As they dreamed of starting a camp, they shared their vision with a woman I’m calling “Dorcas,” after a favorite hero from the New Testament.
If you don’t know biblical Dorcas, read about her in Acts, Chapter 9. The New American Standard Bible describes her as “abounding with deeds of kindness and charity.” When Camp Canaan’s “Dorcas” heard the Wimmers’ dream of starting a camp, she responded, “Well, I have a 100-acre island in the middle of the Catawba River that might be a good fit.”
And so began a journey through a host of challenges, including re-zoning the property, providing access and fire safety across the bridge and creating a 10-year master plan that would receive local government approval. God provided what was needed, and in 2004 Canaan was established as a 501(c)(3) non-profit.
In 2005 PBA grad Matt Harper joined the team. In the early years, Nick, Tiffany and Matt ran the camp on a small scale, while working full-time in other jobs. After construction of two cabins, a picnic pavilion and a multi-purpose building, the camp opened for its first full season of summer camp programs and fall retreats.
Camp Canaan now offers year-round programs, with improvements including a swimming pool complex, zipline canopy tour, high adventure course and championship disc golf course. Matt, who is now executive director, said last year the camp served 180 campers per week for nine weeks.
While the numbers and facilities are impressive, what really makes Camp Canaan special, said counselor Brenna, is the sense of Christian community, which also is what drew her to study at PBA. “It’s the fact that people genuinely care about who you are, what you love and what you want to do, and they really care about helping you get there.”
Brenna loves teaching campers about the Bible. Teens come to her with doubts and questions they didn’t want to bring to their pastors or parents. Last summer, as she provided a non-judgmental ear for such doubts and feelings, “something clicked, and I loved it,” she said. She’s now considering a Master of Divinity after finishing her undergraduate degree at PBA.
Matt also cited that power of community at his alma mater. “For me PBA was the launching point of understanding our relationship with God and living it out in a community.”
God’s grace during COVID-19
As Matt now leads an effort to minister to young people, “helping them know who they are in Christ,” he thinks about God’s faithfulness in his own life and also God’s grace toward Camp Canaan. In 2020, as COVID-19 hit, Matt wasn’t sure the authorities would let summer camp run. Hundreds of fearful parents cancelled reservations for their children, but Canaan’s wait list was so large all those spots were filled. In the end, summer camp ran with nine weeks of day camp and eight weeks of resident camp, without a single case of COVID among all the campers or staff, Matt said.
“Sure, we put in special policies and procedures,” he said, “but I give the credit to the Lord because so many other camps were being shut down.” I thank God for that, and I thank Him for all the faith-filled, prayerful founders, staffers and donors that make Christian camps possible. And I must note the donor I call “Dorcas” has a penchant for anonymous giving, which tells you something extra about her heart.
Finally, I’ve saved the best for last: A great camp needs energetic, enthusiastic campers, ready to make friends, have a blast and grow in their faith. Sixteen-year-old Trey Lane, son of PBA’s Associate Provost Nathan Lane, enjoyed camp so much that last summer he became a counselor in training.
“Camp Canaan was an incredible experience,” said Trey. “I learned what great Christian leadership looks like. The leaders had great relationships with each other and with the kids attending camp. The people there are really caring and made it easy to make friends. This shows that Camp Canaan strives to pick counselors who truly love Jesus and who care about others. I made many friendships when I was there and cannot wait to go back to build even more. Also, it was super fun! Camp Canaan is the place to be during the summer.”
Dr. Debra A. Schwinn, a physician, researcher and innovator, is president of Palm Beach Atlantic University. (www.pba.edu) For more articles by Dr. Schwinn, visit goodnewsfl.org/author/dr-debra-a-schwinn/