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Reflecting on the First Five Years of Salkehatchie in Huntersville

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by Jerry Kita, Camp Director Huntersville Salkehatchie Camp

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Sometime in late 2001 we made the decision to host a Salkehatchie camp at Huntersville United Methodist Church. The idea had originally been broached with us during the previous summer when we attended a Salkehatchie Camp in Camden SC. It was the second Salkehatchie camp that Mona and I had attended and the Camden Camp Director, Richard Hagins asked us both if we had ever considered hosting a camp in North Carolina.

The process to get approval to run a Salkehatchie camp is quite straightforward. If a prospective camp director would like to run a camp he must have had one year of experience as an assistant director at a Salkehatchie camp, must have a sponsoring UMC church and have a place for the campers to be housed. However, at the time of our decision to host a camp in Huntersville we were proposing to become the first camp outside of South Carolina. As such, there was no rubber stamp for our approval. Richard Hagins was instrumental in getting the Salkehatchie Steering Commmittee to support our application. We also felt it was important to get the Western North Carolina Conference on board. The WNCC has its own Youth Mission project called Carolina Cross Connection. Since we were opening a competing youth mission in North Carolina we felt it would be useful to ensure that the WNCC was on board. We met with Katie Fralic, who at the time was the Youth Director for the WNCC. She gave us her fullest support.

We have now completed our fifth camp. Over the past five years we have worked on 23 homes in Huntersville, Charlotte and Cornelius. Our volunteers have contributed 13,000 hours of labor and we have spent close to $70,000 on those homes. Over 5000 meals have been prepared for our campers.

It's been an interesting journey over these past five years. When we decided that we would host a camp I hoped that we could create a camp where both youth and adults would want to come back. We have been successful. Of the five churches that supported our camp this year two (Lafayette St UMC in Shelby, NC & St Andrews Parish UMC in Charleston, SC) have attended the last four camps and two others (McMannen UMC in Durham, NC & First UMC in China Grove, NC) have attended all five camps. This past year First UMC of Newton, NC attended for the first time and we expect them to be back next year. In addition a high percentage (I estimate 65% - 70%) of the youth have returned for at least anothe year. In fact, at our 2007 camp we had 7 adults who had previously been youth at our camp.

I'd like to think that there are a number of things that we do right. We are attentive to details. For example, a lot of effort goes into the planning of meals. During the past camp we new that we were working further from the church than we normally do. For that reason we chose a Friday lunch location that was as close as possible to work sites. That was Davidson UMC. To make that happen we needed the HUMC Genesis Sunday School class to provide the lunch even though it wouldn't be at HUMC.

We also provide site teams with a complete listing of maps and phone numbers. It's not a big deal until you need some information quickly.

Rev Billy Rintz, senior pastor at Huntersville UMC, has also been a big part of our camp. My experience at the Wateree (Camden) camp had shown me the importance of having a good Spiritual Director. In Camden, that was Michael Turner who at the time was the Associate Pastor at Lyttleton Street UMC. He had the ability to relate the building experience to the camper's role as Christian servants. He made the week more than just a work camp. When we first decided to run a camp out of HUMC we were transitioning to a new pastor. That was Billy. In 2002, he attended the Salkehatchie Camp with our youth in Camden, SC. Mona and I also attended the camp. During the course of that camp I asked Billy if he would consider being our Spiritual Director for our camp. He immediately said yes. Over the course of the past five years he has helped create an atmosphere that has been positive and uplifting. Some of my most memorable moments in camp have come, not at the worksite, but in our sanctuary with Billy preaching.

Our congregation has embraced this mission from the very beginning. The week of Salkehatchie can be very disruptive to the life of a congregation but the people of HUMC have done everything they can to support us and create a welcoming environment for the campers. Since the beginning I have worked with the same core team of people who plan meals and ensure that the church is ready for the week of Salkehatchie.

Our 2008 camp will be the first within our new property. We are very excited about that. For the first time we'll be able to house the whole camp in one structure. In addition, we'll have showers onsite. Although we will need to use some showers off-site half the camp will be able to shower at the church. We'll also have newer and larger rooms in which to house the campers. We also have many more bathrooms that are actually in good working order!

One of the interesting (at least to me) things about the camp has been the impact of the website. I started the website a couple of months after the conclusion of our first camp in 2003. At that time Mona had created a website to promote a mission trip she was organizing to Kazakhstan. Of course, I needed to have a website too. I had never created one so I purhased some books from Barnes & Nobles and figured it out. The website has become a vehicle for connecting friends and family members to what is happening at the camp. Last year someone getting on the website would see daily pictures and videos, listen to podcasts and read about what was going on at each of the homes sites. They could also send messages to the campers which would be printed and delivered right at the camp. If anyone wants to learn a little more about the how the website operates they can check out the Geek Report.

For Mona and I this mission has been a blessing. It's become an important part of our lives. Like anyone else there are things that really stand out when I think of the experience we've had over the past five camps. Some of the home transformations have been memorable. But most interesting to me has been the impact this camp seems to have made on the adults and youth who have attended. I feel good about the lasting friendships that have been made between individuals who may not have otherwise met each other. There are connections between Charleston, Durham, Huntersville, Shelby, China Grove, Conover and Newton, NC that would not have happened had it not been for this camp. I have on occasionally met the parents of the youth or have received a letter or email. They are quick to tell me the how important Salkehatchie Summer Service is to their son or daughter. (Of course they often ask me how we get their kids to work so hard since they can't seem to clean their own rooms when they are at home!) We were reminded earlier this year of how much this camp has created a feeling of family among the campers. On April 27th, Nicole Sager, who had attended two of our camps and had been registered to attend in 2008, was killed in a traffic accident. Thirteen Huntersville campers from Shelby, Huntersville and China Grove made the trip to Durham, NC to attend the service. We gathered with an additional fifteen Huntersville alumni from Durham to remember Nicole. For Mona, Billy Rintz and I it was a powerful experience.

It's been a great five years. When we brought Salkehatchie to Huntersville I thought I would commit to it for ten years. That's not to say that I would quit after ten years but I would stick it out for ten years and decide what to do afterwards. At the halfway point we have managed to maintain our enthusiasm for the mission. It's a lot of work and every January or February I wonder if we can summon the energy to do it again. But as the weather gets warmer and we see the registrations coming in our enthusiasm starts to build. When we monitor the chatter on Facebook and sense the enthusiasm of the youth who are attending we just know the upcoming camp is going to be the best one yet! God has been good to us. Thanks be to God.