Putting the Name of Jesus in Front of Children
“It’s all about the Grinch Effect,” according to Andy Moore, director of Camp Vinson Valley in Macon, Georgia. “Like in the story of How the Grinch Stole Christmas where the Grinch understands, finally, he gets the point of Christmas, and his heart changes.”
“You can see the Grinch Effect when kids light up, when they get it,” Moore explains. “They understand a Bible story, swim in the pond for the first time, overcome fear to kayak across the water, or ask parents who arrive at four o’clock to return at six o’clock to pick them up.”
Located in the heart of Georgia, Camp Vinson Valley is a day camp committed to putting the name of Jesus in front of first through seventh graders, a passion Byron United Methodist Church has fanned for 19 years. But the church didn’t always have a strong children’s outreach. Nearly two decades ago, Byron UMC was an older congregation with few children and looking to reinvent itself in a small town.
The church scoured the community, asked questions, and observed other ministries in the area. Moore himself remembers praying for eight months about what they could do to offer something real and sensitive to the needs of the community. Then Moore and his wife Laura were invited to an event on the present camp site, a function he ruefully recalls he didn’t want to attend.
“When I got out of the car, all I could say was ‘Oh, this is cool. This is it!’”
“I know this sounds crazy, but all I could see were kids playing everywhere,” he recalls. “To the right was an open field just big enough to play kickball, softball, and everything else. This is where it was supposed to be.”
The Christian woman who owned the property was willing to give Moore a season to try his idea. So the property, which had been a swimming hole in the 1950s and 1960s, became a day camp for elementary school-aged children, filling a need for Christ-centered, wholesome daycare that was not being supplied by any other ministry in four surrounding counties.
When Growing Up Is Tough
No stranger to a tough childhood, Moore grew up in a Georgia project. Some rough, wonderful guys from a small community church came home after work and spent time with the boys in the area— building, camping. Their program was a micro version of what Camp Vinson Valley does now, and they planted the seed in Moore’s life.
Moore is adamant about staffing the camp with outstanding high school and college students who share their stories with the kids. They are crucial to the camp’s success. Many of the campers come from single-parent homes, and the camp also draws kids from nearby Robins Air Force Base.
Although no one gets a free ride, scholarships are available, and the cost is moderate. Campers come for one or all nine weeks. They see about 150 campers daily.
Devotions, stories, and prayer time evoke prayer requests about anything from sick dogs to cancer to fathers deployed overseas. “We do ‘old school’ home missions—no computer lab, no arcade, no air conditioning. Everything is created from their heads and exploration out in the woods and pond.”
Reaching and Respite
Although the camp staff sees 35-45 children accept Christ each summer, that’s not the extent of Camp Vinson Valley’s outreach. Moore remembers a seven-year old boy who came the first year. His mom and dad were looking for summer childcare for him and his sister. No one in the family attended church. The boy and his sister would go home and talk about Bible stories, camp songs, and activities. This went on for years. Because the camp was making a difference in the lives of kids, they wanted to come to church, and their parents started to bring them. Eventually the whole family attended and accepted Christ. Later, the father left an engineering career to go back to college to study for the ministry. That seven-year-old boy is now 26 and the youth director at Byron UMC. His younger sister is a children’s counselor at a group home.
For other kids, the camp offers respite. Recently, Moore was eating at a restaurant when a waitress approached his table and looked at Moore like she knew him. When they established the camp connection, she took a deep breath and said, “It’s not my kids who came. It was me. I started going there when I was seven years old.” Her parents were going through a divorce, but those were the best years of her life, she said, because she could escape that real world and be a kid at camp.
While Moore celebrates every transformation, he believes that the impact of the camp may be even greater on the staff. Several have gone to the mission field; others have changed majors to children’s education or camping.
“Kids don’t care what you think until they think you care,” says Andy Moore. And, if Camp Vinson Valley does anything, it cares.
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