Things Grow at Camp

On April 24th I was blessed with the opportunity to be the guest speaker at Camp Allegheny’s annual Booster Dinner fundraiser.  As per the request of some of my camp friends, I’ve posted my speech so that others may hear the incredible testimony the Lord has given me.

Hello everyone!  My name is Rebecca Sheriff, and I first want express my gratitude for everyone in attendance tonight for supporting such an incredible ministry that has shaped who I am today.  Also, I wanted to say thank you to my mom for allowing me to come to camp for the first time way back in 2009, for my lovely sister Veronica for always being there for me, and for Dennis and Lorie, for having me here tonight and for being like second parents to me throughout the years. 

Let me first offer a brief background as to where I come from and where I plan on being in the future, so that the impact of camp on my life can be better understood.  I was a camper at Camp Allegheny for 5 summers and a summer staff member for 5, going on 6.  I’m a Class of 2014 graduate from Shanksville-Stonycreek High School and I’m currently in my second year of studies at Slippery Rock University, majoring in Resort, Recreation, and Hospitality Management, minoring in Leadership, and earning a Certificate of Sustainability.  I’m also a member of the Western Equestrian Team on campus and will be graduating a year early next spring.  Because of the monumental impact camp has made on my life, I am studying these fields so that I may one day become a director of a Christian equestrian summer camp, and that through a position such as that one, the Lord may use me to lead other young people to Him.

As I was thinking about this speech and how to verbalize and share the message of the importance of camping ministries, I was waiting for May to come so I could move out of SRU and into camp for the summer.  On campus everything is finallystarting to turn green, grow and flourish, and that’s when the title of my speech hit me:  Things Grow at Camp.  Throughout my message I’ll be sharing three main areas of influence that camping has:  environmental, social, and spiritual, as well as sharing my personal camping story. 

As I mentioned earlier, my first year as a wrangler camper was in 2009.  While of course I was excited for camp and for the chance to ride horses every day (that excitement is still the same!), I had absolutely no idea that that week would set into motion a course of events that would come to define nearly the next decade of my life. 

Houghton counselors – Summer 2009
One of the best presentations I’ve attended was led by Horst Schulze, former President and CEO of the Ritz Carlton, one of the most well-known upscale hotel businesses across the globe.  While talking about the importance of positive guest relations in camps, he said this, and it’s still on repeat in my brain every time I’m in a hotel management class at school.  He said, “Caring is the greatest product we produce.” —– Not amazing adventure elements.  —  Not the largest and fanciest worship services.  —  Not even the best off-site trips.  — But caring and paying attention to the smallest details of our campers’ lives.  If caring is the best product camps can produce, then my first camp counselors, a group of college students on a nation-wide tour of camps from Houghton College in New York, produced the best week of camp any camper could ask for.  These counselors made such an impact on my life that 6 years later I would apply to, be accepted to, and nearly attend Houghton College.  The stories, songs, and lessons they taught me are still some of my fondest camp memories to date.

Of course in addition to the fun I had and the people I met during that first week of camp, nothing could ever come close to being as important as the presence of the Holy Spirit.  While I had grown up going to summer vacation Bible schools and occasionally going to church, I never really understood and internalized everything about Christ as my Savior, or what it actually meant to give my heart and life to the Lord.  That all changed as I was exposed to the faith lived out through caring, compassion, and friendship.  Experiencing the profound peace while sitting around the altar at Mountain Top and hearing spiritual messages throughout the week culminated in me giving my heart to the Lord during my first Thursday worship service.  Since that night, nothing has ever been the same.

L to R:  Matt, Jess, Ashley, Amber
I would return to Camp Allegheny as a wrangler camper for the next 4 summers, falling more and more in love with the camping lifestyle each time.  In 2010 I first attended Amber Trump’s camp, and it was there that I started forging friendships that, unknowingly to me at the time, will remain my closets friendships throughout high school and now college.  Now I’m going to point out Ashley Harbaugh (who just recently became Ashley Martin) for a moment and embarrass her a bit, and hopefully she forgives me for showing this picture, but she is just one example of how camp friendships persist.  She was the very first counselor I met in 2010, Veronica and I just attended her wedding a couple weeks ago, and now she’s here today supporting me and Camp Allegheny.  While most things in life change, some things don’t, and I’ve learned that camp friends will always love you. 
Horse Staff 2012

In 2011 I would once again go to Amber’s week of wrangler camp, but I also embarked on the next stage of my camping experience – I started volunteering with the pony campers with Julie Gould.  Now being able to be at camp all day, every day, working with my best friends, and of course being able to be around the horses was such a blessing, and I learned so much about both camping and teaching equestrian lessons to campers.  As the Lord’s sense of irony would continue to show, this was the first summer that I worked with a former horse staff member named Callie Kossan, who would eventually help convince me to attend Slippery Rock, because she was also attending school there and was on the Equestrian Team.  It’s absolutely amazing how the Lord can work in people’s lives and have them cross paths with people at exactly the right moment, which can set them on a path for their future. 

2012 was a summer of being both a part-time volunteer and a part-time summer staff member.  Between these two summers I would log over 300 hours of community service, that taught me more lessons than any classroom ever could, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to have been a part of the wrangler program in such a manner.

While every summer spent at camp is magical, there’s nothing quite like the very first time summer spent on program staff.  In 2013 I made the decision, after being offered the job by Dennis, to move into camp for the summer and be a wrangler on horse staff instead of a part-time commuter worker.  This summer will always be one of the most special times in my life because of the incredible bonds I made with our camp family.  In yet another instance of the Lord’s irony, I would find myself working with a spectacular wrangler named Stephanie Walters, who I had actually been a camper with in 2010.  Now she’s my best friend and Sister in Christ, and I wouldn’t trade her friendship for anything.  It’s amazing what spending 90% of your time with a small group of people can do, and I can probably speak for the rest of the staff, as well as myself, when I say that we all have been changed for the better because of the time we spent together.

At the end of that summer I had an extremely difficult time adjusting back to high school, even though it was my senior year.  Instead of learning calculus and physics, I wanted to still be at camp, because I realized that what we do here, with the power and guidance of our Heavenly Father, impacts eternity!  Without all of your support, campers’ lives would go unchanged and hearts unmoved.  It was then that I realized I could combine my passion for horses, Christian community and team building, and adventure by deciding to pursue outdoor-related equine ministries in college. 

The next two summers, 2014 and 2015, I continued to grow in every aspect of my life.  I became more confident as an equestrian, leader, teacher, and Christian.  My walk with the Lord grew stronger, and I started to identify with the servant leadership method of leading and motivating others. 

This past December I had the blessing and the opportunity to travel with Dennis and Lorie to the Christian Camp and Conference Association, commonly referred to as CCCA, National Panorama Conference in Arizona.  Now earlier I said that there’s nothing that can compare to a staff member’s first summer, CCCA conferences are very similar.  The level of passion, knowledge, and enthusiasm that I saw there, displayed by camping professionals from across the country, was unparalleled and definitely inspiring. 

Phoenix 2015 – Panorama Conference
Attending the Panorama conference allowed me to step out of the often monotonous college lecture classroom and catch a glimpse of the broader vibrant camping community.  While God is still putting me on a path for my life post-college, I can see how Panorama has furthered my advancement on that path, and given me the encouragement I needed to keep pursuing this career and lifestyle that means so much to me.  While there, I heard a quote that quickly summarizes the mission of both Camp Allegheny and camps across the nation.  Anthony Scott, a camp director from Texas, said that our “collective mission is simple – change the world.”  Through sharing the love of Jesus with others, and allowing them to disconnect from the technology-infused worlds they live in and reconnect with Creation, we can change hearts and minds for Christ, one camper at a time, all of which is only possible through the financial and spiritual support of people like yourselves who understand the importance of camping ministries. 

And now we’ve reached the present in regards to my camping experiences to-date.  This summer I’ll be returning to Allegheny for my last summer on horse staff, (well, last summer at least for awhile – God-willing I’ll return someday.)  I will also be combining being on staff with my practicum experience for Slippery Rock, so I will be seeking to expand my knowledge base on how other areas of camp works outside of the wrangler program.  There’s a quote from van Gogh that’s quite fitting here, and plus, what speech would be complete without an inspirational quote?  He once said, 

“Your profession is not what brings home your weekly paycheck, your profession is what you’re put on Earth to do, with such passion and intensity that it becomes spiritual in calling.”  

Luckily for me, and because of the support of generous people such as yourselves, I have found both my calling and my profession through camp. 

Now that I’ve explained what camping means to me and how it’s influenced my life, I wanted to talk about the fantastic benefits that come from being involved with camping.  As I mentioned before, these benefits can be broken down into three main categories:  environmental, social, and spiritual. Reconnecting with nature and being able to hear the small, still whisper of the Lord above the noise of everyday life is one of the biggest advantages to spending time at camp.  A recent study conducted by graduate students at Camp HoneyRock, a branch field learning site through Wheaton College in Illinois, found that the average young person spends approximately 560 minutes per week playing video games, and approximately 1, 890 minutes watching television.  By now everyone is mostly aware that too much technology use at a young age can lead to both physical and mental negative health benefits.  But one week of residential summer camp offers a camper 10,080 minutes away from the normal routines and pressures of life to decompress and discover new talents and abilities that go beyond screens and virtual reality. 

Countless social benefits of camping include learning various skills that cannot be taught in a traditional classroom, and of course the exposure to positive role models.  Rather than learning how to fill in bubbles on a standardized test, campers learn life skills such as perseverance, leadership, independence, interpersonal communication, and how to care for and appreciate the natural environment.  An initiative known as the Partnership for 21st Century Skills has explained that “a profound gap exists between the knowledge and skills most students learn in school and the knowledge and skills they need for success in their communities and workplaces.”  Sending a child to camp can start to bridge that gap to help increase their chances of success in the future.

In addition the development of essential life skills, campers are exposed to role models that have committed to being involved with their life, even if only for one week.  Just as I met my Houghton College counselors, who later influenced my college search journey, and my friendship with Callie Kossan that led me to Slippery Rock, campers can be introduced to people who can have profound impacts on their lives, even years down the road.  Camps across the country employ friendly, responsible, hard-working counselors and staff that allow children to interact with and emulate positive role models. 

Mountain Top
Finally, and yet most importantly, are the spiritual benefits that come from spending time alone with the Lord in a camp setting.  An article that I just read the other day that comes from The Power of Camp project through Wheaton College put it this way:  “Camp becomes a physical location for spiritual mile-markers.”  Just as I came to accept Christ here 7 years ago, supporting camp Allegheny can help other campers hear God’s Word and experience His love.  Camp is also a setting where counselors can help children understand that their individual gifts come from God, and that He can use each and every one of them in magnificent ways.

In closing, one of the best descriptions of the amazing impacts camp can have on one’s life is that you will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart will always be elsewhere.  This is the price you pay for the richness of knowing and loving people in more than one place.  Camp Allegheny has impacted my life in countless ways, and I’m so thankful to be able to be a part of a ministry that does so many wonderful things for all who visit.  Thank you for supporting such an incredible camp that offered me a second family, the best summers I could ever ask for, a path for my future, and most importantly, the chance to meet and fall in love with our Savior.  I will leave you all with one final quote that I heard at CCCA from Peter Reid, a teacher at the Bodensehof Bible School in Germany.  He said, “You look after the depth of your ministry, and God will look after the length and the width.”  Thank you for having me, and thank you for supporting Camp Allegheny.  

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