It is hard to put into words all that my time on the Mountain has meant to me. I came as a camper for six years, and I was lucky enough to get to work on MountainT.O.P.’s Day Camp Summer Staff for two years- first as a Ministry Coordinator, then as a Manager for the program. I have formed lifelong friendships, gained professional skills, but most importantly, I have witnessed God moving in extraordinary ways. I read a book a few years ago in which the author writes about “thin places.” According to Celtic Christian tradition, the distance between heaven and earth in these places is almost indistinguishable. To me, MountainT.O.P. is a thin place. I see and feel God’s closeness in camp and in the communities in which we are fortunate enough to work. I see God in the adults that use a week of their vacation time to drive teenagers through a region of rural Tennessee that is largely unfamiliar to them. I see God in the youth that courageously step out of their comfort zones by helping lead worship in front of the entire camp community. But mostly, I see God in the faces of our Day Camp children.
It doesn’t take long for one to notice that our Day Campers are something special. They welcome other Day Campers, volunteers, and the staff with open arms. All that they do, they do with love. From surprising me with the flowers (or weeds) that they picked for me, to the hugs that they would freely give to volunteers and each other, the children showed us God’s love just as much as were striving to show it to them. Resilience is the heartbeat of our Day Camp program, and we design our curriculum to promote this quality in our campers. Each day at Day Camp, we focus on a specific characteristic, like perseverance or fairness, and play games, make crafts, read books, and have small group discussions. All of these activities are designed to specifically relate to the daily theme. Another special activity that we do each day is called Prayer Journal time. This is a time for them to talk to God about whatever is on their hearts and to connect with our daily theme. In the pages of their journals, they expressed their love for God and others. They often wrote about the gifts and blessings that God has given them. I was particularly touched by a prayer journal page that simply said the words, “God, I love you so much.” This honest prayer was a refreshing reminder to me that God delights in us just as we are and that simple prayers are just as meaningful as elaborate ones.
Another integral part of our program is taking field trips. Field trips are designed to be both fun and educational. We aim to show our children the opportunities and resources that abound within their communities. There is nothing like seeing children’s eyes light up when they get to experience a private concert by a professional string quartet at a classical music festival, or when they get to sit in an airplane at a local airport, or when they proudly show you the blueberries they picked at a local farm, or when they tell you they want to go to college one day after a field trip at the University of the South. One day, we visited a local state park and took a guided hike with a park ranger. As we neared the end of the hike, a six-year-old looked up and said, “I never knew I could have so much fun in one day.” Children often talked about how they would wake up in the early hours of the morning because they were so excited about coming to camp that day. The joy that Day Camp brings is contagious and is not limited only to the children- it extends to the volunteers and staff as well.
As a camper in the Youth Summer Ministry program several years ago, my Ministry Coordinator asked our group to share where we had witnessed God in our Day Campers. I remember raising my hand and being surprised by the emotion that suddenly sprang forth. Choked up, I simply said, “I saw God in their faces.” While I have seen God working in many different ways since that summer, my answer to that question would be the same today. I saw God in their faces. In the smiles and the laughter, in the way that they proudly received their backpack and program completion certificate on Celebration Friday, in the way that they walked a little taller knowing that they were deeply loved by others, but mostly by God. If children are the future of a community, then the future of Grundy County is bright. What a sweet blessing it was to get to be part of the Day Camp program- a thin place that has left a permanent mark on my heart. I will remember God’s light shining through these children for the rest of my life.
-Kara Painter, Day Camp Manager 2019