Going to Camp BASIC is a family affair for volunteers and campers.
Picture, if you will:
- wheelchairs being pushed on grassy paths by hardy counselors so their campers can experience “hiking;”
- a Bible story interrupted when someone spots a rainbow and everyone flies to the window to watch;
- a camper in a wheelchair helped to the top of the waterslide—the highlight of her week.
For the past 40 years, Camp BASIC (Brothers and Sisters in Christ) has been bringing a love for Jesus and a love for nature to campers who have mental challenges. Its mission is to provide an opportunity for Christian worship and fellowship to people with developmental or intellectual disabilities. In the process, it also provides a meaningful experience for volunteers as they help God’s children in need, develop and improve leadership skills, and form everlasting friendships with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.
A family affair
Len Punke, a member at Peace, Hartford, Wis., has been a Camp BASIC volunteer since he first saw a presentation about it at a teacher’s conference in 1980. “I was a counselor for 25 to 30 years, served as camp secretary in the late 1980s, and have helped in the kitchen since 2016,” he says. “Lately I’ve been Grandpa Len to any and all children whose parents are helping with camp.”
Len is not the only one in the family involved with Camp BASIC. In 1990, Len brought his second-grade son Aaron to camp for the first time, and, after volunteering in various roles, Aaron, a member at Living Hope, Commerce City, Colo., is now a board member and a director. Len’s brother Lowell started coming as a camper in 1995 and has been coming back for 25 years!
While many families have served together at Camp BASIC over the years, when they talk about their camp family, they mean more than blood relations. They mean the family of campers and volunteers that make Camp BASIC thrive. Volunteers make the camp successful, serving as craft, kitchen, and music helpers, as well as counselors, nurses, board members, and directors.
Life at Camp BASIC
During two weeks in June, Camp BASIC brings campers to a modern, indoor camp facility at Wyalusing State Park near Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. What does a day at camp look like? A typical morning includes Bible story time, music, arts and crafts, and exercise at the campground. After lunch and a rest time, the campers and staff leave on a bus trip to Prairie du Chien known as the “highway sing-along.” The campers spend time swimming at an indoor pool, bowling, fishing, going for boat rides, or shopping at Walmart. The shopping is a favorite outing of many campers, with each one getting $10 in spending money. Evening activities include movies, karaoke, sailboat races, scavenger hunts, and even wedding and baby showers for volunteers. The busy days always close with singing and a devotion at the campfire.
Friendships are formed—some for just a week, many for years on end, and even a few for a lifetime
As a camper, Lowell lists playing sports, having s’mores at the campfire, swimming, singing, and taking his craft projects home to show them off as some of his favorite pastimes. He enjoys going to camp because the people trust and respect him. “My counselors are always nice and listen to me,” Lowell says, “and they let me know when I can go back for seconds!”
Lowell is one of many campers who return year after year. Some have been coming for nearly all 40 years! Each week about 35 campers—from teenagers to those in their mid-70s—attend the camp. Campers are paired, usually one-on-one, with a counselor for the week. Most counselors start as high school students, and many continue to volunteer for years after their first time. They not only lead campers through days filled with activities but also lead them to a deeper understanding of what Christ has done for them.
But often it’s the campers’ unconditional love and hugs that encourage the counselors. “They give us more than they get,” Len reflects.
Aaron recalls an example from when he was a counselor in high school: “I had a camper who was nonverbal, and during the week he made a wooden cross necklace,” Aaron shares. “When we went to Walmart, he held it out and pointed to it, showing every person we passed. So I had to tell everyone we encountered that Jesus loves them and died on the cross for their sins.” As a director of camp now, Aaron enjoys watching as the young counselors grow during the week and from year to year. “As I tell the counselors every year,” he says, “camp can run without me, but it cannot run without them.”
Their reward is not financial, but the experience of serving their Savior and fellow brothers and sisters in Christ is priceless. “Every year there are hugs and smiles galore from campers, counselors, and parents. Friendships are formed—some for just a week, many for years on end, and even a few for a lifetime,” reflects Len.
What a great reminder that, because of the redeeming work of Jesus, all of God’s children will live forever in heaven, flawless in body and mind.
While many campers belong to WELS or other Christian denominations and attend Bible study programs back home, a few campers only hear about Jesus the week of camp. Over the years Camp BASIC has had many campers go through simplified catechism classes and get confirmed after attending camp.
Heaven’s very special people
The last evening program of each week is a talent show. Aaron explains, “We encourage the campers to do something they enjoy, and many plan ahead and bring costumes.” Some choose to sing, and one camper plays his trumpet every year. “We had one camper in a wheelchair show off his talent of being pushed into a tower of boxes, and another balances a spoon on her nose,” Aaron recalls. “Another brings a special dress every year and dances with a counselor.”
Len recalls a special act when a camper who spoke with a stutter read the poem “Heaven’s Very Special Child” flawlessly. What a great reminder that, because of the redeeming work of Jesus, all of God’s children will live forever in heaven, flawless in body and mind.
“At camp, every camper is encouraged to learn and participate at their own level and is given personal attention to reach the height of their ability,” Len reflects, “but when we see them in heaven they won’t be mentally challenged!”
Learn more at campbasic.com, including what the program entails, how to register a camper, and how to volunteer.
GROWING UP AT CAMP BASIC
Ella Schlei’s parents, Andrea and Dave, met at Camp BASIC in 2001 when they were both invited by friends to be counselors. “The last day of camp is clean-up day, and my dad cleaned the bathroom that my mom was assigned to clean,” 16-year-old Ella explains: “She later sent him a thank-you note, and they continued to keep in touch with each other. They got married the next summer and even held a fake wedding ceremony at camp the next year!”
Now Andrea and Dave, members at Zion, Sanborn, Minn., serve as camp directors for one of the weeks of camp, and Ella volunteers.
“I have been to Camp BASIC so many times, it feels like home,” Ella reﬂects. “We have a lot of pictures to prove that even at a young age, it was my favorite place to be. Every year as I grow up, I gain more responsibilities. I started out helping with crafts, music, skits, and the dishes. But now that I am conﬁrmed, I ﬁnally get to be a counselor and have the full experience.” This summer will be Ella’s third year counseling, and she is also involved with planning for and helping with camp all year round.
“Ella has been coming to camp with us since she was a baby,” Andrea shares. “I feel that Camp BASIC has inﬂuenced her in ways that she doesn’t even realize. She does not see the disabilities in our campers. She sees the person and all they have in common—they are friends. She does not really realize that this is special!”
Camp BASIC is one of dozens of WELS camps that offer children and adults of all ages an opportunity to explore God’s creation, grow in their faith, and participate in Christian fellowship.
Author: Laura Schaefer
Volume 107, Number 04
Issue: April 2020