Ask those who were on staff or came to camp as campers in the 1960s and 70s about their Bethany Birches experience and they will almost certainly reference the rustic and challenging moments that became so deeply engraved in their memories. Back then, the Bethany Birches experience had to be rustic and challenging. Camp was just getting started and there were minimal dollars being invested and limited machines and tools to use to carve the camp out of a grown-over farm. Those missing dollars and machines weren’t important to Nevin Bender. He and his family were called into action by a sense of vocation, faith, and by Lloyd and Alice Moyer. Quite literally, when the Moyers had the idea to open Bethany Birches they asked Nevin to run the camp. He said yes and was the first camp director serving from 1965 to 1980.
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Greetings Camp Friends
(Reading this after Easter Sunday? The links below will still take you to the video. Enjoy anytime!)
He is risen?! He is risen indeed! You may or may not be familiar with this Easter call and response phrase. We say it together on Easter Sunday. Someone says he is risen and someone replies that he is risen indeed. Sometimes, I think about the call “he is risen?!” as though it is a question. As though the asker needs reassurance. Then the responder affirms very boldly, that it’s true! Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead!
I digress. That’s only part of what this email is about… this email is an invite to join us at 7pm Easter Sunday for a ~20 minute reflection and song service. You’ll hear music from Elvis, Sprocket, Meatball, Tom, and Nugget. Reflections from Chick, Gigi, and Gwen Groff, pastor at Bethany Mennonite Church. Join us on Youtube here www.bethanybirches.org/easter-yt and on Facebook here www.bethanybirches.org/easter-fb That will take you to the respective platforms for live a real-time event starting at 7. Hope to see you there.
He is risen indeed!
Brandon “Tuna” Bergey, Executive Director
Nevin J. Bender passed away this summer. His willingness to forge Bethany Birches with minimal resources created a lasting culture and while he has recently joined the great cloud of witnesses (see Hebrews 12:1), his mark was made and is still visible today, here at camp. You can see his personality and work in the Core Values of BBC. We named our core values just last year after conducting research with many different stakeholders (over 150). The core values are found in this word picture. Interestingly, in 2010 Marcia Bender (one of Nevin’s daughters) was asked what she felt was important to her father. In her reply she touched on community building, learning to trust each other, nature, building consensus and trying new ideas. Here we see the values she saw in her father’s behavior match some of the camp’s core values. At a dinner in 2008 Nevin was honored at his place of work and his colleague, Will Hairston said of Bender, “Nevin’s passionate faith, intense work ethic and model of service have been an inspiration to all.”
Weaving these two comments we get a sense that our core values are closely linked to who Nevin was. Here at BBC we use the phrase “With Over Watch.” It was coined by Michael Brandwein and is a comment about leadership, influence, and how to have a relationship. You don’t “watch” a 10-year-old from afar and expect to have much influence, or connection with each other, you go to be “with” them! It is by being together that individuals get to know each other, have shared experiences, and influence one another. Nevin was a “with” kinda guy! You see that in Marcia’s comments about her father and the stories that abound of Nevin connecting with others, leading from among the various camper and staff groups. I have met many people who shared about the influence Nevin had in their life.
Here we are today, still working with fewer resources than many organizations have, still cooking over the fire as they did that first year, and still our Directors spend a lot of time “with” people. We see relationships and community building as central to how we go about our mission just as Nevin did. We trust that God enters in the midst of this special camp experience, just as Nevin did. Today we are thankful that God (and the Moyers!) called upon the Bender family and thankful for their service. Nevin, please continue to be “with” us from the great cloud of witnesses!
When Nevin passed, his wife Lourene requested that gifts be made to Bethany Birches in lieu of flowers and gifts to the family. Please join her and many others in giving to the camp in memory of Nevin. Learn more about Nevin at www.bethanybirches.org/Nevin
~ Brandon “Tuna” Bergey,
Having been a camper at Bethany Birches for six summers (and a Counselor In Training for one), I knew that I wanted to be a counselor eventually, and I finally got that opportunity last summer, as the youngest member of the 2019 summer staff. Camp had always been one of my favorite places in the world. At camp I always felt like I could connect with God. Interestingly, my first staff experience was a lot like what I expected it to be. However, “being on the other side” of camp helped me better appreciate how special Bethany Birches is. Even if I sometimes struggle with my faith while at home, I can always see how God is working at camp.
As a camper, the main feeling that I experienced was joy, regardless of what I was doing. During my time as a counselor, things were more topsy turvy than I remember them as a camper. I enjoy working with kids (one of the main reasons I applied!), and the skill I improved the most over the summer was patience. Whenever I was stressed out, I would take a deep breath and remember: I’m not just doing this for myself. I often remember that when I was a camper, I got a little sad when my counselor went on break. Now, even though I love being with my cabin, I get a little excited whenever I get to take a break, partially because I know that it gives me time to relax, making me better at my job once I go back. The further into the summer I got, I noticed how some of my campers reminded me of my younger self, which gave me great joy. It’s always good to know that whatever you are doing, it can ultimately have an impact on someone — and that’s what I think I enjoyed the most about working at camp. Being a camper was constant fun, every single day, but being a counselor still contained many of the great joys of camp. From the pig trough to hikes to the treehouses, many of my camp experiences remained the same, but being able to lead others made them far more rewarding.
~ Ryan “Michi” Smith, Assistant Counselor
Over the last few years Bethany Birches has been committed to partnering with academic organizations researching the benefits of Christian Summer Camps. Last year the Hope Study (University of Oklahoma) measured whether campers experienced increased hope as a result of their camp experience. The Hope Study 2018 found “The results of this report continue to provide support for the positive impact the participating Christian camps are having on the boys and girls attending those camps, not just in terms of Hope and Well-Being, but also in social connectedness and interest in their Faith.” Fifty-six percent of campers had increased hope scores after coming to camp. This was most closely correlated with making friends and having developed some faith.
This year The Power of Camp study (POC) has given us preliminary data about campers’ engagement with faith, relationships with peers, and connection to staff as a result of their camp experience. Based on early data from this summer all of the parents surveyed said their child made friends at camp and 67% of campers said they were strengthened in their faith. Only 24% of parents reported reading the Bible with their children and 87% of parents felt we were “effectively teaching Christian faith.” All of the parents surveyed said they would send their child back to camp and 90% of campers ranked “the entire camp experience” as their most enjoyed part of camp. The initial data we have received from this summer is very encouraging and points toward significant mission accomplishment. We are excited that 100% of parents surveyed were pleased with our “system of addressing bullying/ conflicts.” We see Jesus’ teachings of “Love your enemies” and “treat others as you wish to be treated” in this statistic.
2019 was the third summer in a row in which our seasonal staff participated in The Power of Camp. POC was conducted by Wheaton College looking at how staff of summer camps are affected by the experience. We have received data specific to our staff’s experiences and are able to compare this with the average of camps participating in the study. Participating in these studies allows us to quantitatively identify our areas of strength as well as opportunities for improvement. For example, between the 2017 and 2018 staff studies we saw a significant increase in how staff felt supported by their supervisors. We improved from being on par with other camps with a 4.1 out of 5 rating to a 5 out of 5 average rating from the staff. Also improving in the same period were the percent of staff who experienced growth in the teamwork and emotional intelligence areas assessed by the study. These and others had been identified as areas for improvement by camp leadership and the following year increased by 22.5% and 21.5% to be on par or higher than the average camp in the study. Between the summers 2017 and 2018 we improved parts of staff training, intentionally sought ways to provide more support for staff, and had better and more frequent meetings to improve communication. These improvements have been continued this last summer and we look forward to the forthcoming 2019 research study results.
It is encouraging to have data to inform our decisions and confirm what we are doing is consistent with our mission. We were able to see that staff was improving in areas of spiritual growth, leadership, and resiliency similar to other camps and pinpoint what we could improve the next year. We feel both affirmed by the research and able to identify potential areas for improvement next year. We will continue pursuing these research opportunities because they have been and will continue to be part of making Bethany Birches Camp better at achieving our mission to help young people develop their relationship with God.
~ Patrick “Rupert” Graber,
Office Coordinator and Facilities Manager
I am constantly surprised and sometimes overwhelmed by the generosity of the community that supports Bethany Birches Camp. A past board member and spouse, who was a long time camper, do lots of preparation for the auction each year and even work hard starting early the day of the event. After that they sit down and bid as high as they can. This is just one snapshot of those who are passionate about this place and work.
Another snapshot from Saturday are Sandy and Vernon, the auctioneers. Some years they bring their wives, other years Sandy has come alone. Well this year, Sandy and Vernon left in Vernon’s Prius at 12:02am Saturday morning. They pulled into the camp around 6am to catch the sunset and a couple Z’s. By 8:30 they were out having coffee. They did their usual excellent and entertaining work, and after lunch got back in the car to head home to Pennsylvania.
I have so many snapshots like this from Saturday. Those images range from young Counselors In Training helping with food service to bidders who bid high and traveled from near and far to some of our youngest campers eating LOTS of popcorn. It is all of you, who give of your time, energy, and money who make it possible to provide camp to all. Our unique tier pricing both provides this possibility and also requires significant fundraising. The auction goes a long way toward those fundraising goals.
As you may know, each year we try to include some sort of program in addition to the rest of the festivities. It’s usually something simple. This year, we were curious which Mennonite breakfast treat would be more popular. So, we set out pieces of Old Fashioned Shoofly Pie and pieces of Funny Cake (all donated by Landis Supermarket). Participants placed a ticket in one of two jars signifying their preference. Get THIS! It was a tie! 28 votes for Shoofly and 28 votes for Funny Cake! One of the auction committee members commented “that is so Mennonite. We wouldn’t want to cause any conflict or bad feelings.”
While the preferred breakfast treat may not be clear, we do know that this year’s auction raised a whole bunch of money for campers who need it. Initial tally shows more than $54,000! Here’s the list of items with winning bid prices. We are humbled by this result and deeply grateful for each person in the room that day as well as those who bid from afar. Mark your calendar for the end of September next year. We hope to see you there!
On behalf of the camp board and auction committee,
Brandon “Tuna” Bergey
Marcia Bender, Nevin’s daughter, who still lives near the camp, sent a message to Bethany Mennonite Church saying that Nevin had passed away. As part of her email she wrote “He visited with mom in the afternoon, ate dinner, then died at the table – very peaceful and quiet. I got to spend three lovely days with him earlier this month. To have been able to talk with him and sing with him and do puzzles with him was such a privilege, and it makes me smile and remember his loving, peaceful and steady presence.”
As the first director here at BBC, Nevin left his mark in many ways. The core of the camp program still looks similar to what he created including community and fun and rustic camp living. We will highlight some of the stories about him from Stories From The First 50 Years: Volume 1 in a coming blog post.
Nevin James Bender, 81, died on July 22, 2019 at Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community. Nevin was born on July 13, 1938, the son of Nevin V. and Esther Lauver Bender.
Nevin grew up on a small dairy farm in Greenwood DE. At a very early age he was eager to learn the skills needed on the farm and spent many long days planting and harvesting baby lima beans. Nevin attended Greenwood Mennonite School and graduated from Greenwood High School in 1956. He was the director of the Greenwood Mennonite Youth Chorus and was an active youth leader and congregational music leader at Greenwood Mennonite Church.
On June 24, 1961 Nevin married Lourene Godshall. They celebrated 58 years together this year.
Nevin graduated from Eastern Mennonite College in 1961 and went on to earn a Master of Divinity at Hartford Seminary. He became pastor at Bethany Mennonite Church in Vermont, and a few years later he established Bethany Birches Camp where he was also the camp director for 15 years. The camp continues to this day.
Nevin’s pastoral career ended in 1979 when he suffered a brain aneurysm. He and his family moved to Harrisonburg, VA in 1983 where he began working in the maintenance department of Eastern Mennonite College. This second career lasted for the next 25 years; he was known as a positive, reliable, and energetic member of the grounds crew. Nevin and Lourene were active participants at Broad Street Mennonite Church, where Nevin was on the music team, playing guitar and leading music.
Following Nevin’s retirement from EMC, he spent 10 years at Friendship Industries, working in contract packaging, and did volunteer work at Gift and Thrift.
From lima beans to pastoring to groundskeeping to volunteer work, Nevin demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt to his evolving capacities, reinventing himself repeatedly to take advantage of his skills and talents.
Nevin was preceded in death by siblings Lura Benner, Titus Bender, and Mildred Bender. He is survived by his wife Lourene Godshall Bender; siblings Miriam Jantzi, Paul Bender, Hilda Swartz, Emma Myers, and Don Bender; children Nevin Bender, Conrad Bender, Marcia Bender and Angela Bender; grandchildren Miguel Garcia-Bender, Nikki Garcia-Bender, Marisol Garcia-Bender, Trinity Bender, Anna Hepler, Adaija Bender, Calef Hepler, and Shanta Bender.
The family will host a time of visitation on Monday, July 29 at 3:00 PM, followed by a memorial service at 4:00 PM at the Detweiler Auditorium at Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community, 1501 Virginia Ave., Harrisonburg, VA 22802.
In lieu of flowers, please send donations to Bethany Birches Camp, 2610 Lynds Hill Road, Plymouth, VT, 05056 or make a donation on their website: www.bethanybirches.org
Hi. I’m Flora, or at camp I’m Gigi.
This summer I’m the Day Camp and Leadership Training Director. Every summer I’ve worked here I’ve seen God clearly in the campers, in nature and the community among the staff. This summer I’ve seen him in each of those places, but I’ve also been challenged by the scripture- “Be still and know that I am God” in Psalm 46. If you’ve never been here when there are campers, still is not the word you would come away saying. Camp is great with campers, and it’s energetic, and loud and a little crazy. Not still. During orientation Cheeks had us do a practice where we found somewhere quiet and repeated “be still and know that I am God”, then reduced the phrase to “be still and know that I am”, and then “be still and know”, slowly removing words until we were just repeating “Be” to ourselves. I really enjoyed this practice, but had trouble thinking about how that scripture could be true for me this summer. This scripture kept coming up for me the next couple weeks, friends would send it to me or it would come up in my devotionals but it didn’t seem possible. When I decided to listen to a sermon from my home church in Burlington, VT, and the sermon scripture was “be still and know that I am God” I felt like God was yelling at me to obey that scripture.
That sermon changed my idea on what being still looks like at camp. My pastor talked about the Hebrew word Rapha, which he described as a calm confidence in God. Being still became more attainable to me as he described peace coming from posture of Holy awareness, instead of what had been in my mind, which was being alone and finding long periods of time for God, which this job doesn’t always allow. Since then I have been able to find Rapha in some of the least still moments of the summer, by expanding on the scripture. During the many times when it feels like my patience is running low when I’m with campers who may require extra attention I remind myself to be still and know that God is God who provides patience and love. I don’t need to be all those things, because God is for me. And on the days when I get woken up by the radio in the night and don’t get the sleep I need to make it through the day I am reminded to be still and know that God is God who has energy and is the life in me. When I’ve had this posture I’ve seen myself being more full of what I should be empty of and more aware of God giving me what I need.
This summer I had the opportunity to lead a three day backpacking trip with seven campers, and two other staff. The morning we were leaving for the trip I woke up at 4am with every worst case scenario running through my head. Thunderstorms. Medical emergencies. Behavioral issues. No logic could solve the stress I was feeling. I had solved these problems when I was planning the trip earlier that summer; we had extra tarps, I have wilderness medical training, and I know how to deal with campers, yet I was still stressed. I was physically still in bed, but my mind was not still. As I laid in bed I knew what I needed wasn’t more backup plans, but rather the peace of Christ. That week as we hiked along the Long Trail I experienced God not just in the stillness of nature, but in the conversations and riddles that kept us hiking. As I led with a calm confidence in God I found myself knowing that He was there, and providing for each need of each person on that trip.
Flora “Gigi” Dewar
The other week I returned to the adventure that is counseling at Bethany Birches Camp. I left the routine of my job as the facilities manager and once again became Counselor Rupert. Our cabin group that spent the week in Robin all arrived together on a bus and were part of the Camp Agape program. I didn’t know who was going to be in my cabin until I walked into the pavilion and saw six middle schoolers and Wade, a long-time Agape volunteer, waiting at a picnic table. We marched down to Robin, bags in tow, and moved into our home for the week.
The children who are part of Camp Agape have experienced the incarceration of a parent. Most children who experience the loss of a parent have extra hardship in their life. Some of my campers that week used harsh language towards others, told crass jokes, and tried to get ahead whenever possible. It seemed that some of them felt that whoever was physically, emotionally, and socially superior could get others to do things for them and was the top dog.
Monday afternoon during rest time all six campers fell asleep. After the 30 minutes were up two of the campers wanted to go on sleeping. Wade and I got them to get up and go onto the next activities, but by the end of dinner, which took place at another cabin, they were asking to go to bed. I was glad we decided to break from the schedule of games, songs, and activities and Wade took them back to the cabin, because those two boys slept over twelve hours straight through to breakfast the next morning. I don’t know what their lives were like the week before camp, but in the solitude of the Robin cabin, down the hill surrounded by trees, they were able to rest.
One camper, who I’ll call “Leon,” was obsessed with the concept of being the “alpha male.” To him this meant being the superior in a way that allowed him to protect others and also meant he could get others to do things for him. He went about this by declaring feats of strength and challenging other campers in the cabin, boasting about his prowess if he were to get in a fight with someone who might try to harm him or his friends (he often would refer to the other boys in the cabin as “my men”), and by talking about the different girls at camp he was talking to. It almost seemed like a more primitive or tribal way of approaching relationships with others. Leon was never the butt of jokes and always could get others to do his dishes or carry things to and from the cabin. I often had an image of a great lion who lazed about while the rest of the group did everything and could only be bothered if some threat needed to be chased off.
At the beginning of the week I wasn’t sure which approach would be best for working with this cabin of boys. I didn’t think I could change who they were with a few words and explanations and I was pretty sure they wouldn’t respond well to loss of privileges and multiple trips to the director’s office. I made sure they were safe, didn’t harm each other, and kept the insults to each other as in check. I tried my best to take care of any needs they had. I listened when they spoke and asked questions when I could. I had this idea that if I could be an example of a way to act they would see that it was a better way to live and pick up a few things.
I was trying to follow the way of Jesus. I was trying to lead by serving, build up the people around me, and produce good fruit. The way I was acting seemed to me to be a sharp contrast to many of the behaviors of my campers. I tried to live into what I wanted to believe and told the campers why as I did it. I wanted to treat others as I want to be treated, I spoke calmly and respectfully, and I told them that in order to lead others you must serve them. I hoped the campers would see that how I lived was more life-giving, and also ask what was the source of my motivation.
By the middle of the week, I felt tired, used up, and I wasn’t sure that what I was doing was making any difference. I was questioning if I should have started the week off differently by enforcing strict rules about language and behavior. I was annoyed at all the little things the kids did to each other and how hard it was to get them to do anything helpful. I was worried that one of the campers would hurt themselves, each other, or a camper from another cabin. Wade was only able to volunteer until Tuesday morning and I immediately felt his absence. I felt I wasn’t living up to expectations.
I found myself doing a lot of praying. I prayed for strength. I prayed for my campers. I prayed for guidance and assurance. I realized that although I pray often I don’t expect my prayers to be answered. I usually ask God for help, strength, or to work in others, and then I continue on expecting to be able to do it on my own. I got to a point where I needed God and, to my surprise, found I was being provided for. I was able to identify an inner strength and peace that I didn’t think was my own. The other camp staff supported me when I needed it and I started to notice some changes in my campers.
I remember sitting at the table and one of the campers telling the other they were stupid and then another said,”Hey, can we not say they that? It’s not a real cuss word, but it sort of is and it isn’t nice.” He then mumbled something I didn’t hear about wanting to try doing something different for once. The other campers just sort of sat and thought for a moment about what he said. Some of the campers also began to help with the meals, serve the food, and carry things up and down the hill. They also stopped listening to Leon and didn’t want to do what he told them or follow him. Leon started doing things himself and even volunteered to help the cabin carry the food and water a few times. I think maybe they were starting to see a different way to relate to each other. Even more amazing was Friday when Leon got in an argument with another camper concerning a girl Leon was now talking to and the other camper was determined to fight him. Leon walked away. I couldn’t believe it. This was the exact situation he had been talking about the whole week and seemed to be a big part of his identity. Afterwards he was quite conflicted and said he wasn’t sure why he walked away. By the end of the week the insults, language, and yelling over each other to get attention were mostly replaced by conversation and laughter. Thursday evening, the cabin even joined in during fireside linking arms and singing with the rest of camp and then sat through listening to the shepherd.
By the end of the week, I was honestly sad that it was over. I had a lot of great conversations with the kids and felt like I got to know each of them a little bit better. Generally they came from tough situations and coped in a variety of ways. Some would follow whoever was in charge and settle into the role of the victim. Others would seek to dominate their peers and be strong enough to keep themselves safe. Still others wouldn’t say much and never let others get too close. The last few nights before bed were spent sharing life experiences and what we believed in. None of them appeared to have any strong faith in anything though some expressed they believed there was good and evil in the world as well as ghosts, spirits, and such. I told them that God made them, loved them, and wanted to know them and wanted them to know God. I also said that God wanted us to care for each other as we would want to be cared for.
I asked them during our last meal together how they felt about the week and they said they had a great time at camp and looked forward to returning. They also told me I was very nice and did a great job. This made me feel pretty good. They all got back on the bus and were smiling as they waved goodbye. I’m not sure where they are going back to, but I will look forward to seeing each of them again next year.
After the week I felt drained emotionally and physically but I was content. I realized looking back that the campers were usually respectful to me, even if they weren’t towards each other, and confined their more challenging behaviors to the shelter site. I realized that I didn’t encounter anything I wasn’t prepared for or couldn’t handle. At the beginning of the week I couldn’t have imagined the tired contented happiness I would feel by the end of Friday. I’m looking forward to the next time I have the opportunity to be a counselor for a week. I know it will be another opportunity to invest in the lives of young people and I will grow as a person through the challenges.
Patrick “Rupert” Graber