The program at this year’s Banquet featured a look back at some key moments in decades past, as told by people who were actively involved in Highland’s ministry. The stories told of fun times, exciting happenings, challenges along the way, and – most importantly – how God’s vision and provision were clear through it all.
The first pivotal moment was the initial decision to focus on youth. Highland Retreat began in 1958 as an outdoor space for church gatherings and activities, but within just a few years that purpose was expanded to include summer youth camps. Harvey Yoder was involved in directing these camps in the mid-60’s, and his wife Alma Jean worked as a camp cook. Harvey recalls that she brought her own new cooking set (a wedding present) to use in the camp kitchen during their first summer at Highland. Cooking was an extra challenge in that first camp kitchen, which was a repurposed chicken coop with no running water. Even with sparse resources and tight quarters, Harvey has fond memories of the great food they ate, so clearly the cooks did good work. They even had time to pull a prank or two!
Harvey’s other stories centered around the beauty of being together in God’s creation and enjoying “down-to-earth experiences” with God’s people. He shared memories of children splashing in the creek and singing around campfires, and the early morning birdwatching walks that were popular. There were also weekly traditions like boisterous fire-building contests, candlelight services by the pond, tasty tinfoil dinners, and chicken barbeques. Summer camp was enjoyed by children and staff alike, and Harvey heard positive responses from parents, as well. The decision to invest in summer youth camps proved to be a good one; children, staff, and parents still appreciate Highland Summer Camps today.
The next portion of the banquet program looked at the expansion, change, and growth Highland experienced in the 1980’s. Three different speakers were invited to share their perspectives on the many exciting things that happened during that decade.
Gerry Rush and her husband Jim served as camp directors through most of the 1980’s. Camp attendance was surging in those years, rising from 212 campers in 1981 to a peak of 746 campers in 1991. Gerry noted that this impressive growth was definitely connected to the overall excitement and energy that was felt at Highland in those years. “Camp is for the campers” was the recurring refrain for Gerry and Jim, and they focused on encouraging campers to explore nature, study God’s word, have meaningful discussions with peers, and make age-appropriate spiritual commitments.
At the same time, the Rushes were committed to supporting the adults who came to Highland, which Gerry recalls was an ever-growing responsibility. She also shared affirmation from former staff members who described the practice of early morning staff devotional times as formational to their faith. Clearly the Rushes achieved the balance between a maintaining a focus on campers and creating significant moments for staff members and adult guests.
Sam Weaver was a Virginia Mennonite Conference minister when the need for a larger gathering space brought the annual Conference Assembly to Highland, starting in 1982. The facilities team worked hard to keep things together, Sam recalls, and there were organizational challenges for him as well: assigning campsites to the church groups; serving meals for up to 400 people at a time out of a very small kitchen staffed by volunteers; planning activities for large groups of children and youth; and figuring out a landing strip for someone who flew in on a small plane.
Despite the challenges, Sam remembers those years as “a wonderful, wholesome era,” when Assembly was a time of togetherness for families and congregations. Singing groups and speakers came from different regions to share music and messages, and though it always seemed to rain, people would still show up and have a great time. Virginia Mennonite Conference added about 20 new churches and about 3,000 new members in the period from 1981 to 1995, and Sam believes that at least some of that growth was due to the fun and fellowship of Assembly gatherings at Highland.
Elam Steiner served on the buildings and grounds committee through most of the 1980’s, along with Bernard Martin and Everett Suter. The list of major projects they worked on is extensive and impressive: bridges, bathhouses, cabins, tree barriers, campground electric systems, a new pool and poolhouse, a new kitchen and deck, all of Mountain View Retreat Center, the treehouse, athletic field drainage, and on and on. These projects were completed with volunteer labor, and sometimes with donated supplies. Elam remembers cutting and hauling load after load of donated timber from West Virginia, and then using the lumber for cabins and the Retreat Center. He also noted that the cabins are roofed in a variety of shingles, all remnants Everett collected from the many area builders he knew.
There were mishaps along the way, Elam recalls: a trailer carrying digging equipment tipped into a ditch while driving home; volunteer builders slipped off a roof; Bernard lost a pocketful of important notes while fixing a sewage line. Mishaps like these make for great stories, but it’s the buildings and infrastructure that these men worked so hard on that remain as important parts of Highland’s facilities to this day. The men tithed their time – often imitating God in that they were creating something out of nothing, Elam says – and so did their wives. The generous, creative spirits of these people, and others like them, are the foundation Highland is built on.
After the rapid growth of the 80’s reached its peak, Highland’s board of directors began to ask, “What next?” The third and final key moment in the program focused on the answer to that question: Red Oak Lodge. The initial goal for this building was to create a year-round gathering place for youth, and in 1999, after much planning and preparation, board chair Tony Brenneman took a year off to be the foreman of this large construction project.
The size of Red Oak Lodge meant that, unlike most building projects at Highland, it required more than just volunteer labor. Numerous contractors and suppliers came on board, and many gave discounts for their services. Tony had to coordinate all the different people at the work site, including a large number of volunteers, which could’ve been a source of trouble. Instead, things came together more smoothly than Tony expected. People always showed up when they were needed, and the project was finished in just nine months.
Of course, there were a few bumps in the road, too. For example, Tony remembers that the week they were doing stonework turned out to be bitterly cold. This not only made the work unpleasant, it also meant they needed several portable heaters to keep the stone from freezing. The heaters used so much kerosene that they drained the local gas station’s entire supply! Still, it all worked out, as it did each time an issue arose. It was God’s project, Tony affirms, and it was completed at just the right time. Red Oak Lodge has indeed been a gathering place for many youth groups in the years since, and has also been a blessing to myriad other family, church, and school groups.
Each of these key moments has had a lasting impact, and we credit that success to God’s vision and provision. For six decades, Highland has been led and sustained by people who have sought God’s direction, then jumped in with their time, talents, and resources to pursue the dreams and goals He set before them. We have been blessed. As we look toward the future and seek God’s continued guidance and grace, these are the stories we remember; this is the legacy we build on.