The Outside Advantage

The Outside Advantage

From Highland’s very beginning over 60 years ago, the children’s summer camp program has been at the heart of our ministry; additionally, for over 30 years, family reunions and church retreats have allowed us to serve year-round. So as you can imagine, it was difficult for us to cancel this year’s summer camp and then also learn that most of our retreats (summer and fall) would be cancelled. We would have to learn how to serve all over again!

We soon realized that while a normal summer was off the table, we did still have much to offer – in particular, the opportunity to be outside. The great outdoors was the one place, besides home, where people felt comfortable enough to breathe deeply and begin relating to others again. For many people this summer, Highland was that relaxing outdoor space. Camping, disc golf, swimming, biking, and corn hole all brought people back together to begin healing the isolation that so many were feeling.

“To have a safe and fun place to ‘go’ during COVID was amazing!

Church gatherings

The abrupt end to church gatherings this spring left many people feeling the loss of connection with their church family. Outdoor church campouts became a reunion for many congregations, and were often the first gatherings since COVID began. Churches like Mount Clinton Mennonite, Manantial De Vida, and Zion Mennonite were able have their first in-person service in months at Highland, where they could spread out in an outdoor setting. Additional churches chose to bring together just their church leadership team for a retreat. Highland’s large gathering areas offered valuable space for these church leaders to reconnect, recreate, and do some much-needed planning.

Small reunions

While many large extended family reunions did not occur this summer, we saw over and over again parents reuniting with their grown children’s families. Time after time we heard them say that this was the first time they felt comfortable seeing each other since March. These families had been longing to connect again, but needed an outdoor space to feel comfortable doing so.

Parents and grandparents with young children expressed how much easier it was to entertain their children in a natural setting where they could play in streams, ride bikes (without concern of traffic), and enjoy private playgrounds.

Family programming

Shortly after we cancelled summer camps, feedback from a survey told us that many families were cautiously ready to have an experience away from home, especially if the programming could be done as a family unit. Dean Williams, our Summer Camp Director, used this feedback to plan extended weekend experiences for families, with programming that included crafts and nature activities, hikes, swimming, the climbing tower, and more. Highland would also offer food service to family groups, including a take-out campfire breakfast which families would prepare themselves and made-to-order meals served from the new Highland Grill and Snack Shop.

More than 40 families participated in a family outing this summer! For many, this was their only vacation and a much-anticipated adventure away from home; for Highland, it was an opportunity to serve in new ways, many of which will continue to benefit families in years to come.

“We were so pleased to have an option for our family this summer. Food service was awesome and we enjoyed a few days to relax and get away.”

Youth groups

Current VA guidelines do not allow us to serve youth groups overnight, but we were thankful to host several youth groups for the day. The first was from Lindale Mennonite Church, where youth leaders planned a series of outings for their junior high youth group. On the day they came to Highland, we were able to offer them a chance to climb the adventure tower, a service project, lunch, and time in the pool. They had a great time, and the whole series of day trips offered some much-needed socialization and excitement for youth (and adult sponsors!) who had spent so much time stuck at home.

In a normal August, a group from UNIQUE Learning Center in D.C. would’ve enjoyed a full week of Highland fun – something that Director Sherry Woods tells us is a highlight of the year for many of the children! With a lot of creativity and careful planning, they managed to squeeze as much fun and outdoor activity as possible into just one (long) day. They were tired when they loaded the bus after evening s’mores, but their day trip was worth it!

Every opportunity to serve families, churches, and other guests in new ways this summer was a reason to celebrate, but it also meant that we would have to relearn how to do just about everything in light of the pandemic. We joked that it was twice the work for half the results in areas like housekeeping and sanitization, food service, climbing tower procedures, and pool use. The extra effort involved in the process was worth it, though, both for what we have learned along the way and because it allowed us to serve guests this summer.

We served less than a third of the people we would in a typical summer, but what did take place for those who came this summer was redemptive, healing and good. We all wish circumstances could be different, but it has truly been a joy to see the ways people have adapted to the current restrictions, allowing Highland to live out its vision by meeting very real needs in their lives!