Planning a family vacation that will appeal to three boys, not to mention my husband and me, is not for the faint-of-heart. We didn't want to blow every penny of the boys' college funds; we didn't want to spend two weeks crammed in a van together touring presidential birthplaces; and I'd never get the four men in my life to spend a week antiquing through the Midwest with me.
What we needed was a relatively cheap, action-packed vacation that would be fun for the kids, low-key for me and my husband, and maybe even help us grow closer together. Our solution was a long weekend at a family camp being held at a Christian camp nearby. Different? Yep. Meaningful? Well, see for yourself.
Thursday, 9:30 P.M.
We arrived at Castaway Club--a national Young Life property located in northern Minnesota--a few hours ago. For the next three days, this place will be converted from its normal teen outreach milieu to a place where families can spend time together, away from the rush and pressures of home. I'm glad to be here, though if I were to be totally honest, after the stress of getting us all packed and on the road, I'd be more excited if this were Mom camp, not family camp.
Later Thursday night
We've just returned from our first "club" of family camp. "Club" is the camp version of a worship service and it isn't quite what I expected, but that proved to be a good thing. Aside from the fact that this place doesn't have a church in the architectural sense, neither does it have a church in the format sense. No choir, no songbooks, no pulpit, no bulletins to doodle on, no pew pencils to doodle with. Instead, we sit on the floor in a modern and well-equipped auditorium. There are several hundred of us between the ages of one month and many decades. The songs call for everything from sha-boo-bop-ba-do-ing to tickling our kids to doing the twist. Truth be told, I've never done the twist in church before. Families are twisting, shaking, laughing, tumbling into piles--and it all seems quite spiritual to me. One song calls for jungle noises, which the children, and dads, heartily provide. The man next to me sounds surprisingly like a chimpanzee.
We return to our cabin and get the boys tucked into their bunks. It doesn't take long for all five of us to be lulled to sleep by the breeze blowing through the pine trees. As I drift off, something tells me we're going to need all the rest we can get this weekend.
It's not even time for breakfast and our boys are already up and ready to go. That's because we are on vacation and Murphy's Law #2787 clearly states that children only rise early during vacations and on weekends. Children only sleep in on school days. We're all staying together in one bunk-filled room. It's going to be a challenge to find any private time with my husband, Mark, but I think we can rig up some kind of bottom-bunk fort with the extra blankets. Mark and I climb out of our bunks, get dressed, and wrangle our crew to the dining hall.
Once there, I discover one of the key elements to my fantasy vacation: meals are served personally (my husband enjoys the fact that meals are served, period). The staff asks if we need anything. Do we want warm syrup? more french toast? extra butter? They bring seconds. They clear the dishes. They wash the dishes. They set the tables for the next meal, when they'll repeat the process. I love this place. No, I double-love this place.
Later that morning
This place is gorgeous--expansive lawns, flourishing gardens, breathtaking view. I'm in awe of God's creation. My children are in awe of the climbing wall. Between the activities provided for the kids and the morning sessions for the adults, I've had several hours to connect with my husband, rest, relax, pray, and just zone out. This is starting to feel like a real vacation.
What a day! Beach competitions. Field games. Children and parents racing against the clock to do things like bury each other in the sand. My kids zip-lined--stood on top of a tall tower strapped into a harness and soared down into the lake. I had to give it a go myself. Honest. It's a gas, though one must remember to hang onto one's bathing suit when hitting the water at full speed.
We're singing that old song "Cat's in the Cradle." Not a hymn, but a poignant message just the same. When my sons are grown, will I regret the time I didn't spend with them? Of course. I suppose all parents do. But hopefully I'll have more joys than regrets. Sharing this time with them will definitely be one of the joys.
While the speaker shares about family goals and family mission statements, two little boys beside me are playing leapfrog. One of the crawling babies keeps getting up on stage, only to be retrieved by her mother, over and over and over. A dad is standing near the back, swaying his infant daughter gently. Several moms are on the other side, bouncing their babies as only mothers can. And I'm experiencing something quite wondrous--a sense of awe and pleasure at being part of an earthly family, part of this large extended family (many of whom I don't know), and part of Christ's spiritual family. I'm also aware of how crazy I am about my own family. Some family vacations leave me desperate for time away from my family, but this weekend is deepening our love for each other. I didn't expect to be emotionally moved while I was here. I just wanted to get away from home for a few days. But I can sense God reviving me through this experience. I may have needed that more than anything else.
During breakfast, I visit with a woman named Mary. She's here with her daughter, Jessica, and Jessica's friend, also Jessica. For the first time in a long time, I didn't have trouble remembering someone's name. The girls, both in high school, talked about the zip-line. "We're doing it after lunch. For sure," said one. "Yeah, for sure," said the other, though her face betrayed the possibility of conflicting inner emotions.
It's raining and has been for a good portion of the afternoon. You'd think rain would ruin family camp, but it's only serving to wind the children up even tighter. They're splashing in puddles, sliding on the wet grass, and doing everything they would if it were perfectly sunny. The adults are taking advantage of the weather by visiting, relaxing, and reflecting. Okay, I admit I'm going to take a nap. A long one. An undisturbed one because my kids are off somewhere hanging out with their 50 or so new friends. Maybe I can even grab Mark away from all the activity and have him join me. Did I mention that I double-love this place?
Tonight, we are introduced to "Tony and Mona"--really Troy and Angie, a pair of Young Life leaders who've perfected dance "skills" they want to share. From the moment they appear onstage, it's clear they're not afraid of making fools of themselves in front of an audience. The kicker is they want the audience to have the joy of making fools of themselves as well. Yippee. When they start calling out the names of my fellow campers, I find myself cringing. "Please don't pick me. Please don't pick me." It seems sacrilegious to pray for this desired outcome, so instead I try to disappear inside my hooded sweatshirt. It works. The Smarts and the Grays are the lucky winners. They have the distinct privilege of shimmying like crazy folks in front of a bunch of near-strangers. They deserve a standing ovation.
Later Saturday night
Tonight my youngest son and I sit outside looking at the stars. He says, "Is Grandma looking at the same stars in Chicago?" Don't kids ask the greatest questions? I snuggle him closer to me and we start talking about God. Like all children, his heart's eyes are uniquely focused on Christ. I ask him a question that I often ask--"T.J., have you given your whole heart to Jesus?" And he gives me the answer that he always does--"Most of it. The other part I gave to you and Dad." I'm crying silently in the dark. And I think, This is a conversation that never would have happened if we were busy sightseeing and shopping. God is impacting my children right here in the middle of our vacation.
Unlike Vacationland, U.S.A., this place has few opportunities to spend money. There's a store with T-shirts, hats, bumper stickers, and the like. There is a snack bar with shakes, soda, ice cream, and candy bars. They are both open for only a few hours each day. It has just dawned on me that my kids have not once whined, "Please, please, please, buy me that!" This place is not in the business of wearing me down to my last penny. It is in the business of helping me hang out with my family and strengthen my relationship with God, which is a good thing because I didn't bring any spare cash.
I think I've discovered the source of my surprisingly contented spirit over the last few days. First, no one has made me feel that it's my duty to meet, greet, and become best friends with everyone here. What a relief. I can visit, chat, introduce myself, or not. And I don't feel guilty one way or the other. Second, everyone is pleasantly relaxed and happy. I think it's because someone else is doing the cooking and cleaning. Mark says it's because the boys can't beg for the TV remote. My kids think it's because there's a cool game room. Third, I feel safe. No one is pushing me to break down the walls of my inner child or to open up the doors to my deepest emotions. They're just saying, "Hey, get out there and have fun with your family." What a pleasant surprise. Fourth, there seems to be an unspoken understanding among the adults that all the children are everyone's shared responsibility. It feels like a cooperative parenting experience, which, instead of being overwhelming, actually makes the task less daunting than it usually is. Parenting someone's baby instead of my own preteen can be rather refreshing.
We gather in the club room one last time before heading home. These last few days have seemed like only minutes. My three sons are sitting down in front with a whole pack of new friends. While we sing, a baby deftly tosses her bottle toward the front of the room. A mom rocks her baby daughter to the beat of the music. In front of me, a woman cuddles her grandson on her lap. I catch the eyes of a woman across the room who's been patiently walking her baby back and forth, back and forth. We smile at each other. I don't know her name. I don't know where she is from. But there is a genuine, though momentary, bond that passes between us, a sense of understanding and connection. I don't think I'd share a moment like that with another mom in the line for Space Mountain.
Somehow, we are all able to worship in the midst of crawling babies, active toddlers, and energetic kids. I've decided that this is perhaps the best place to see God's creativity and power. Though I'm ready for my own bed, I'm not ready to leave. This experience is, in many ways, more of a reality than life at home--in a spiritual sense, at least.
Did I mention that I double-love it here? That's not quite true. I triple love it. I quadruple love it. Or in my son's words, "I gazillionzillion love it." Yeah. What he said.
Crystal Kirgiss and her family live in beautiful Minnesota.
Get Your Family to Camp!
To make sure your family has a great time at camp, you'll need to do a little prep work. Kristen Petitt, Reservations Coordinator at Young Life's Trail West family camp in Buena Vista, Colorado, offers these tips for planning a great family camp vacation:
Contact the camp early.
Popular family camps can fill up a year ahead of time. Smaller camps, like those run by denominations, may still have room later in the spring.
Find out what kind of kids' activities the camp provides.
Are there trail rides? Sailing lessons? A ropes course? Bible classes? What's available for preschoolers and toddlers? Most camps offer a variety of activities, but you'll want to make sure they have something your kids will love.
Ask about the program.
Is there a lot of family time built in to the schedule, or will you spend most of your time going in different directions? At Trail West, families are always together for things like trail rides and rafting trips. Every family wants something a little different, so make sure the camp schedule will give you the time you want with your kids.
Look into the accommodations.
Will you be in a bunk house with other families? A tent of your own? A modern cabin with a private bath? Think about the amount of privacy you need and plan accordingly.
Check out the surrounding area.
Is the camp near a town or someplace that might make for an interesting day trip? Does the camp plan any offsite activities? This is especially important if you're flying to a camp and need to spend a Saturday night somewhere nearby.
Don't add camp to other travel.
Petitt notes that families who tack their family camp experience onto the end of another vacation are too exhausted to enjoy themselves.
Talk about your expectations.
Meet as a family and discuss the amount of time everyone wants to spend together, what activities each person wants to try and what it will be like to share a room or a cabin together.
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