West Branch: First UMC’s GAP Kids Camp supports families in the community by creating a fun, faith-filled experience for kids and building strong relationships within the community and beyond.
Lisa Curnow doesn’t know what she’d do without the GAP Kids Camp held each summer at First United Methodist Church of West Branch. It’s been a godsend for her and for Sam, her 9-year-old son who enjoys attending the six-week camp.
Childcare is a desperate need for many families in this northwoods town just off I-75 about an hour north of Midland. As a busy, working mother, Lisa is grateful that the camp fills a need during the summer when school is out, providing a fun, faith-filled experience for her son.
For almost twenty years, the GAP Kids Camp has been supporting families in West Branch by creating an authentic church camp experience that is not available anywhere else in the community. And there’s no charge for children who want to participate.
West Branch: First UMC has made this camp successful by fostering trusted relationships with families like Lisa’s and building strong partnerships within the community and beyond.
VBS on Steroids
GAP Kids Camp evolved out of an earlier program called Summer Enrichment, which started in the early 2000s as a response to a desire by those running West Branch: First’s vacation Bible school to offer a church camp experience to children who, for whatever reason, could not attend a traditional summer church camp.
By 2005, it had grown into a six-week program, and now it involves the whole congregation and many community volunteers and partners.
A few years ago, West Branch: First’s various outreach programs, including the camp, were consolidated under the umbrella name, GAP (God’s Awesome People’s) Ministries, indicating that these programs were focused on filling gaps and needs in the community. Other aspects of GAP Ministries include a food distribution network and an annual Halloween event.
The GAP Kids Camp is for children in grades 1 through 6. This was their 17th year and the first in-person camp since 2019. This year they had 31 enrolled with an average daily attendance of 20. The camp’s capacity was scaled back this year after two years of virtual programming due to COVID-19. But they hope enrollment will get back to pre-pandemic levels of 45 to 50 campers.
The camp runs Monday through Friday for six weeks, usually starting at the end of June. Kids arrive around 8 am and stay until programming ends around 4 pm. The church does provide extended care until 5 pm for those children whose parents or caregivers need extra time.
The goal of the camp’s programming is to develop character, build confidence, and promote Christian values through Bible study, hands-on learning activities, indoor and outdoor games, field trips, service projects, and Christian fellowship. Each week has a full schedule planned.
Rev. Tim Dibble, who pastored at West Branch: First before moving to his new appointment in July, summed up GAP Kids Camp candidly: “We’re like vacation Bible school on steroids.”
West Branch: First is using their facilities and resources to reach into their community with God’s good news while at the same time giving children a safe environment in which to grow as Christian disciples, learn new things, make friends, and have fun.
The camp is a blast. Rev. Tim Dibble noted that children love the experience and want to come back year after year. “Over the years our return rate is extremely high,” Dibble said. “Once kids start with the program, they stay with it. They come back again until they age out.” And that is true for Sam, Lisa Curnow’s son, who has been coming to camp for several years now.
The basis for the curriculum is the United Methodist camp materials available through the Michigan Conference. Each day has an opening worship time. They have Bible study, a session for crafts, lots of outdoor playtime, and weekly field trips. They also go swimming one day a week.
Lisa appreciates the daily structure that keeps her son in the mindset of school during the summer months. “For him to get a Bible story, a meal, exercise, a field trip [is wonderful],” Curnow said. “They do so many things. I mean, the swimming is the icing on the cake.”
Even though she and her son attend a Lutheran church in town, the solid biblical teachings provided through the GAP Kids Camp are extremely valuable to her.
Curnow added, “They do singing. He loves to sing. And he’s learning all kinds of new prayers. So, the Christian aspect of it is just amazing. The whole program is amazing. And for them to have such quality volunteers and hosts that do it. . . . I am very thankful.”
Over a couple of decades, the church has formed trusted bonds with many families in West Branch. The relationships are vital to the camp’s life and mission. On average, over half of the campers are unchurched, so those who run the camp become expressions of Christ. And even though the families may not choose to attend West Branch: First after participating in GAP Kids Camp, families are cared for and remain in the church’s circle of outreach.
Sustainable through Community Bonds
Probably the biggest key to the long-term success of West Branch: First UMC’s GAP Kids Camp is the development of healthy, trusted relationships within their community and beyond.
West Branch: First isn’t a large congregation, but there is wholehearted support among its members. A good number of camp volunteers (on average 20 a week) come from the church, but a number of volunteers are from the community. Some come through AmeriCorp Seniors and programs such as the Foster Grandparent Volunteer Program run by NEMSCA, so there are good opportunities for intergenerational mentoring throughout the six-week camp.
There’s also strong support from the Michigan Conference. This year two mission interns supplied by the conference, Quinci Inmon and Lexi Weisend, assisted the program director, Riley Sabins, in day-to-day operations, along with the team of volunteers. The congregation values being able to support young adults in their career and ministry discernment through conversation and relationship building.
Those administering the GAP Kids Camp have worked hard to have a great relationship with the local school in West Branch. The school provides onsite breakfast, lunch, and snacks, busses for field trips at a reasonable rate, and donated books, among other things.
Their community is an integral part of the camp’s success. Over the years the church has developed relationships with a wide range of organizations and businesses. They range from retail stores that make in-kind donations to service organizations such as Kiwanis to the local library to the historical society, county fair board, and even the nearest state park. These partnerships make the camping experience richer.
West Branch: First UMC has created a culture of generosity through the resourcing of its GAP Kids Camp. The camp gives much to the families and children through this camping experience, and the community responds with support and appreciation. And this generous spirit is what has sustained it for almost 20 years.
They have a good thing going. In fact, some believe their camp program is an attainable model for other churches, especially smaller ones. Rev. Dibble thought so when he was pastor at West Branch: First.
“I think this program is exportable,” Dibble confessed. “You don’t have to be big. And maybe you wouldn’t do it as big as we do it. Maybe you do it bigger! . . . It’s about disciple building. It’s about doing what we can do, not what we can’t do. . . . We can do this. And we can do this sort of thing by developing relationships in the community.”