By Brittanee Jacobs
Almost 50 years ago, what is now the Missouri Conference purchased 320 of acres in northwest Missouri to create a camp. Little did they know that Wilderness Camp would turn into a year-round, three-lodge retreat center less than 40 years after its purchase. Wilderness Retreat and Development Center is celebrating its 50th birthday in 2014. On Saturday, December 7, Wilderness kicked off the year of celebration.
Over 60 volunteers, summer camp event directors, and supporters attended the kick-off celebration. The event started with a welcome by Dennis Hisek, the site director at Wilderness since 1986. Platte Woods UMC associate pastor Curtis Olsen delivered the message, speaking about the influence of camping ministries in his family and church.
Olsen and his wife Angie direct a junior-high camp every summer. Olsen tells the story of one camper who has been attending every year: “He shows us what it’s all about. He’s been here ever year to help us direct the camps, and it’s always just a joy watching.” Olsen continues when the boy’s brother started coming: “They just jump right into the small groups. The fun thing is they walk away, and they just tell you what we talked about that day. They tell you where they found God, how they experienced [Him]. That’s what I see out of a five- and a seven-year-old.” These campers are Olsen’s sons.
Retired United Methodist Bishop Fritz Mutti followed with the history of Wilderness and a presentation of current supporters. He recognized Ron and Sue Berry of North Cross UMC for their generous donation to the Wilderness dining hall campaign. Chillicothe UMC pastors John Rice and Peggie Wood along with two members of the congregation presented Hisek with a $10,569.17 donation. Mutti also recognized Kansas City philanthropist Sally Ann Firestone for her support. Linda Neal, representative for the Missouri United Methodist Foundation, presented Wilderness with a $5,000 grant for the purchase of technology.
Part of the service included testimonies of Wilderness’s impact. Mount Washington UMC pastor Cassie O’Brien is a current seminary student at Saint Paul School of Theology. She began attending Wilderness in middle school as a camper, and she continues to be a counselor for several camps each summer. O’Brien encourages people to support Wilderness in whatever way possible: “Any support you can offer to help other kids find their identity as a child of God, to discover who and what God is calling them to be, would not be wasted.”
“This place and these people are vessels used by God that change lives. Wilderness is a part of who I am and a part of the lives of thousands of individuals who have spent any amount of time here,” O’Brien proclaims. Country Club UMC member Whitney Miller shared about the 20-plus years of camping experience at Wilderness, only missing two summers while studying abroad and studying for the bar exam. Miller began as a camper, eventually became a counselor, and is currently a director for a 3rd-4th grade camp every summer.
Miller loves Wilderness so much because, “It reminds me of childhood…I think that’s partially because I’ve been coming here since I was a child, but it’s also because when you’re at camp anyone gets to act like a kid. Kids have adult things in their lives…they don’t have to think about that here.When they’re here they just worry about being a kid and whether or not they’re first in line for lunch…There’s peace in the chaos.”
The story of a young Wilderness camper was shared via YouTube. Hallie raised money for the dining hall by making a lemonade stand and donating her birthday money as well. When asked what she would tell people who are thinking about donating to the dining hall, she would tell them to, “Go for it!” A meal and time for fellowship followed the service. Stations were set up throughout the lodges showing information about camping, the 50 years of Wilderness, and the dining hall campaign.