Three years ago Camp Johnsonburg began a search to find a new Executive Director. They did a national search and discovered Elise Bates Russell. Elise was a CDK (camp director kid) and knew the ropes, but she was also President for three years of the Presbyterian Camp and Conference Association which oversees 150 camps. So, they came across someone who not only knows the ropes, but knows how to make an awesome course out of them!

Camp Johnsonburg this past summer saw 861 campers go through its programs. That means that enrollment is going back up and finances are stronger, which is a relief since so many church camps around the country are closing. Retreats are well attended (Jr High, Sr High, Confirmation, etc.), and more denominations are looking to use the facility. Many church folk who hail from other denominations thought Johnsonburg would be closed to them since they aren’t Presbyterian, but have been overjoyed to find out that we open our camp to all. In that spirit, the camp is now using the moniker “Johnsonburg Camp & Retreat Center,” which is a more ecumenical, welcoming, and inclusive name.

The camp continues to evolve in new and exciting ways. This past summer a Science teacher was on-site 2 days/week to help campers understand the interrelation of science and faith. This was the second year of offering farming and gardening activities, along with how to care for goats. The camp is sending out more Day Camp teams, the high ropes course was upgraded for a larger capacity and better safety, and a permanent chef (Chef Ralph, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America) started work in June and has delighted everyone with his culinary skills. Tom Paradise was brought in to be Program Director (his degrees are in Youth Development and Camp Management and Adventure Education), and Tom enthusiastically keeps the place hopping. Robin Garzoni was hired as the Hospitality Director and she loves making everyone feel at home so that everyone will have the best possible camp experience. The butterfly garden was begun, they have a full-time naturalist at camp during the summer, and Bronc Radak (pastor at Berkshire Valley and Oak Ridge) and son Joe bring their telescope each week to help the kids see the majesty and mystery of our galaxy.

During the summer the staff has learned that instead of offering weeks dedicated to one particular interest (computers, horseback riding, soccer, etc.) they do better offering multiple choices to the kids during their stay. Each day has “choice time” which allows some to go off to archery, while others prefer water sports or crafts. Elise explains that their goals are to teach grit and confidence. Learning grit will help young people persevere and find something they’re passionate about. Confidence carries over as a basic life skill and will help see them through adversities.

Through it all is an emphasis on faith formation where youth spend time together in a Christian community. Every day begins with a JAM (Jesus and Me) bible study, and each day closes with the whole camp gathering for worship. All week long the kids are unplugged, and cannot rely on technology to entertain themselves. This encourages them to open up to others around them and to the outdoor experiences offered.

One of the camp’s newest endeavors is the transforming Leaders program. It runs September to May and offers a stipend to a young person (usually college age) who’s considering going into the camp business. They get trained in all aspects of running a non-profit business. During a typical week they’ll do maintenance, programs, hospitality, marketing, work in the kitchen, fund development, and anything else Elise can think up for them to do.

As the camp moves into the future, Elise suggests that the camp needs more adult space. The camp is setup well for youth, but could use more dedicated space for adult and church retreats, and someday conferences.

The 2017 Youth Retreat Schedule is out, so go to to make your plans now. Be sure to encourage your church’s children to consider attending a week of camp this coming summer, and contact Elise, Tom, or Robin if you’d like one of them to come and speak at your church all that Camp Johnsonburg has to offer. From the enthusiasm this team has for their camping ministry, they’re sure to spread the excitement to your congregation.


Jeff Hatch ~PCT Communication Team