Some things change, others stay the same as former campers-turned staff members look back at Camp Paradise Valley over the years.
If there’s one word that best encapsulates the Salvation Army’s Camp Paradise Valley experience, it’s friendship.
“I’ve made lifelong friendships with people who I don’t even see yearly, but I still know if I do see them or when I see them on Facebook, it’s right back where we were,” said Angela McGown, who is the Salvation Army property manager in Kentucky and Tennessee. “It’s like no time has passed. There’s none of this awkward silence.
“If I were to run into my roommate from camp when I was 17 years old, it would be just like yesterday, and we’d be perfectly fine. Because of that camp, I will always have friends.”
Speaking of social media, Michelle Cook said, “I am actually friends on Facebook with every one of the counselors I had as a girl. I remember all of them, and I’m friends with all of them.”
“I have so many friends I still have a lasting relationship with [who are] people I worked with and went to camp with,” she added.
Another lasting relationship Cook has thanks to Camp Paradise Valley is with her husband. They met at camp when she was 15 and in her first summer as a staff member. Her future sister-in-law was her roommate.
Now as a mother, Cook is not only reminiscing about her own friendships and experiences at Camp Paradise Valley but joyfully recounting stories of her sons’ friendships and experiences there as well. It’s just another extension of the Salvation Army camp’s life cycle in her own life.
“Now I’m grown up and I have children of my own who actually attend the same camp I attended as a child. It’s just a really neat thing to see,” said Cook, the Youth Department Secretary at the Salvation Army Paradise Division in Louisville, Kentucky.
“I had wonderful counselors and camp staff when I was a kid, and then I grew up to be part of a camp staff that was supportive and loving to kids. Now my kids are attending camp, and they’re being nurtured and loved on by teenagers and young adults that love the Lord and want to show kids love and what it looks like to serve Him – and they get to do it at the same camp I got to do that at, so that’s really cool!”
Both Cook and McGown have a long history with Camp Paradise Valley. They both attended as campers, with Cook starting at age 6 and McGown as a teenager.
“I started it as a camper in the cabins with no air conditioning on uncomfortable, thin mattress bunk beds,” McGown recalled with a laugh.
“I think the thing I remember most about my first year at camp is I got to stay in the newest of the cabins,” Cook said. “I remember walking in and just smelling the wood the cabin was made of. And there were bunk beds; I was so excited I might get to sleep on the top bunk!”
Then, McGown served as a staff member for five years, working in the dining room for two years and as the camp’s secretary for three. “Those were jobs that were inside, in the air conditioning,” she noted.
Cook spent a year on the dining room staff at Camp Paradise Valley before working the rest of her six camp staff years at Arkansas/Oklahoma‘s Camp Heart O’ Hills, after her parents were transferred to serve The Salvation Army in that division. Her job duties included camp secretary, canteen worker, conservatory counselor and lifeguard.
“I grew a lot – spiritually, mentally and emotionally,” she said of her time on camp staff. “You go through so much because you see kids who come from broken homes or homes where they’re abused. Some kids come and eat better at camp than they eat the whole year. You see the innocence and excitement, and you really learn to appreciate simpler things.
“I don’t know how many times during the summer I actually fixed my hair or put makeup on because it didn’t matter. You weren’t there to impress anybody. You were there to be closer to God yourself but also to show these kids what it looks like to have a real relationship with Christ and to love on them because they don’t always get that at home.”
The biggest challenge was her first year as a conservatory counselor when she was 17. She worked with the junior conservatory and said she had “the hardest kids to get out of bed in the morning.” It was worth it, though.
“They were wonderful kids. As a matter of fact, some of them grew up to be on camp staff and now even Salvation Army officers themselves,” she said proudly.
Now, both Cook and McGown still have contact with Camp Paradise Valley through their jobs at division headquarters, and Cook sends her three sons there each summer. The boys are camp veterans now, but even when they were newbies, Cook said she wasn’t nervous about sending them.
“I was more excited to hear what their view of camp was,” she said. “To see camp as a grown-up but through my children’s eyes, to hear about the staff that meant a lot to them and that they took some things away from, to hear their stories about being at the lake and being in the night meetings and camp food and cabins – just everything!”
Cook herself still visits Camp Paradise Valley weekly in the summertime to help with each new camp’s registration.
“One of my friends that I grew up in camp with, I recently got to see her daughter being checked in at camp, and it was just a wonderful moment,” she said. “As a former camper, I think the best thing that I see is that it still goes on, that there are other kids that get to experience what I got to experience as a kid and know what they’re learning and know what they’re experiencing and know the fun that they’re having.”
McGown doesn’t get to visit as often as Cook, but “I’m still attached to camp,” she said.
“I work with some repairs and additions and updates to the camp. I process paperwork. I see the changes. I’ve seen buildings I was a camper in be demolished and be rebuilt into something new.”
There have been many changes to the camp over the years – all for the better, Cook and McGown agree. These include a swimming pool, multiple updates to the cabins, an indoor chapel and larger, more comfortable housing for all the staff.
“They’re trying to make it more user-friendly, not only for kids, but for adults,” McGown said.
What hasn’t been changed is the campground itself.
“It sits right on Dale Hollow Lake, in a cove. It’s just very calm and beautiful,” McGown said.
The beauty and peaceful atmosphere helps bring focus to what the camp is all about, she added.
“The main purpose is to bring people together in a calm setting to think about God and worship him and teach kids who God is because a lot of kids come into this camp and they don’t even go to church. And adults can sit out on the dock and see what they’re really there for. It’s that calm worship time, whether it be just with yourself or with a group of people. That’s really what the camp’s there for – bringing people together to worship God.”