There’s a reason Camp Hanover has such a dedicated following—the outdoorsy, Christian-based camp has been delighting children since the 1950s, sending them home stronger, more confident, and maybe in need of a hot bath.
Camp Hanover–one of Richmond’s sleepaway and day camp mainstays for decades and decades. Out in Hanover, as you might imagine, the camp is a very traditional one: lots of outdoorsy stuff and mess hall meals. As a Camp Hanover attendee myself in the late 80s and early 90s, I can attest that the place is seriously fun, with counselors and staff who work really hard at their jobs.
I can also attest that the camp holds true to its Presbyterian mission and involves a fair amount of worship and prayer. My friend went with me each year–her family wasn’t a church-going one, mine was. Neither she nor I thought much about it, and both she and I grew up to be cheerfully non-religious.
Unless something has drastically changed (and it hasn’t, according to the religious and non-religious friends and acquaintances of mine who have attended or sent their children to attend over the years), Camp Hanover strikes a singularly harmonious balance between encouraging worship of their God and respecting the fact that everyone’s different. I feel strongly that if I had bothered to raise various questions that hadn’t yet coalesced inside my brain at that time of my life, I would have been heard and taken seriously. But maybe just because I owned the four-square tournament every year.
Oh, and not only would I define myself as a not-particularly-religious kid, I would also define myself as a definitely-not-outdoorsy kid. And I still cried when my mom came to pick me up from Camp Hanover.
But let’s hear it from the horse’s mouth. Doug Walters, Executive Director for Camp Hanover, was kind enough to chat with me about the full experience.
What’s your philosophy about religion, the camp, and the amount it should be a dealbreaker for parents?
Camp Hanover is a ministry of the Presbytery of the James, which is a regional governing body of the Presbyterian Church (USA) representing 107 Presbyterian Churches throughout the central Virginia area.
Our summer camp programs are open to campers of all faith backgrounds. We have kids who come to camp that have grown up in the church and are very confident in their faith. We have kids who come to camp who may have never stepped foot in a church in their life.
Our goal is to create an atmosphere where kids are comfortable exploring their faith. We meet them wherever they are in their faith journey and provide a safe place where a child can talk about a faith issue that may be on their minds, ask questions, share their views, and hear what others are wondering about with regard to their own faith. As we build community in this way, our hope is that campers grow a bit closer to God.
We do have Bible studies each day, morning devotions led by an ordained minister or Christian educator, and worship services on several evenings during the week. The Bible study curriculum we use is an ecumenical one, created by church leaders from many different denominations. It’s a curriculum that is used by many camps of different faith traditions across the country. Our evening worship services are planned and led by campers, an opportunity for kids to express their faith and worship in their own way.
What we don’t do is indoctrinate campers into a particular flavor of Christianity. We don’t use “frying pan theology” where people are beaten over the head with a particular religious attitude. We don’t want to be teaching a child something that contradicts with what they may be learning from their parents or in their own place of worship, or do something in a forceful way that could turn a child away from growing closer to God.
Rather than focus on the things that separate us, we focus on the things that we believe all Christians share in common, such as the idea that God loves us, that Jesus died for our sins, that we should love and care for our neighbors, that we have been called to care for God’s creation. Our approach is more of teaching by example, in the words of St. Francis of Assisi we “Preach the gospel at all time, and if necessary, use words.” We teach our staff to do this by listening to kids, accepting and valuing them for who God created them to be.
What kinds of kids do you think Camp Hanover would appeal to?
Camp Hanover definitely has a strong appeal to kids who love being outside and experiencing outdoor adventure. With 600 acres, a lake, hiking trails, and lots of great activities, it’s a wonderful playground to explore. More than that, I think there are kids who want to experience the outdoors and become more adventurous, but just aren’t sure how to do that. Camp Hanover is a place where they can learn from our experienced staff, get an introduction to and begin to develop an outdoor lifestyle, experiencing new adventures in a safe way, learning the skills and a developing love of the outdoors that they’ll carry with them for the rest of their lives.
I believe Camp Hanover’s strongest appeal perhaps is to kids who want to find a place where they can just be themselves. We place a premium on community, and on valuing each person for who they are and what they can contribute to the group. That appeals to kids who may feel like they don’t fit in other places (something I think everyone experiences at some point in their life) or those kids who don’t excel in areas that are more traditionally praised (such as athletics). At Camp Hanover, kids feel they are part of a group, they can just be themselves, they discover and develop gifts and talents, and they can shine.
What are the Hanover highlights?
- The Mudslide – It’s an activity we have been doing since 1957, where campers slide down a clay hill and splash down into a ooey, gooey, sticky, squishy pool of mud. It’s a Camp Hanover Classic!
- The Food – Particularly “Cindy’s Rolls,” our signature, homemade, from-scratch, yeast rolls that our cook, Cindy Banks has been daily making for over 10 years. Campers also enjoy planning their own menu to cook out over the campfire during the week.
- Awesome activities – archery, swimming, tubing in the lake, and the high ropes course to name a few.
- Nightly Check-in – A tradition at Camp Hanover where each night, campers in a group will find a quiet place to sit together and reflect on their day. They recount their highs and lows, openly discuss and work through issues that the group may be dealing with. Counselors often pose a thought-provoking question to ponder such, which could range from the irreverent to the serious.
- Building incredibly deep friendships.
What does a typical day look like?
Campers actively create their own experience. Campers are in groups of about 12 (five or six boys and five or six girls) along with a male counselor and female counselor. At the beginning of the week, the campers and counselors work through a process to plan time at camp. The counselors (who are with the kids the whole time they are at camp) share with the group all of the available activity options, and together the group decides what they want to do (and what they don’t want to do), how often they want to do certain activities, and when they want to do them. The group of campers then meet with activity leaders during what we call a “Town Meeting” to schedule their group’s activities.
A typical day varies from group to group, since each group creates their own experience. In general, the day starts with the group waking up at 7:00 AM. Breakfast is at 8:00 and morning devotions follow. Campers have several hours of activity time before and after lunch which is at 12:30. A period of rest or quiet time typically follows lunch, before a group begins afternoon activities. Dinner is at 5:30. Elementary age campers are typically heading to bed between 8:30 and 9:00, middle school age campers between 9:30 and 10:00, and high school age between 10:30 and 11:00.
What kinds of skills and values does Camp Hanover try to instill in their campers?
Our program is specifically designed to give campers the opportunity to:
- Explore, grow in and act on their Christian faith
- Build Christ-centered communities
- Live in, live with, learn about and care for God’s Creation
- Develop skills in outdoor living
- Understand and practice servant leadership
- Safely experience fun, fellowship, adventure, and challenge
In terms of skills, we want to help campers learn to recognize the value in the person next to them, and teach them how to work together, compromise, and create win-win situations so that every one member of the group is having their needs met.
We also place a premium on outdoor living skills like learning how to building a fire, set up a campsite, how to paddle a canoe, cook over a campfire, how to have minimal impact on the environment and “Leave No Trace.”
We desire to instill a sense of being a servant-leader, putting others before yourself, and giving of your time and gifts to make the world a better place.
What would you say to a parent who’s nervous about sending their child to camp?
You’re not alone, it’s natural to be nervous about sending your child to camp where they will be cared for by someone who you don’t really know, and probably have never met before. I’m a parent, too, and I get it! Caring for a child is an awesome responsibility. The immense weight of this responsibility shapes how we build and prepare our staff. First and foremost we look for people who love kids, and enjoy spending time with them, and put the needs of others before themselves. We can’t teach that, but we are very good at finding the young people who embody that ideal, and then we can teach them how to build fires, sing campfire songs and fill out a camp schedule. Caring for your children is also why we put such a premium on supervision and keeping kids safe–physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Find out more information, including how to register for day camps and overnight camps, at Camp Hanover’s website. There’s no registration deadline, they just accept on a first-come, first-served basis. But you better be early, because that bird will get the Hanover worm!
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