Marking a Milestone: Lake Champion’s 20th Year

One cold and dark winter morning in 1985, John Wagner, a Young Life staff member, piled into a car with other staff to make the drive to a spot in a valley carved out of New York’s Catskill Mountains. Chuck Reinhold, vice president of the Eastern Division at the time, asked that the staff be there early so that they could see the 400-acre property, with its towering pine trees and manmade lake that Young Life was hoping to purchase as its next camp.

A little more than 20 years later, Lake Champion is marking two decades of ministry, celebrating the strides it’s made since its first group of campers — which numbered about 150 — arrived in 1986. In 2005, Lake Champion hosted 17,392 people with its summer occupancy rate at more than 100 percent. Lake Champion has become the camp where kids who live in and near some of the most populated areas of the country — including New York City — come for the best week of their lives.

Location, location, location
Bo Nixon was pulled out of gang life on the streets of New York City by a Young Life volunteer and became a Christian at Star Ranch in the early 1960s. In 1963, Nixon went to camp at Lake Champion with his Young Life leader when the property was owned by Youth Development International.

Years later, when he heard the property was up for sale, Nixon was instrumental in securing Young Life’s involvement. Nixon has been connected to Young Life for 38 years. And now, every summer, he brings hundreds of kids to Lake Champion. Nixon agrees a key to Lake Champion’s growth is its location. “Lake Champion has been a great property particularly because it’s within driving distance of some of the largest cities in America,” Nixon said. “Kids go up there really excited about getting out of the city; a lot of them have never been out of the city and never stayed at an overnight camp. It’s a real experience for kids. We are very blessed to have Lake Champion in our back yard.”

Statistics put Lake Champion near the center of the population universe. One in 12 Americans live within a 75-mile radius of Manhattan. And Manhattan is less than two hours away from the property. The dense and diverse population has supported Lake Champion in the past, and New York Metropolitan Regional Director Mac McNally said the numbers will only increase in the future.

The Lake Champion of 20 years ago lacked much in terms of recreation facilities. Rustic cabins were located on a hilltop and a trip to the bathroom at night was pretty treacherous. The camp has changed over time and so has the culture, McNally said. The kids who attend Lake Champion today range from the wealthy teens of Greenwich, Conn., who take the train every day to their private school in the city to the poor kids from the New York boroughs. Young Life wants Lake Champion to continue to be a place that will dazzle every kid.

Meeting demand
Dave Carlson, vice president of Camping Operations and Administration, said Lake Champion has always been crucial to Young Life’s ministry.

“The way Champion came to Young Life is a story of God working to reach kids in the East,” he said. “In addition to the thousands of Young Life kids who experience Lake Champion each year, there are thousands of other guests who use Lake Champion for their time to connect with God in the special way this place allows. I am thankful for the hundreds of folks who understand the special value Lake Champion has and have supported all the efforts and improvements over the years. The ministry that happens at Lake Champion is more important today than ever.”

Dave Jacques, who has been property manager at Lake Champion since 1988, said the property not only serves Young Life campers in the summer — including Urban, Capernaum, Young Lives, WyldLife and families — but also is the year-round location for Young Life staff training events and retreats as well as weekend retreats for Young Life, area churches and other ministries.

“The Eastern Division does a lot of camping at East Coast camps,” Jacques said. “In fact, 88 percent of the people who come to eastern camps come from the Eastern Division. Tens of thousands of kids come through here and lives have definitely been changed.”

Room for all
As the demand has increased for Lake Champion, so have the growing pains. A cramped kitchen, overcrowded dining hall and inadequate game room present challenges to everyday camping operations. But the Lake Champion Campaign is in motion, and ground has been broken for the new dining hall, which will seat 600 people comfortably.

The existing dining hall will be converted into a game room and snack bar. Serving good food and having fun — two things Young Life does so well — will be happening for many more years to come.

And as Lake Champion forges ahead, what Young Life has always done best at camp — proclaiming the truth about Jesus Christ — will also continue.

Marvin Heaps is sure of it. He accepted Christ after a conversation with Jim Rayburn at Star Ranch in 1949. Currently, Heaps is Trustee Emeritus of the Young Life Board, a member of the Young Life Foundation and helping to raise funds for Lake Champion.

“I was on the Board when we voted to approve the purchase of Lake Champion,” Heaps said. “At that time, the facilities were limited. But it is a camp that has continued to expand in every way. And its purpose has always been the same: to bring kids to Christ.”

The improvements that have been made over time and the ones that are currently in the works benefit the kids because Young Life keeps its focus on sharing the Gospel with kids, Nixon said.

“We’re improving things so that the leaders can really have quality time with kids,” he said. “The focal point of camp is getting kids in a position where they can hear the Gospel, and we do that in a way kids can understand. That part of camping won’t change.”

The best news about Lake Champion from the last two decades is that kids have been going there and meeting Christ. And as leaders continue to bring kids to camp with them year after year, Christ will continue to pursue their hearts. And Lake Champion plans to have a place for them all.