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Best summer ever

Encountering Kanakuk

Wild cheering resounded through the trees for a half-mile, swelling into a roar as we strolled the downhill path toward welcoming ceremonies at 92-year-old Kamp Kanakuk on the outskirts of Branson.

This was the day 11-year-old granddaughter Elizabeth was arriving to begin her two-week stay at the Christian-oriented, 45-acre summer camp that has hosted a half-million campers from across the nation since opening in 1926.

Picture a little girl with a line of equally eager faces waiting behind her stepping onto a stage in front of 100 cheering, college-aged counselors wearing green Kanakuk shirts, leaping with hands above their heads and cheering her arrival (and all others). The cheerleading counselor, microphone in hand, asks her name and her assigned cabin number.

She shyly responds: "My name's Elizabeth. I'm in Cabin 12."

Immediate screams of approval again become deafening. Counselors wave their arms and some dance or bounce as the cheerleader's amplified announcement reverberates above the din: "This is Elizaaaabeth and she's in Caaabin tweeeelve!"

The counselor for Elizabeth's cabin sprints up a runway to the makeshift stage, sweeps Elizabeth into her arms and carries her back where they kneel to pose for a picture.

Such excitement generated by these carefully screened counselors chosen from across the nation (12 percent from Arkansas colleges) continued for more than two hours as 350 children of varying ethnicities continued arriving to the rhythm of upbeat background music and energized melee.

After the counselors shepherded their arrivals to enjoy snow cones, it was off for play time. Many headed immediately to the enormous well-monitored pool and its massive floating "Blob." This camp clearly squeezes every minute of enjoyment into the motto on signs along the pathways proclaiming "Best Summer Ever."

The website for Camp Kanakuk is openly evangelical in its screening, hiring and mission. The bottom-line goal is to instill a fundamental sense that campers are third, which means God is first in their lives. Caring for others is second, then themselves. In simpler terms, following the Golden Rule.

I wanted to know more about this escape that helps shape positive and caring young attitudes. Among many things, I discovered campers choose from more than 70 activities ranging from ziplines and waterslides to soccer, baseball and gymnastics. "They can try new activities in a fun, encouraging environment and possibly find a new favorite pursuit," said Monique Cooper from Kanakuk's administration. "Best of all, our campers are able to leave the devices and screens at home and engage with the fun, faith and friendships without the distraction of capturing perfect moments. Instead, they make them."

Each Kanakuk term hosts about 350 campers (they say Kampers) at its 45-acre flagship Kamp K-1. That equals about 1,500 K-1 campers over the summer. "Almost 10,000 kids ages 6 through 18 will visit our five overnight camps combined this summer," Monique said.

The Kanakuk organization has five overnight camps for children of varying ages across Branson and Lampe, Mo., as well as its K-Kauai camp for families.

"This year, we will host more than 10,000 campers throughout the summer in our overnight camps, and around 20,000 across our overnight, day and family camp programs. Since 1926 we've hosted more than 500,000," said Monique.

The overnight camps are planned, she said, "with intentionality to help build friendships, teach teamwork, and above all point campers to our loving heavenly father."

"Our staff also is trained to notice and develop areas of talent and strength, while encouraging each child to try new things," she continued. "Accomplishing something new ultimately builds confidence that lasts far beyond their time at Kanakuk. We consistently hear from parents who see compassion grow in their children as a result."

Attending a place like Kanakuk is not inexpensive. All that's offered requires adequate funding. However, the generosity of donors enables a number of scholarships to every camp for qualified campers.

A program known as KampOut also began five years ago as a way to bring the experience to towns across the nation through partnerships with local churches. More than 1,000 day campers from Arkansas participated in Kanakuk experiences this summer, including in Little Rock and Fayetteville.

I wondered about qualities Kanakuk seeks in its counselors. "Kanakuk has a very high standard for staff character. We realize the college students who lead campers will be lasting role models for each child. We seek students who share our core values and mission to equip the next generation of leaders, embodied through a passion for the Christian faith. There's a desire to protect, encourage and develop children with individual attention ... and a platform for personal growth, enthusiasm and an others-focused team perspective," Monique said.

I realized what a gift these youngsters would carry throughout life because of this experience. Who wouldn't always remember being cheered as a child by an excited and exuberant group of idealized college-aged counselors who made you feel unconditionally cherished from the moment you met?

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Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

Editorial on 06/10/2018

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