Starting Fresh: How one couple staged a dramatic camp comeback

This article was published in InSite.

It was Valentine’s Day in 2004 when Stan and Valeri Walker fell in love—with Hartstone Bible Camp in Potter Valley, California.

And the camp, which has been in operation since the mid-60s, needed it. Old computers, appliances, vehicles, and other misfit debris were scattered throughout the property. Cabins were sagging and buildings were unattractive and in bad need of repair. Other more hidden aspects of the camp, like finances, strategy, and reputation, were in dire condition.

Dave Ferguson, adult ministries pastor at Santa Rosa Bible Church, where the Walkers attended, knew the couple was supporting the camp financially and took them up to see it for themselves. Both had visited the camp at some point—Valeri had decided to follow Christ as a child there—but neither had been in more recent years.

It’s a good thing he did. That February day at the camp was the beginning of an answer to prayer.

“On November 11, 2002, I wrote a prayer: ‘Lord, let something that would be really fulfilling find me,” Stan says.

Over the last two years, Stan and Valeri, a couple with little camp experience, have taken the challenge to follow God’s call and transform the ministry from the outside in.

From the Ground Up
The Walkers’ adult camp experience totaled taking their kids to a family camp with no specific faith focus for 10 years.

“The reality is that we really had no camping background,” Stan says. “But the more Valeri and I talked about it and the more we prayed about it, [we realized] God had brought us there for a reason. We didn’t need to figure it out; we just needed to be faithful.”

Looking back, the couple can see how God prepared them for the volunteer directing position.
Stan owns a construction business, which had readied him for much-needed repair work at the camp and given him financial resources to be able to direct on a volunteer basis. Valeri, who is gifted in administration, has done extensive volunteer work in local schools, such as organizing large fund raisers. Both, their pastors say, are great with people.

“We just started looking at each other and saying, ‘Have you ever thought about doing something different?’” Valeri says.

After their first camp visit, “we saw that we could make a difference just in helping up there,” Stan says.

Hartstone had been a year without a director and programs were dwindling when the camp invited Stan to be on the board. In October of 2004, the couple was asked to take on the director position. This wasn’t an easy decision; Stan had planned to retire in seven years. But as they were encouraged by industry experts from CCCA, and as they relied on God for direction, the couple knew it was right.

“It almost felt like the Lord had tapped us on the shoulder: ‘I have blessed you, I have trained you, I have gifted you—now go serve me,’” Stan says. “Clearly, it was time to give back to the Lord in ways we could have never imagined.”

Cleanup Time
Since taking the directorship, Stan and Valeri have made some dramatic changes on the property. Perhaps the biggest has been the cleanup efforts.

While people describing the camp say they don’t wish to condemn past leaders, they can’t help but notice the difference the couple has made.

“I tallied up all the debris that was taken off the camp to clean it up, and there were over 100 tons,” says Dave, who served on the Hartstone Bible Camp board recently for a short time. “Stan and Valeri made things happen. They’ve cleaned it up, and it’s just beautiful. People are using words like pristine.”

Dave, who calls the Hartstone camp setting ideal, says the gentle slope, hills, and scenic views are a major strength of the ministry. Cutting away dead trees and clearing out a large quantity of poison oak accentuated the property’s beauty.

With help, the Walkers cleaned and hauled away truckloads of junk, thankful for Stan’s business equipment. In cabins, they painted, fixed broken items, inserted screens, and replaced broken windows.

Then, they began to make small improvements to make consistency part of the site. For example, they removed varied signs and put ones up that were similar, and added directional arrows around the camp. They also inserted unique touches, such as an old wooden wagon as a sign holder.

“I like to do creative things, and that makes it fun, and gives the camp some character,” Valeri says.

Extra Help
In order to accomplish the colossal task of cleaning up the camp and getting it on its feet again, Stan and Valeri recruited dozens of volunteers.

“[The Walkers] set a climate of inclusiveness; people want to help,” Dave says.

To gather volunteers, Stan and Valeri made a presentation at their church, and had sign-ups for work parties. Individuals cooked, cleaned, made repairs, and donated heavy equipment. They also staffed the camp during the summer.

“I know that I have a gift of exhortation,” Stan says. “I’m an encourager, and I know that I can share a vision and people can get it.”

Along with Stan’s encouragement and Valeri’s organizational skills, the couple’s enthusiasm was contagious.

“Stan’s an eternal optimist and can really see the good that can be there,” says Stan Willis, president of the Hartstone board. “That’s helped lift us along. He’s been able to maintain the focus on what can be done and what needs to be done. He can see the diamond in the rough.”

Mission Possible
As they peeled away debris and spruced up buildings and grounds, the Walkers realized there was a deeper issue. The camp had attempted to reach everyone, and in doing so had reached very few. It was time for a change.

“We’ve definitely re-centered our thinking,” Stan Willis says. “We’re making family camp—parents with their kids—our primary objective. It’s not a youth camp, although we certainly can provide that. Our goal is to reach [church] families and be there for families to reconnect and get together in the beauty and quiet.”

The new mission statement reads, “Strengthening traditional family values and enhancing church unity by providing a natural environment where the work of the Holy Spirit will change lives for the glory of God.”

The camp isn’t complex—and the Walkers like it that way. They believe the activities offered on the riverfront property, such as hiking, campfire singing, rope swinging, archery, fishing, tubing, and sand volleyball, can be instrumental in drawing families together and closer to God as they leave the city and its trappings behind.

“They have taken [Hartstone] on as kind of an extension of their home,” the board president says. “I think that’s what’s going to make family camp successful.”

Now that the mission is established, the board is working to establish three-, five-, and ten-year plans.

New Friends
In addition to having clear direction, the Walkers were aware that building relationships was vital for the camp’s success. Previously, neighbors had been standoffish at best, and the group of independent Bible churches—the IFCA—to which the camp belongs was limited in the amount of support it could provide.

“The camp had lost over the years some of the people, and some of the churches that would regularly go,” Stan Willis says. “So we’ve got to convince people to come try it again.”

Visits to neighbors accompanied by invitations to see the new and improved camp—including food that now gets rave reviews—helped begin to mend relationships. The Walkers also asked area pastors to stop by, and encouraged people from non-IFCA congregations to come to camps sponsored by Santa Rosa Bible Church.

“Neighbor relations have gone from adversarial to pleasant, just because of the attitude of the directors and board,” Dave says.

The Walkers knew that other issues that guests didn’t see were also in desperate need of attention. They and the board made a substantial effort to be certain of good financial standing in terms of bills, taxes, and the like, which wasn’t the case a couple of years ago. A board member who is a banker has been very instrumental in this process.

In addition, the board itself has been gradually revamped as various members moved off. Today, the members are those who have stepped up since the Walkers began leading the ministry. The directors are working to build up the board with more members.

“No director or board member could do this on his or her own,” Stan says. “We must be a team.”

* * *

As the Walkers continue to reach families and steadily improve the property, they admit there are challenges ahead. There are water system problems, a reputation to strengthen, potential guests to reach, and volunteers to constantly recruit.

And falling in love with Hartstone hasn’t been easy. Both Stan and Valeri have made substantial sacrifices and run into rough spots along the way.

But to them, it will be worth every step of the journey.“We had many campers come up and say, ‘This place feels good,’” Stan says of a summer program. “It’s contagious. The joy and laughter was just amazing to experience.”