Campers connect with Christ in solitude of nature

Posted 11/26/20

Camp Deer Run director Ty Ford asked his summer staff to describe the impact which the camp has had on their lives. The overwhelming answer was a simple, “I am not alone.”

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Campers connect with Christ in solitude of nature

The inside of one of the pavilions at Camp Deer Run is painted with reminders from past campers.
The inside of one of the pavilions at Camp Deer Run is painted with reminders from past campers.
(Monitor photo by John Arbter)

Camp Deer Run director Ty Ford asked his summer staff to describe the impact which the camp has had on their lives. The overwhelming answer was a simple, “I am not alone.”

Ford related the story in an effort to define the value of the camp.

Surrounded by office walls covered with written affirmations, Ford opened his arms. “All of these affirmations came from campers and staff,” he said. Ford explained that they represent personal truths and are motivational for campers and staff alike. 

Camp Deer Run is an institution in Wood County. The Christian summer youth camp was the vision of Benny Bristow, long-time pastor of Winnsboro Church of Christ. 

Bristow purchased the original 100-acre tract in the 1950s. He envisioned a summer youth camp focused on building a personal relationship with Jesus. To see his idea come to fruition, he required solitude and simplicity, in a setting of God’s creation. 

His vision has been fully realized in the hills just east of Ogburn. Today Camp Deer Run provides spiritual guidance to 1,200 children annually. 

The grounds now encompass 300 acres of tree-covered hillsides traversed by the Little Cypress Creek. 

Bristow is a proud part of the camp’s history. Ford recounted how Bristow pressed and kiln-dried the bricks with which the original cabins were built.  Bristow and members of his flock spent untold hours building those cabins, one of which still stands today. 

That sense of commitment was passed to E.H. Smith, who served as director for 25 years. Ford is the latest to serve and is now in his 15th year as full-time director. 

“We have three desired outcomes from the camp experience,” Ford explained. “…that God becomes real in the lives of the young people, that their faith becomes their own personal faith, and that the impact of that relationship lasts a lifetime.”

Those lofty goals could be easily dismissed as nearly impossible to achieve. Yet, the evidence of its success resides in the lives of those who have been alumni of the camp. That includes the summer staff who return to share their stories of faith each year.

The recipe used by Ford and his staff is remarkably straightforward.

“We use fun, simplicity and solitude to see God’s presence in all,” he stated.  

Ford went on to explain that the camp does not bring in ministers, nor is it affiliated with any specific faith group within Christianity.  

A walk around the south-facing, timbered hillside on which the camp is located begins to bring the effort into focus. Ford had said that they keep things simple. There is no zip-lining or trampolines or high-tech wizardry. There are two large open fields, two pavilions, one swimming pool, an art and craft building and stables. 

Campers are housed in small cabins with no running water or air conditioning. The boys’ cabins and girls’ cabins are on opposite sides of the camp common area. Shower facilities and toilets are located separately.

The camp accommodations are utilitarian but not spartan. The recent $1.2 million cafeteria building, which also houses the camp offices, stands out as the greatest exception to the basic camp standard.

The new general mess building was long overdue as the previous cafeteria was undersized and resulted in almost a constant feeding schedule throughout the day. The new facility can easily handle a regular daily schedule of three meals and two snacks.

There are two standard overnight camp regimes each summer between May and August, a one-week and a two-week stint. During each of these stays, campers conduct an “out-camping” experience in the woods outside the camp. These out-camping overnights have proven to be tremendous confidence-builders for the young people as well as exceptional bonding experiences. 

Central to the Camp Deer Run experience is the reenactment of Jesus’ crucifixion. The reenactment is put on by members of the summer staff, and as Ford relates, it is very authentic. It remains the capstone event of one’s stay. 

Ford was practically pre-destined to become director. He was a regular camper from the age of 11 to adulthood and continued to serve as summer staff. His parents, Tim and Linda Ford of Colleyville, first met while at Camp Deer Run.  

Following his graduation from Oklahoma Christian University in Edmund, Okla., Ford was well-positioned to take the leadership reigns at the camp.

“It was a natural progression,” he admitted. 

A non-profit organization, the board of directors contract four full-time employees: the director, a secretary, a maintenance man and a communications specialist. The 60 summer staff who are the counselors of the camp are college-aged, previous attendees.

Overnight campers are aged 9-17. There is a day-camper option for youngsters aged 5-8.

If there is a physical touchstone of the camp it is the pavilion. The wooden-framed structure with a low-raftered ceiling is outfitted with long benches. It is covered in small painted memorials left by each camper at the conclusion of their tenure. Most are just painted names, but many have a brief quote or a small sketch or remark. 

Ford pointed his name out with ease.

Registration for the camp opens in early January. Ford advised that usually 900 of the 1,200 available openings are filled in the first couple of hours. The camp can be found on all major social media and produces its own podcast.    

While the coronavirus did truncate this past summers’ activities, Ford is introspective about the past and excited about the season to come.

“We trust that He will provide what is needed for us to serve Him,” he summarized.