A Slice of Heaven
A pristine lake, tall pine trees and crystal-clear air greeted me as I walked though Camp Woodstock in up-state Connecticut. Camp Woodstock is a YMCA Camp that was first opened in 1922.
For the past several years, I have been traveling to Camp Woodstock to provide leadership training for the young staff there. Most are college students with hopes of a promising future and all very willing to learn how they could develop into effective leaders. Many are from foreign countries. All of them are intelligent, positive, and energetic. It is a pleasure to work with these young people.
The first time I visited Camp Woodstock I was drawn to a lodge at the camp’s center. It is an impressive structure, made of rustic pine boards with two majestic fireplaces adorning each end of the structure. All paths in the camp seem to lead to this lodge.
I noticed a plaque hanging on a wall inside the lodge. It told a story about the man the lodge was dedicated to. His name was Elmer “Pop” Thienes.
In the summer of 1938, a devastating hurricane hit the east coast and the storm tore through Camp Woodstock. It destroyed every building in the camp and knocked down over a hundred trees.
The Board Meets
About a week later the camp board of directors met in an emergency meeting to determine what to do. There was only one item on the agenda for that board meeting. The agenda read: “Whether to Go On, or Not?”
Each board member got up and spoke. Not one thought they had the resources or energy to go on with the camp. The reasons were many including that the country was still in the depression, the economy was bad, and they would never get enough donations to rebuild the camp.
Finally, the last board member got up to speak. He was also the camp director. His name was Pop Thienes. He looked every board member in the eye and then he spoke very loudly and slowly. He said, “We are asking the wrong question. We should not be asking whether to go on or not. The only question we should be asking is, how do we go on.”
Pop Thienes continued by saying there was an evil that was gripping Europe in the person of Adolf Hitler, and the hatred he was spreading. Pop said that if ever there was a time where the YMCA values of Honesty, Caring, Respect, and Responsibility should be taught to young people, that time was now. There was no question – the camp had to go on.
Pop’s remarks inspired the other board members, and after a brief discussion, the board voted to continue the camp. The board was able to raise $4,000.
Even in 1938 this sum was not large enough to rebuild Camp Woodstock. The Camp Woodstock Board of Directors were stymied, but due to Pop’s leadership, they were determined to find a way to continue. This crisis called for imagination, creativity and it called for action.
Soon there was an idea about how to use the $4,000. The team decided to purchase a portable sawmill. Using that sawmill, a group of volunteers transformed the trees knocked down during the storm into lumber and the lumber was used to construct new buildings throughout the camp. These volunteers rebuilt the camp using the very trees that were brought down by the hurricane.
The very lodge I was standing in as I read this inspirational story of resilience was built by the downed trees that were converted to lumber in that sawmill. If overcoming adversity is the act of transforming from a current state to a preferred and better state, then the lodge I stood in was a monument to the resilient spirit. It was a monument to Pop Thienes himself.
Since 1939, when the camp was reopened, tens of thousands of young people have made the journey through Camp Woodstock. These young people learned the YMCA values of Honesty, Caring, Respect, and Responsibility. They also learned about resiliency. Because of their experience in the forests of Camp Woodstock these young people have become better American citizens for the lessons they learned at the camp.
Pop said Camp Woodstock should pledge itself to loving everyone regardless of creed or color. He concluded that this was, “The highest moral act of which we are capable, and the surest witness of our purpose to emulate the character of Christ.”
The bronze dedication plaque on the building reads:
Dedicated to Elmer “Pop” Thienes,
Our first director, whose vision for Camp Woodstock preserved us in our darkest hour following the devastation of the hurricane of 1938.