For the second time in two weeks, Mountain T.O.P. has lost a great friend. Last week, of course, it was Mary Margaret Willems. This week, it was Ken Swift.
If you’ve only been involved in Mountain T.O.P. in the past few years, you might not have ever known Ken. He was the ministry’s food service manager for many years, and in the last few years of his tenure he worked with facilities as well. He had been involved in the ministry since the very beginning, if I recall correctly, when George Bass and his youth group from Blakemore United Methodist founded Mountain T.O.P. in 1975.
Ken was a member of our 20th anniversary storybook committee in 1995, providing a vital link to those early years. He was a man with a kind spirit and a quiet disposition. He was also a great cook. He loved the Mountain T.O.P. ministry deeply.
Obviously, I never met Roger Ebert. But I admired him greatly as a writer. Most people knew him from TV, but he was a newspaperman first and foremost, a Pulitzer Prize winner and a living symbol of the Chicago Sun-Times. When cancer took his voice and reshaped his face, he kept on going, both in print and on television.
In recent years, his online presence allowed him to write, in thoughtful and brilliantly-expressed views, about a wide range of subjects unrelated to movies. He policed the comment sections under his blog posts, and they consistently drew a high level of spirited but respectful discussion. I often agreed with him and always respected him.
The other life lost to cancer today was Mary Margaret Willems. Her, I knew. We’d been halfway across the globe together as members of a LEAMIS International Ministries mission team. I saw the love in her eyes and the cellophane gloves on her hands as she handed peanut butter sandwiches to special needs kids from Grundy County as part of Mountain T.O.P.’s Kaleidoscope program. How many hours did she spend in the dining hall kitchen at Cumberland Pines, feeding kids, teenagers or adults? There’s no way of telling. I’ve stayed with Bob and Mary Margaret on several occasions when LEAMIS was holding a training event or a board meeting in Monteagle.
Mary Margaret and my mother were both breast cancer survivors. The pancreatic cancer that claimed my mother was, we were told, completely unrelated to her breast cancer. But I believe the cancer that took Mary Margaret was a holdover, an enemy thought vanquished but only lying in wait.
Damn, I hate cancer.
I had a long day of work today, but tonight I’m doing the work of Relay. Bob knows, and Mary Margaret knew, about the American Cancer Society Relay For Life. They were participants, there in Grundy County. They donated to me the first time I did Relay.
On my way back from working for our sister paper in Marshall County, I stopped by House of Prayer Ministries here in Shelbyville to take photos of the dress rehearsal for the annual “Hee Haw & Howdy” revue, a cancer society benefit here in Bedford County since the 1970s. Opening night for this year’s “Hee Haw & Howdy” will be April 12. That was the birthday of another cancer victim: my mother.
After leaving the Hee Haw cast to their hilarity, I had to drop by my father’s house to pick up the strawberry cake he has baked for the Times-Gazette’s Relay For Life bake sale tomorrow. Now, I have the first of two loaves of home-baked bread proofing on my kitchen table, ready to go into the oven in a few minutes. Those loaves will also go into the same bake sale.
Even if you didn’t know Mary Margaret, or my mother, and even if you weren’t a Roger Ebert fan, you have lost someone to cancer. You also know someone who has beaten cancer, almost certainly with the help of advances derived from American Cancer Society-funded research.
The Relay For Life motto is “Celebrate. Remember. Fight Back.” As we celebrate cancer survivors, and remember those we’ve lost, let’s not forget the third part of that equation. Get a colonoscopy. Use sunscreen. Exercise. It’s not too late to form a Relay For Life team, wherever you are, but if that’s not in the cards you can donate to a team or individual. Drop by your local Relay; it’s not just for the registered participants. There will be concessions, and fun activities, and a moving luminaria ceremony.
He’s right. Let’s make some noise; let’s finish this fight.
Each year, on the weekend after New Year’s, the Mountain T.O.P. ministry holds a winter gathering. The largest group in attendance is composed of former summer staff – some from the previous summer, some from prior years. It’s a wonderful reunion for them, and every few minutes you hear squeals of delight as someone new enters the room and is recognized. The event also serves as a chance for the full-time staff to try to talk some of the former staffers into re-enlisting.
But while the 20-somethings rule the evening (and many will spend the night in camp tonight), the event is open to old geezers as well – current and former board members (I served on the Mountain T.O.P. board for a total of 12 years between 1994 and 2007, with a couple of one-year breaks in there somewhere), Adults In Ministry (AIM) regulars (I also fit into this category, although I’m not as regular as I wish I were), and other friends of the ministry.
The event was held tonight at Cumberland Pines, near Altamont, Tenn., and it was a wonderful evening. There was fellowship, a great meal, a slide show of the ministry’s 2012 events, and the reveal of the 2013 ministry theme, “Faith Works,” which is based on James 2:14-17. The theme, which features a nifty tool belt-and-nametag logo, will be referenced at camp worship services throughout the year and will appear on the year’s official T-shirt, prep materials and so on.
A special highlight of this year’s gathering was a salute to Samantha Tashman, who has served for several years now on the ministry’s full-time staff but who is leaving to marry former summer staff member Mark McGlothlin. Tonight was her last official duty as a staff member. “Sam” is the friendly face and voice in the ministry’s official recruitment videos, like this one:
She has worked tirelessly for the ministry in many ways, and will be dearly missed. The Rev. Ed Simmons, Mountain T.O.P.’s executive director, showed a slide show featuring Sam going back to her days on summer staff, and he presented her with a beautiful wash basin and pitcher as a recognition of her spirit of servanthood, the same spirit with which Jesus washed the feet of his disciples.
I was thrilled to see so many good friends at the gathering – Jan Schilling, “Smitty” Smith, Reed and Deeda Bradford, Bob and Mary Margaret Willems, Doug Warner, and many others. I didn’t really need a reminder of why I love this ministry so much, but this was a reminder anyway.
I also got to see the footings that have been dug for the new second Friends Cabin, which will be located right next to the existing Friends Cabin across from the dining hall.
A wonderful evening, and it was worth the windy drive down the mountain to Pelham in the drizzle and dark afterward.
When I spoke to my father earlier today, he was in a break from the long task of taking down Christmas decorations. I, living by myself in a slovenly apartment with few house guests, didn’t have to work quite as hard. I had a three-foot-tall fiber optic tree which I unplugged a little while ago and took back into the storage room. It took me all of 30 seconds.
I had one other piece of holiday décor, which I didn’t have to unplug because it never really got plugged in. It was a jar, painted as a snowman, that I made last summer while assisting Jean Nulle in her arts and crafts workshop at Summer Plus. (Jean gave her helpers the chance to make the same crafts the teens were making, which is always fun.) It had a very short power cord, and there was simply no good place for me to plug it up. But as I was unplugging the tree, I decided to plug the snowman into the extension cord I’d been using for the tree and leave it up, at least for a little while, as a wintertime decoration.
Yes, I painted this myself. It’s a mason jar. It’s hard to see the texture in this photo – it was hard to get a good photo of it with my smartphone – but it has a frost-like appearance created by blotting the white paint on with the end of the brush. (A spray-on varnish had been applied first, as a primer, to help the paint adhere to the glass.) Then, the face was painted on top of the white paint. A short string of Christmas lights provides the interior light, and the felt hat, with ribbon trim, hides the cord, which dangles from the back like a ponytail.
By the way, one of the ornaments on my tree was also a Summer Plus souvenir – a little unglazed ceramic snowman which each participant painted.
OK, folks, here we go – the dates for Mountain T.O.P. Adults In Ministry’s week-long camps next summer are now posted on the ministry’s website:
AIM Week 1: June 9 – 15, 2013, Major Home Repair -or- Kaleidoscope
AIM Week 2: June 23 – 29, 2013, Major Home Repair -or- Summer Plus
AIM Week 3: July 7 – 13, 2013, Major Home Repair -or- Quest
What this means is that if you come, alone or as part of a group, to week 1, each person can individually choose (prior to camp) whether to participate in major home repair or in Kaleidoscope. If you come week 2, each person can choose between MHR and Summer Plus. Week 3, each person can choose between major home repair or Quest.
The descriptions below are my own, although I think they’re accurate:
Major Home Repair: Teams of about six people are formed on Sunday night of camp. Each team works all week at the same site, helping to improve the home of a needy Cumberland Mountain family. The guided but volunteer-driven team selection process is intended to give each team a balance of men and women, various ages and skill levels. Prior experience is not necessary; teams include everyone from complete newbies to professional contractors.
Kaleidoscope: An arts program for elementary-age special-needs children. Volunteers can either sign up to lead a workshop (music, drawing, arts and crafts, etc.) or just to assist the kids and workshop leaders. “Special needs” is broadly-interpreted and might include everything from severe disabilities to ADD/ADHD or just a really crummy family situation. Volunteers pick the kids up from homes each morning, bring them to camp, and take them home each afternoon. On Friday, the workshops demonstrate what they’ve learned at a celebration attended by the kids’ family members.
Summer Plus: Enrichment workshops for young teenagers from Grundy County – mostly 12-15. Past workshops have included cooking, juggling, creative writing, tennis, arts and crafts, women’s self-defense, photography, drama, creating a camp newsletter, and so on. Potential leaders are welcome to suggest their own ideas. Each workshop is two hours a day for four days, so in many cases it’s more of an introduction than a complete class, meaning you may be more qualified to lead a workshop than you realize. Teens attend one workshop in the morning and a different one in the afternoon. Most volunteers who do want to lead a workshop do so during one session and assist with someone else’s workshop during the other session, but gluttons for punishment like my friend Robert Matthews lead two different workshops (Robert teaches both juggling and photography). It’s even possible to have two separate sessions of the same workshop if the volunteer leader is willing and the staff feels there’s enough interest among the teens to justify it. And, as with Kaleidoscope, you can sign up just to be a helper if there’s nothing you feel like teaching.
As with Kaleidoscope, volunteers pick the kids up each morning and drop them off each afternoon, and there’s a Friday celebration for each workshop to demonstrate or describe its content.
Quest: A relatively-new program, and the only one in which I haven’t participated. This also involves teens from Grundy County. It’s an adventure program – high ropes course, low ropes course, rappelling, rock climbing, horseback riding and a service day. Volunteers, as I understand it, may but are not required to participate in the activities themselves. Those who don’t participate in a given activity can function as encouragers.
The volunteers (most of whom travel to camp from out-of-state) spend the week staying at Camp Cumberland Pines near Altamont, Tenn. Friends Cabin is air-conditioned, with two adults staying in each room. In the evening, after the home repair teams have returned to camp and after the Kaleidoscope/Summer Plus/Quest teens have been taken home, the home repair and youth-program volunteers come back together into a full camp community for supper. Volunteers have a time of sharing at which they can talk about the day’s joys and concerns, and then a brief, but creative and participatory, worship service. On Wednesday of a camp week, there’s a cookout followed by free time which volunteers can spend out in the county (or in their bunk napping).
There are, of course, some AIM weekends (major home repair only) coming up this fall, and I encourage you to check those out, especially if your situation won’t allow you to take a week off during the summer. But I love the richer experience, team-building and sense of community you get during a full week-long camp.
It used to be a standing joke in situation comedies that people who have been on vacation loved showing their slides, and that said slide shows were intolerable for those subjected to them. But I’m going to put this slideshow out there anyway.
A day or two after I returned from my Mountain T.O.P. Adults In Ministry week, I posted my own video of the event. But the ministry has now posted the official camp slide show of that camp week to YouTube. The slide show, an AIM tradition, is shown on Friday night of a camp week.
This differs from my video in that it shows everything that was going on. My video only shows things for which I was present and had my phone handy. In this slide show, you’ll see all of the various Summer Plus workshops (enrichment workshops, organized by the adult volunteers, for teens from Grundy County), as well as both of the home repair sites at which we had volunteers working. You also get a lot of camp life, including various worship services and our Wednesday night cookout. At 2:51, you see me leading my creative writing workshop (although it’s a candid, un-posed shot, and I’m looking away from the camera). I’m also in numerous other photos.
The slide show used to be purely a staff responsibility, back when it was done with actual slides in a carousel. Nowadays, they get many of the photos by asking campers who are willing to share their digital photos. They seemed to have more than the normal quota of out-of-focus shots this time, and for that I apologize. But there’s plenty to see that’s in focus.
I hope you enjoy this. If you’d like information about being a part of an AIM weekend this fall, or a week-long AIM event next summer, contact me or go to the Mountain T.O.P. web site.
Well, my week at Mountain T.O.P. Adults In Ministry was incredible. I didn’t really want to leave, and I really wish I’d been able to work in two separate AIM weeks this summer as I did last year and as I did frequently in the mid- 1990s and up to about 2003 or so.
Summer Plus, Day One, is in the books, and I think it went well. Creative writing workshop was larger, and more participatory, than last year. When I talked about writing a group story, a couple of the teens even said that they wanted to write their own stories — which thrilled me to death. Continue reading →
I will be participating in Summer Plus, leading a creative writing workshop for teens from remote mountain communities. I’m not sure whether my workshop will be in the morning or the afternoon; whichever it is, in the other half of the day I’ll be assisting in a workshop taught by someone else. (I don’t know what that will be yet.)