Ready to go

Well, I seem to be just about packed, except for the last few things I can’t throw in the suitcase until after I get up in the morning. I am, believe it or not, sleeping in swim trunks tonight so that I can take every available pair of underwear to camp with me.

I have more to pack this time than I did two weeks ago, since I’m leading a workshop at Summer Plus. At Kaleidoscope, I was just (allegedly) helping, and I didn’t have to worry about providing content.

According to Rebecca this morning, I will have one session of creative writing, in the afternoon. Jan Lloyd-Gohl, in her workshop, is going to have her kids write a camp newspaper, and so I’m going to speak to her workshop at some point about my experience in newspapers.

Mountain T.O.P. posts a list of individual campers online for each AIM event (and a list of church groups for each youth ministry week) so that you can check and see if your friends are coming. I’ve never asked recruiter Samantha Tashman about this, but I’m presuming that once the summer camp ministry season starts, she and the rest of the staff have a lot less time available for updating this online list. So it’s possible – though I doubt it — that there may be last-minute signups not reflected on the list as it now appears online. Even if there are a few last-minute additions, however, this will be a smaller camp than the one I was with two weeks ago. That’s good for camp community, not so good in terms of the amount of work we can accomplish. Any last-minute additions would tend to be home repair volunteers, not Summer Plus, since the list of available Summer Plus workshops needs to be tied down at some point prior to camp.

There are a lot of familiar names on the list, however, including

  • Summer Plus stalwart Robert Matthews (who will teach two different workshops – photography and juggling – and is great at both);
  • Former AIM staffer Sonja Goold, who did me a great favor earlier this year by recommending the Daily Audio Bible podcast;
  • Kim Lachler, with whom – like Sonja – I’ve been on a LEAMIS foreign mission trip;
  • Gwynda Patterson, a past AIM camp director; and
  • Long-time friend of Mountain T.O.P. Doug Warner. Doug was, like me, at Cumberland Pines two weeks ago. But he wasn’t an AIM camper; instead, he had accompanied youth from his home church, Germantown UMC in Shelby County, to the Youth Summer Ministry camp taking place simultaneous to AIM. I got to wave at him once or twice. This week, he’ll be at AIM.

It will be good to see everyone.

Two weeks ago, I had to get up very early to help cook men’s club breakfast on the morning I left for camp. I can sleep in a little this time.

Google me

Here’s a weird one; I happened to look up Mountain T.O.P.’s base camp, Cumberland Pines, on Google Earth tonight. Cumberland Pines is where I spent last week and will spend the next one.

Here’s the funny part. In the Google Earth imagery, there’s one little white vehicle parked in between the dining hall and Friends Cabin. It’s hard to judge from the fuzzy image, but I think it may be my car.

The date on the imagery is Oct. 7, 2010, which was the first night of an Adults In Ministry weekend last fall. I attended that weekend. I don’t recall being the first one there, especially since I would have had to drive up after work, although that would certainly be typical of me.

A great, great week

Fun in camp

I returned this morning from a completely satisfactory week at Mountain T.O.P. Adults In Ministry. As I’ve explained recently, I was on the Mountain T.O.P. board for 12 years over a 14-year period starting in 1994. I love the AIM program and used to regularly attend two different week-long AIM events each summer, just as I’m doing this summer. I would do a week of Kaleidoscope – an arts program for special-needs kids, ages 6-11, from the remote and poverty-stricken hills of Grundy County. I would also do a week of Summer Plus, an enrichment program for teens 12 and up.

However, all but one of the mission trips I’ve taken since 2003 have fallen in mid-summer, making it difficult or impossible for me to go to AIM as well. I made one week in 2006, somehow. I’ve also been to a few of the fall AIM weekends (at which only home repair is offered), and while those are fun they aren’t the same kind of camp community you get at a week-long event.

I’m taking a break from the foreign trips this year, and that opened the door for me to head back to AIM. I was a caregiver at Kaleidoscope this week; a week from tomorrow, I will return to camp for a week of Summer Plus, teaching creative writing.

Monday morning was, in some ways, a little shaky. It started well – I led a morning devotional which was well-received. But then, as Reenie Fulton and I prepared to leave on our morning transportation route, I made a pit stop and managed to dunk my smartphone in the toilet bowl. (It dried out and is fine.)

Then, when we got back to camp, the second thing happened. We had a severely-autistic boy in camp, and we’d been briefed by the Kaleidoscope staff that he was a runner. Sure enough, during our opening circle, he made a break for it and I set out in pursuit over the bumpy ground of Camp Cumberland Pines.

Before I could catch up, however, I made a three-point landing, badly skinning my right knee and elbow and stretching my left ankle. (I was wearing shorts, as I did for most of the week.)

I spent much of Monday following the autistic boy. Once he was inside the dining hall, running away wasn’t as much of a problem, but he wasn’t able to focus on or relate to the workshop content, and someone needed to keep him out of harm’s way. I did the best I could. It was an exhausting day, and I don’t think I’d have been able to keep it up for a week, but yet it was strangely satisfying.

However, the staff and my teammates – seeing me hobbling around on my ankle, with big dramatic gauze bandages on my knee and elbow – decided that the next day, we needed to start rotating the caregivers from workshop to workshop, something we hadn’t originally planned to do. The next day, still in hobble mode, I felt … lost. There wasn’t much for me to do in the workshop I was assisting. The group of kids in that group were fairly focused and well-behaved. On the occasions when I did need to deal with one of our more troublesome kids – those with behavior problems, arising from a variety of factors – it seemed as if I would struggle and someone else – one of our two Kaleidoscope staff members, or one of my teammates with child care or education experience – would step in and handle the situation much better than I’d been handling it. By the end of Tuesday, I was starting to think I preferred Monday.

Let me back up a bit and explain a little bit about my involvement. I have long been an evangelist for the fact that we need more male participation in Kaleidoscope. Some (not all) of these kids come from poor home situations, and many of them are desperately in lack of loving, Christian male role models. “Uncle” Ben Neal, a great friend of Mountain T.O.P., was a staple of Kaleidoscope for many years, and the kids just adore him, for his grandfatherly personality and because he does a magic show when he’s at Kaleidoscope. But he’s been sidelined the past two summers. Marty Robbins signed up for AIM as a home repair volunteer one year but a shoulder injury the week before camp resulted in him being sent to Kaleidoscope. The kids worshipped the ground he walked on, fought over the chance to try on  his cowboy hat, and Marty was an instant convert. He signed up for Kaleidoscope himself the next year.

This year, however, we had two female Kaleidoscope staff members, six female AIM campers working in Kaleidoscope, a female professional artist from nearby Altamont, and … me.

I flattered myself in advance by telling myself how badly the kids needed a male presence. But I don’t have the bag of tricks that a professional speech therapist, or even an experienced mother and grandmother, professes. Even a father – and happy Father’s Day to all of you – would have more experience than I do. And Tuesday, I just felt like a fifth wheel, like amateur George Plimpton trying to play professional football in order to write a magazine article about it.

Fortunately, our sharing session Tuesday night was broken down by ministry, and so the Kaleidoscope staff and volunteers ended up having an emotional and cathartic session. The home repair folks had long since finished their sharing and were waiting on us so that the camp community could start our nightly worship, but we needed every second of the time we took. I wasn’t the only one who felt the way I did, either. The woman who’d taken over care of the autistic boy was insecure over his own abilities – which was absolutely absurd, because she was doing a tremendous job. She has a quiet, sweet spirit and a patience that just made her perfect to deal with him.

After our sharing on Tuesday, everything just dropped into place on Wednesday. I felt more confident in dealing with the kids and less threatened when I needed someone else’s help in doing so.

Kaleidoscope tends toward a close-knit team of volunteers, and this was no exception. I had a blast. Katie Phillips, a former Mountain T.O.P. summer staff member, taught her workshop group to make rag dolls with a sort of therapeutic value to them – a stand-in to deal with negative emotions. But the dolls themselves were just fun to make, and – grumbling all the while about losing my guy license – I joined the ladies of Kaleidoscope, and a couple of others, late one night as Katie taught us how to make the dolls for fun.

In a summer AIM camp, there are usually something like three-quarters of the campers (representing men and women of all ages) doing major home repair, with the remaining quarter doing Summer Plus, Kaleidoscope or Quest, whichever happens to be offered that week. (Quest is a high-adventure program for teens from Grundy County.) Our AIM community as a whole was a great one. It included a majority of Mountain T.O.P. first-timers, which is always fun and which gives the camp a special crackle and enthusiasm. My Summer Plus week will have far more returning AIM veterans, which is nice in its own way.

The summer AIM staff this year – camp director Betsy, Kaleidoscope coordinators Dani and Rebecca, major home repair coordinator Amelia and program coordinator Mark, who was responsible for our life in camp – were outstanding, and one of many reasons I’m looking forward to getting back to the mountain a week from tomorrow.

It’s going to be a busy week. I’ll have to catch up at work, of course, and I still have to do some preparation for my Summer Plus workshop, and I have to write a sermon this week so that I can deliver it at First UMC on July 3, after I return from Summer Plus.

Ready to go

Well, I’m packed, and I’ve finally gotten my morning devotion finished. (Did I mention I’m doing the morning devotion in camp Monday? Guess not.)

I have to get up early in the morning and help cook men’s club breakfast at my church; after that, I will head home, load up the car, and head for the mountain.

I’m excited. Can you tell?

Getting ready

Just realized I haven’t blogged in five days. I may post some today and tomorrow, and then I’ll be out of pocket for a week or so at Mountain T.O.P. Adults In Ministry, where I’ll be working in Kaleidoscope, an arts program for special needs kids.

It’s been several years since I’ve been to Mountain T.O.P.’s AIM summer ministry. I did an AIM weekend as recently as last fall, but those are different somehow. For one thing, they’re home-repair-only, and home repair has never been my passion as far as AIM is concerned. I always have a good time, but it’s not where my heart is at.

Plus, there’s a definite difference between the type of community that forms for a two-working-day event and the kind that forms for a five-working-day event.

For Kaleidoscope, I will be one of the caregivers, staying with a group of kids as they move from workshop to workshop. Special needs, in Kaleidoscope, can mean anything the school system decides to send our way — from ADD to severe disabilities. Given the surroundings, many come from some level of poverty, and some come from terrible home situations (one or both parents incarcerated, that sort of thing).

Later, when I do my Summer Plus week, I’ll teach creative writing to teenagers from the mountains. I love each program in its own way. The younger kids in Kaleidoscope give you more affection, while the teens give you more interaction. I love talking about creative writing to teenagers, but you never know what you’re going to get. Sometimes you get teens who are interested and focused, which is wonderful; sometimes you get teens for whom creative writing wasn’t their first choice of workshop, which can be miserable for someone like me without a trained and experienced educator’s bag of tricks. The teens attend one workshop in the morning and another in the afternoon. The staff always tries to give them one of their first choices, but depending on the number of teens and the number of volunteers, sometimes their other workshop is not one they signed up for.

This will be an interesting camp week in one other way. In the past, Mountain T.O.P. held summer AIM weeks at rental facilities. Partly, this was because adults generally expect better accomodations than we provide our youth campers, and partly it was because the two camps Mountain T.O.P. owns — Cumberland Pines and Baker Mountain — are both busy during the summer with Mountain T.O.P.’s Youth Summer Ministry (YSM) program. YSM, which involves youth volunteers (and their adult chaperones) from across the country, is the largest and best-known part of the Mountain T.O.P. ministry.

But the rental prices for many of the camp facilities Mountain T.O.P. has used in the past have become prohibitive, and the ministry didn’t want to keep raising the camper fee. So, over the past few years, adult-friendly housing and a second worship area have been added to Cumberland Pines, and this summer AIM will take place at Cumberland Pines at the same time as YSM. Each group will keep to its own areas of the camp, as I understand it; at mealtime, one group will eat on the dining side of the dining hall while the other group will eat on the so-called training side of the dining hall. A large new deck has been added to “Friends Cabin,” where many of the AIM campers will stay, to be used as an evening hangout.

I am really looking forward to this. I’ve been stressing this week, because it’s been a busy week, and because, just having made a car insurance payment, I haven’t had a lot of money for last-minute trip expenses. But I think I’m going to have a great week.

I was going to try to bring my cheap little laptop to check e-mail, but it’s not working correctly. I’ll be able to check e-mail on my smartphone, and may even manage a brief blog post or Facebook status update, but for the most part I’ll be focused on camp next week.

Mountain T.O.P. experience

Okay, now, this isn’t even funny.

As I blogged last week, my all-time favorite band, Daniel Amos, which hasn’t been on tour in a decade, will be in Smyrna on June 13 – when I can’t go to see them, because I’ll be in Altamont for one of the two Mountain T.O.P. Adults in Ministry weeks I’m doing this summer.

Well, guess what? My favorite public radio program, the Chicago-based “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me,” is going to do a show from Nashville this summer.

On June 30.

During my other Mountain T.O.P. AIM week.

Ed, Jay, Julie, Kim, Sam, Bo and Buddy, I just hope you guys know how much I love you. Because if I didn’t love you ….

No. No. No……….

voxfrontDaniel Amos, my all-time favorite band ever since I was in college in the early 1980s, hasn’t been on tour anywhere that I could see them in a while. But they’re touring this summer, in spite of the band’s frontman, Terry Scott Taylor, having some health and financial problems.

They will be in Smyrna.

On June 13.

Will I go see them? No, because I will be at Camp Cumberland Pines for one of the two Mountain T.O.P. Adults In Ministry weeks I’m doing this summer.

I absolutely cannot believe I will have to miss this.

A long weekend, a deep snow

It was a long weekend, full of highs and lows. I got up in the wee hours of Saturday morning for my shift on the prayer vigil accompanying Mountain T.O.P.’s year-end celebration, then went back to bed. I spent much of  Friday night and Saturday morning trying to straighten up my apartment – it’s still bad, but much better than it was last week. Saturday night, I went to Mountain T.O.P., and had a lovely time.

Here, for those who haven’t yet seen it on Facebook, is my video:


I didn’t finish uploading it to YouTube until late last night, and knew it wouldn’t process right away.

Sunday, I had to get up very early to help cook men’s club breakfast; I also took minutes and was half of the program. (Andy Borders and I talked about Mountain T.O.P. Adults In Ministry.)

Then, I went home, changed clothes, and went with my father and one of my brothers to Dr. Beryl West’s funeral. Dad was one of two clergy officiating the service. It was filled of memories of this remarkable and joyful man.

There was a woman at the funeral of Japanese descent (I think) who had a camera, something I wouldn’t normally think to bring. She took photos of everything, and even had the family pose for a group shot next to the casket.

My brother, hoping to beat the snow back to North Carolina, left from the funeral home. He ended up having to stop mid-way. Dad and I went to the gravesite and then back to his house, where we shared Sonic BLTs before I returned home to wait for the snow.

Now, here it is – five or six inches of it. I live closer to the newspaper than anyone in the newsroom, but we don’t publish today and I don’t have four-wheel drive. I just went out to dig the car out, but I may wait a bit before attempting the drive. I may even call and see if whoever does make it to the newspaper this morning can come and get me. There are some things that need to get done today so that we can publish tomorrow.

Not up in the air

As we pass Christmas, we start to look ahead to 2011 – and there’s one particular gaping hole in my calendar for the new year.

As most of you know, I’ve taken a foreign mission trip with LEAMIS International Ministries every year since 2003, but I won’t be doing so in 2011. It was harder to raise money in 2010 than it had ever been, and I felt I needed to give my friends and family a break before they get sick of hearing from me, assuming we’re not past that point already.

It was the right decision, and I’m looking forward to attending two weeks of Mountain T.O.P. Adults In Ministry (AIM) during the summer, something I haven’t been able to do since 2003 because it takes place around the same time of year as most of LEAMIS’s trips. I’ll spend one week in AIM’s “Summer Plus” program, teaching enrichment workshops to teenagers, and a different week in its “Kaleidoscope” program helping others teach arts workshops to special needs kids.

But I still feel a little longing. Even news stories about the nightmare of air travel make me wistful.

Being honest with myself, I wonder if what I’m longing for is the satisfaction of obedience to God’s call or the chance to travel to unusual and exotic places. I suspect that my wistfulness comes more from the latter than the former, and I’m ashamed to admit that. LEAMIS is breaking new ground in 2011 with ministry in the Dominican Republic; a fact-finding team will travel there in January, hopefully leading to a full team trip during the summer. I wonder what it will be like there, and I look forward to hearing the report from the fact-finding team.

AIM weekend

I had already posted my own video of the Mountain T.O.P. Adults In Ministry (AIM) weekend from earlier this month, but this is even better — a video of the slide show which the camp community enjoyed Saturday night of that weekend. It’s better because it includes all three work sites, not just the one at which I fumbled around.


This week at work, I turned in vacation requests for two AIM weeks next summer, the first time I’ll have done that since at least 2003. I want to do both Kaleidoscope (an arts program for special-needs kids) and Summer Plus (enrichment workshops for teens from the mountains). I teach creative writing at Summer Plus; that’s how I first got involved in AIM, and thus in Mountain T.O.P.

Would you like to join me? At the June 12-18 week, you have your choice of working in home repair or Kaleidoscope. At the June 26-July 2 week, you have the choice of working in home repair or Summer Plus. There’s a third week, July 10-16, at which you would have the choice of home repair or Quest, an adventure program for teens from the mountains. There will also be a weekend event, July 21-24, at which only home repair will be offered. All four events will be at Mountain T.O.P.’s base camp, Cumberland Pines, near Altamont, Tenn.