See You Next Summer

By Annette Bender

JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. – Tyler Neas is leaning back in his chair after a supper of macaroni and cheese, hot dogs and the ever-present red Kool-Aid. He's 20, a junior at Tennessee Wesleyan College, and a summer staffer at Camp Buffalo Mountain.

Tyler decided in high school to become a youth pastor. Working at camp for the last two years has helped confirm his calling.

"When you take a child and lead him to God – that's inspiring," he says. "We have kids come here who are total strangers. By the end of the week, they're exchanging addresses and saying they can't wait to come back."

Karen Bowser, 14, has also just finished her supper. Karen is a participant in the Rock Climbing and Rappelling Camp – a first-time offering at Buffalo Mountain. She says she signed up to get over her fear of heights, but also because "the counselors are cool."

"They tell about God in a funny way. The counselors at our church are all serious about it," says Karen, who attends the Fountain of Life Bible Church in Johnson City, Tenn. This is her seventh year at Buffalo Mountain. "It's easier to learn about God when it's funny."

Wendy Jones, 16, is a member at First Maryville United Methodist Church. This year, she's participating in Night Adventure Camp – the group that stays up progressively later each night, with the goal of seeing the sunrise on the last day. After years of camping at Wesley Woods and Buffalo Mountain, Wendy plans to return next summer as support staff.

In the meantime, she's enjoying the bonding she says happens between people who come together at camp. "At school there's so much separatism and drama because of the dating agenda," she says. "Here we're all dirty and nasty and we're not trying to impress, so it's much better to relate."

Spiritual Centers

Conversations with campers and staff reveal: Kids and counselors return to Holston Conference camps for experiences they may not find anywhere else. Sometimes it's to learn how to kayak or ride a horse at one of the specialty camps. Sometimes it's to get close to other people or to find acceptance.

"People don't care about your background or where you come from," says Laura Bowser, 15, sister to Karen Bowser and veteran camper. "They take you like you are."

Not only do many long-time campers return to become counselors, camps become a "real center of spiritual formation for those wanting to go into ministry," according to the Rev. Christina DowlingSoka, Buffalo Mountain director for 12 years. "The commitments made in youth groups are grown at camps."

DowlingSoka sees evidence of the connection between camping and long-term ministry everyday. "It's been fun watching the kids grow," she says.

Of about 40 staff members this summer, 18 are former campers, she estimates. Eight staff members aspire to become full-time ministers.

"There's such great joy in pouring your life and faith into the lives of children," DowlingSoksa says, explaining why she and others return to camping ministry each year. "It's so fulfilling. There are so many times when you really feel like you're making a difference in someone's life."

The Rev. Dennis Loy, pastor at Unicoi UMC in Johnson City District, is a veteran minister-in-residence at both Buffalo Mountain and Wesley Woods.

After camping as a child at Wesley Woods, Loy returned to the camp at age 18 to serve as a member of a conference traveling youth team.

"I had already decided to be a minister, but the experiences at Wesley Woods helped confirm my calling – as they do for many college-age counselors," he said.

"I don't think the members of our conference realize how many young men and women become clergy because of our camps," he added. "So much money is poured into new church development and not into ministries that transform and ensure our future with Christian disciples and leaders.

"Every child feels better after they leave this place," Loy said. "Every child comes away with achieving something or discovering something they haven't known before, and it draws them back. I don't know if they feel that way after a youth meeting."

Holston Conference Camp & Retreat Ministries includes Camps Buffalo Mountain in Jonesborough, Tenn., Dickenson in Fries, Va., Lookout in Rising Fawn, Ga., and Wesley Woods in Townsend, Tenn. Three other camps within conference boundaries are operated by their respective districts: Ahistadi in Abingdon, Fort Blackmore in Big Stone Gap, and Laurel in Tazewell.

How to help
  • To provide camp scholarships for needy children, make checks to your local church or to Holston Conference, designating “Advance Special #087” on the memo line. Or send donations directly to the camp of your choice.
  • To provide camp development funds, make checks to your local church or to Holston Confer- ence, designating on the memo line the camp and Advance Special number: Buffalo Mountain #101, Dickenson #236, Lookout #078, or Wesley Woods #113.
  • Place checks written to local churches in your church’s offering plate. Or, mail checks to: Holston Conference Camping, P.O. Box 2506, Johnson City, TN 37605.
  • For more information, call the conference camping office at (423) 928-2156 or visit


Bishop's Perspective

Cover Stories
Playground Dedication
Response to Racism

Mud & Music

Camp Holston

District Roundup

Liberia Report

National & World News

Back to The Call Home Page

Camp facts
  • Number of campers attending Buffalo Mountain this summer: 850
  • Total number of campers attending conference- operated camps this summer: 2,862 as of July 21
  • Number of Buffalo Mountain campers attending with scholarships this summer: 113
  • Total number of camp scholarships offered in Holston camps this summer: 562
  • Percentage of Holston campers not from United Methodist churches: 29%
  • Number of Buffalo Mountain counselors from Wesley Foundations: 8 from East Tennessee State University, 6 from Western North Carolina University
  • Number of Buffalo Mountain counselors from other countries: 2 (Congo, Mexico)
  • Most popular camp at Buffalo Mountain this summer: Tree House Adventure

9915 Kingston Pike, Suite C | Knoxville, TN 37922
PO Box 32939 | Knoxville, TN 37930 | Phone (865) 690-4080 | Fax (865) 690-3162

210 Maple St. | Johnson City, TN 37604
PO Box 2506 | Johnson City, TN 37605 | Phone (423) 928-2156 | Fax (423) 928-880

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