Camp Quest ’96

Vern Uchtman

The Creation and Inauguration of the First Summer Camp for Children of Secular Humanist Families

The idea for a camp for children of secular humanist families was taken on in late 1995 and taken on as a project by the Free Inquiry Group, Inc., of the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Ken-tucky area (FIG). In August 1996, it became a successful reality.

Camp Quest was envisioned as an alternative to scouting and religious camps, a camp with traditional camping activities but without the potentially con-fining layers of religious dogma. Our objective was to provide a week of fun and exploration, emphasizing scientific and secular understanding of the natural world. In the activities and programs, we attempted to foster moral values, ethics, and creativity within a secular framework. We feel that the vision was achieved, and the feedback from the campers and the parents strongly supports that feeling.

The actual planning began in January 1996, when we thought we had identified a possible location (a YMCA camp in rural southwestern Ohio). A Planning Council was formed, and we sought an endorsement from the Council for Secular Humanism. We received enthusiastic support for the concept, but we met with considerable skepticism that we could pull it off, especially in 1996. We ourselves became skeptical when, in early March, we found that, for some unexplained but probably not sinister reason, the Young Men’s Christian Association would not give us a contract to use the camp. Discouraged, but not defeated, we let our fingers do the walking through the yellow pages and, much to our surprise, we found a camp with an opening in August, a Baptist facility in the beautiful rolling Kentucky hills of the Ohio River Valley, just fifteen minutes from the Greater Cincinnati airport. The price was right, the accommodations ideal, and the staff friendly and willing to accept our deposit. But would the secular humanist community accept a Baptist campsite? Perhaps we could find a way to turn that to our advantage.

So, from the depths of despair to exhilaration: we were going to do it! Now for the minor details of advertising and publicity (Could we get enough campers to make it a go?), budget and finances (What to charge? Would we need contributions?), staffing and counselors, lodging, meals, programs, activities, conflict resolution, registration procedures, liability and insurance, lifeguards and medical director, transportation, training, etc.

Weekly Planning Council meetings commenced and, to make short a very long story, our dedicated and hard-working all-volunteer council put all the nuts and bolts in place and were ready to go on August 11 for a week-long, first-ever, Camp Quest. For those parents who registered their children for Camp Quest, we required that they sign a statement that they had read and understand “The Affirmations of Humanism” (which is printed in FREE INQUIRY regularly). Eleven staff and counselors awaited the arrival of the twenty registered campers, ages eight to twelve, from the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky area (nine), northern and central Ohio (six), Texas (three), Wisconsin (one), and Missouri (one). It took a lot of effort from everyone on the council and staff to make Camp Quest work. (“It takes a whole council to send a kid to camp!”)

So, what was Camp Quest like? First, the location and camp facilities were ideal. A rural, forest setting, close to major interstates; cabins, lodge, and dining hall, lake, swimming pool, open pavilion, camp store, nature trails, play fields—all maintained very well by the Bullittsburg staff, who also provided our meal service. The cooperation of the staff was splendid, and before the week was over we were invited back for 1997. (More on this later.) The campers were housed in four cabins, each with four-to-six children and an adult counselor (to whom very special recognition certainly must go).

We had many traditional camp activities: campfires, games, nature hikes, arts and crafts, folk dancing, magic show, morning tai chi (perhaps not all were traditional camp activities), and a field trip to an endangered wetlands (the Oxbow, at the confluence of the Great Miami and Ohio rivers). And we had excellent educational programs, including workshops on entomology, lake ecology, astronomy, and photography.

We also did some things that set Camp Quest apart and that we think were important to meeting our mission as a secular humanist camp. At the evening program on the first day we attempted to set the tone for the week. As well as some singing, introductions of campers and staff, discussing rules and schedules, and describing activities, we felt it was important to tell the children something about secular humanism, to give them a definition they could understand and that we could work with throughout the week. This definition was built on the following simply stated ideas.

There is only our natural world. There are no gods, no devils, no heavens or hell. By careful thinking and by using science we can try to understand our world and we can try to solve our problems. We are all citizens of the same world, and all people should work together to make a better world where all people can live together peacefully. And we want to protect the Earth both for ourselves and for all people in the future.

But more important, we wanted to give the campers something experiential during the week. Each cabin was given a different “Challenge” to work on with the cabin counselors guiding them and acting as facilitators, but not giving them the answers (if there were any answers). Some examples:

  1. Aunt Gloria knows almost everything and almost always tells the truth. Aunt Gloria says there are two invisible unicorns on the campgrounds. She says you can’t see them, touch them, smell them, or hear them. She says you can walk right through them. They can’t fly and they never leave the camp. They are not always together. How can you prove if this is true or not true?
  2. Let’s say that all of a sudden there are no religions at all. There are many different countries, races, and languages. There are many different laws and customs. No one knows anything about any religion, but everyone wants a religion. Make up a religion that will be a good religion that everyone on Earth can believe and that will make life better for everyone on Earth all the time.
  3. Uncle Herman knows almost everything and he almost always tells the truth. Uncle Herman says the Earth is a big hollow ball like a soccer ball and that we live inside it. He says that everything we see in the sky is on the inside of the ball. Nothing exists except for the ball and everything in it. How can you prove if this is true or not true?
  4. Let’s say we are starting everything all over again. There are no rules or laws of any kind. There are no countries and no religions. There are many different races and many different languages. Make up ten rules that everyone must obey at all times. These must be rules everyone will agree with and that will make life better for everyone all the time.

At the end of the week, as part of the last night’s closing program, each cabin gave a presentation on its challenge. These presentations and skits were creative and insightful, demonstrating that these children had a good grasp of the challenges, and, also important, of many of the principles of secular humanism.

The girls with the unicorn challenge created a skit with two girls dressed as the mythical unicorns Aunt Gloria had believed ran through her backyard because she saw beautiful red footprints. In fact, the girls showed their aunt that it was deer who had run through the yard after stepping in red paint. The moral: don’t come to conclusions until you have all the facts! The girls who had the chal-lenge to create a religion first acted out a dialogue between a secular humanist and her religious friends, showing how reli-gion comes into their lives, sometimes beneficially, and then proposed the fol-lowing six rules: A religion should (1) respect people who don’t choose to join; (2) treat men and women equally; (3) pro-tect children and teach them; (4) encour-age education; (5) make peace instead of war; (6) not require anyone to believe anything and only preach what can be proven to be true.

Whether we like it or not, these children live in a religious world, surrounded by references to the Bible and other religious elements. Camp Quest provided its own taste of this—our camp location was owned and managed by Baptists. There were crosses on the campgrounds, the dining room staff wore “Christ” T-shirts, and biblical quotes were posted at the resting points on the nature trail. Rather than being confining, however, these elements served as good points of discussion. On a nature hike we stopped at each of the resting points for a discussion of what the Bible verse might actually be saying and what meaning it might have, if any, to a secular humanist. Again, the responses demonstrated that it wasn’t easy to put something over on this group of children.

From the staff and counselors’ viewpoint, we stepped into these discussions without quite knowing where they would lead; children from secular humanist parents are not necessarily secular humanists; they are (and should be) open, learning, searching minds. We learned that in this environment, without a lot of direction, these children could express themselves, and generally they were not afraid to raise truly probing questions. We wanted them to leave Camp Quest knowing that this behavior was O.K. and even preferable, knowing that there are other children with the same mindsets, and, we hope, with a bit more confidence to continue to learn and search and keep an open mind. We wanted to make it a bit easier to understand the positions that their parents take as secular humanists. One parent particularly valued Camp Quest because the child’s other parent had earlier sent the child to an evangelical church camp.

We hope we accomplished this, at least to some degree. Another parent said, “I have a daughter who feels uncomfortable about her parents’ being different [atheists and secular humanists]—black sheep in the family, the school, and the neighborhood. She doesn’t yet really understand what religion is all about, but she does understand something about its power and influence in the world. When this camp was suggested, I realized the power of its potential. When she was able to play and learn with children of like background, she was so relaxed; she didn’t have to keep up her guard.”

As the week progressed, we often remarked on how impressed we were with how bright, eager, and energetic these children were. But we also wonder how much the lack of preaching, the openness to discussion, and the freedom of expression available to the children in the Camp Quest environment facilitated the intelligent and often witty comments and questions.

At times we feared the campers having too much free time to “run wild.” It was an unfounded fear. By giving the campers intelligent programs and activities, meaningful challenges, and putting some structure in the camp schedule, the campers generally made very good use of their free time. Generally these were children whose parents have laid a solid foundation for them, and we were truly grateful for that.

We learned a lot for future years. Eight-to-twelve is a wide age range, and we were not always sensitive in how we approached the campers as a group. The way we communicate with adults or preteens can sometimes be puzzling and dismaying to eight- and nine-year-olds. With a small group, it was not possible to break our workshops down by age, and so we had to, in some cases, approach things at a level that was boring to the older campers or overwhelming to the younger ones. If, as we expect, we have a larger group next year, we should be able to address these concerns and tailor programs more by age group. And, last but not least, the adult staff learned that we can use some work on group process skills. As the camp grows we will need to become more efficient in our planning.

Perhaps the biggest vote of confidence came from the campers themselves. On the last day, a brief (anonymous) feedback questionnaire was given to the twenty campers. In response to the question, “Do you want to return next year?,” nineteen campers each gave a highly enthusiastic “Yes” and one ten-year-old camper said “Probably.” Since she gave her name on the questionnaire we were able to follow up on her answer and we obtained the following response: “Probably means the likelihood is at least 96%!” We’ll take that as a “Yes” from a real budding rationalist.

Our hope was that we would be able to make the camp break even financially, and some key contributions allowed us to do this. We are indebted to the Council for Secular Humanism, who also provided us with advertising at their expense, and to the following individuals: Dick Bozian, Edwin and Helen Kagin (in memory of Carl Bunde and Ed Berger), Joyce Leuchten, Joe Levee, Alice Orlemann, Peggy Robertson, and Ted Vernick. We are grateful to the many, many humanist and freethought organizations and individuals across the country who provided us with personal contacts, articles in newsletters, and encouragement.

Finally, who were the “pioneers” that pulled off this project? The idea for this secular humanist children’s summer camp was brought to FIG by Edwin Kagin, who, as an Eagle Scout was enraged by the belief-in-God oath required by the Boy Scouts, strongly felt that children should have an alternative to partaking in activities sponsored by organizations with a theistic element in their statement of principles. The Planning Council was chaired by myself and consisted of FIG members Edwin Kagin, Helen Kagin, Ed McAndrews, Elizabeth Oldiges, Nikki Orlemann, and David Scheidt, all of whom were residents at Camp Quest during the week. In addition, FIG member Bob Riehemann, Steve Kagin from Louisville, Kentucky, Carol Smith from Mequon, Wisconsin, and Art Harris from New York, New York, joined the staff in residence. FIG members Joe and Barbara Levee, Calie Good, Donna Loughry, and William Messer joined the staff for parts of the week. Particular recognition should go to Steve Kagin, Elizabeth Oldiges, Nikki Orlemann, and Bob Riehemann, who not only contributed to programs and planning, but also were resident counselors in the campers’ cabins.

Every person involved with Camp Quest feels that she or he made a meaningful contribution—to the children, to the secular humanist movement, and to her or his own learning. Only the future will tell us how successful we have been. We feel we have taken the first step. And those on the Planning Council are eagerly anticipating the future, and some of us are even venturing a glimpse at what might come in future years: longer camps? wider age ranges? family camps? We welcome input and ideas for future camps.

Very recently we encountered a situation that, for a time, caused us some concern about the camp in 1997. FIG has been involved with local residents in a fight to prevent a creationism organization called Answers in Genesis (AIG) from obtaining a zoning variance that would allow construction of AIG’s business headquarters and creationism theme park on rural land near an archaeologically important site, Big Bone Lick State Park. This area is in the same county as the Bullittsburg Baptist Camp, the site of Camp Quest ’96. This fight has not been to prevent any freedom of expression, but rather to prevent a zoning change that would be counter to the country’s comprehensive plan.

Before accepting our application to lease the camp for 1997, the Bullittsburg Baptist Assembly Board, which runs the Bullittsburg Camp, raised some questions about FIG and its purpose and activities. Their questions arose from the considerable local press coverage, which had turned the zoning dispute into a religious battle pitting secular humanists against Christian creationists. In our responses to these questions we clearly stated FIG’s secular humanist purposes, and we explained our role in the zoning controversy. Without any apparent animosity or hassle, beyond a couple of letters and a phone call, the Board accepted our application for 1997. We are pleased to have the Bullittsburg camp for next year, and we feel we can remain on good terms with the Bullittsburg Baptists. Perhaps we have shown them that secular humanists are not devils out to destroy their religion. We hope we are contributing something to tolerance and understanding. In the long term, we hope to be able to have a location that is dedicated to secular humanist camps.

Plans are now underway for FIG’s 1997 camp. We are taking requests for registration forms now, and attendance will be limited to the available accommodations. For more information and registration materials contact Vern Uchtman, (513) 677-2252, Free Inquiry Group, Inc., P.O. Box 8128, Cincinnati, OH 45208, vauchtman@aol.com. To conduct the kinds of programs we are anticipating for the camp we will need contributions. Funding will also be needed for scholarships for children who do not have the financial means to attend.

Vern Uchtman

Vern Uchtman is a member of the Free Inquiry Group, Inc., of the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky area, a Council for Secular Humanism affiliate.


The Creation and Inauguration of the First Summer Camp for Children of Secular Humanist Families The idea for a camp for children of secular humanist families was taken on in late 1995 and taken on as a project by the Free Inquiry Group, Inc., of the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Ken-tucky area (FIG). In August …

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