OXFORD • For nearly 75 years, children have been coming to Camp Lake Stephens (CLS) near Oxford to make friends, reconnect with nature, and strengthen their faith.

The camp was the brainchild of United Methodist minister Dr. J.E. Stephens. Prior to the establishment of the camp in its current location, Stephens had organized “pop-up” camps at Castallian Springs near Durant, at Greenwood Springs near Amory, and at Pickwick Lake.

Convinced of the need for permanent camp within the bounds of the North Mississippi United Methodist Conference, the Oxford Chamber of Commerce purchased land and donated it to the United Methodist Church for that purpose. In July 1946, CLS held its first camp.

Camp director Rich Swartwood has been at CLS for a year-and-a-half. A 25-year veteran of working in camps, Swartwood said the job is never boring.

“The cool thing is, I’ve had so much variety,” he said. “I take about 15,000 steps a day, on average. I think in my 25 years I may have done the same thing on four days total. You’re never sure what the day will hold. It’s just amazing.”

Swartwood, who directed a camp in Minnesota prior to his tenure at CLS, said summer camping in Mississippi presents its own unique challenges and rewards.

“You have to slow down and drink lots of water,” he said. “Kids spend a lot of time in the lake and the pool. We keep the air-conditioning set at 74 degrees in the cabins, which knocks down the humidity so kids can sleep well at night.”

Swartwood said in spite of the heat, he and his wife have enjoyed being in the South.

“I’m from Minnesota,” he said. “I got my degree in recreation from the University of North Dakota. I never dreamed I’d be running a camp in Mississippi, but we love it. My wife and I now realize how much we appreciate Southern hospitality.”

Swartwood said while CLS is a year-round facility with programming throughout the year, summer is the peak season.

“Summer is our main focus,” he said. “We just started our season, which will run through the end of July. It’s a pretty intense 10 weeks. We start with three-day camps for the young ones and hopefully get them hooked on camping. We want them to be ‘lifers.’ That’s the goal.”

Over the course of those 10 weeks, Swartwood said CLS is a hive of activity.

“We’ll have a total of about 1,300 kids,” he said. “Add in our traveling camp at other locations and that number is about 1,800.

In addition to its permanent year-round staff, Swartwood said CLS also employs a summertime crew of college-age students.

“We hire 65 college-aged kids in the the summer,” he said. “Some are from State and Ole Miss, and some from other schools. This summer we have two international summer staffers. My favorite part of the job is working with these college-age kids and watching them grow in their faith.”

Swartwood said while CLS is a faith-based camp supported by the United Methodist Church, all children are welcome.

“About 70 percent of our campers are church-based,” he said. “But it’s open to everyone. We encourage kids to ask questions, to grow in their faith and have a relationship with Christ, but we don’t pressure them.”

Swartwood said CLS offers programming for children of all ages and interests, but one week in particular stands out.

“Camp Rainbow is my favorite,” he said. “It’s for developmentally disabled adults. We have 60 campers with one-on-one staffing during the week of Fourth of July. It’s an incredible blessing to see how gracious and thankful they are to know they are loved.”

Swartwood said one Rainbow Camp attendee has been at CLS for two-thirds of its existence.

“We have one gentleman, ‘Mr. Bill,’ who’s been at Camp Rainbow for 50 years,” he said. “He calls us every week. He still calls his first counselor every week as well.”

With the rise of social media, Swartwood said it is more important now than ever for kids to find places where they can both disconnect and reconnect.

“This is a place to unplug,” he said. “Getting connected to nature is crucial to well-being – physically, emotionally and spiritually.”

Swartwood said without CLS, the world would be a poorer place.

“It’s a place to transform lives and change the world,” he said. “It’s a place where kids can be themselves and be loved and be part of a community that cares and wants them to be the best they can be.”

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