Reflecting on a Challenging Year

Thoughts from Camp’s new CEO, Joel Sieplinga

“Unprecedented” | “New Normal” | “Once in a Lifetime”

How often have we heard or said these words in the last 10 months? How often have we heard or said these words while looking at a Brady Bunch-style collage of pictures on our computer screen? This year was nothing like what any of us expected or hoped for. Through this time, however, I am reminded of the words of the Sagamore Creed that we (normally) recite every Friday night during summer camp. I am reminded of our call to be Joyful, to build Friendships, to show Trust, Respect and Initiative, and to put God first while we are Third.

We began January with excitement and high hopes for a wonderful year. Hiring for summer camp was well underway, we were looking forward to breaking ground on a new River Village Dining Hall in the fall and school and weekend groups were booked solid throughout most of the year. I remember distinctly sitting in Heritage Hall in River Lodge in early March making the decision to cancel school groups for a short while and then, later, to have staff stay home for a couple of days out of caution, thinking that this would be a difficult week or two, but then, hopefully we’d be ready to go by April and speed into the summer. That optimism was eroded in the following weeks as we made painful decision after painful decision starting with cancelling all Spring schools and groups.

Above: The Outdoor Education team that, unfortunately, did not get to complete the Spring season.

Then, the tear-filled board meeting, where the decision was made to cancel summer camp for the first time in our nearly 100 year history. While incredibly difficult, the most impactful part of that call was what was not discussed at length. While we had looked very intently at the financial impact of these decisions, that was not a motivating factor one way or the other. What weighed on the hearts and minds of all those on that call was twofold: First, what decision is going to keep staff, campers, and their families safe? Second, what is the emotional toll going to be for those staff, campers, and families to know that their summer camp experience was not going to happen this year? That was the painful part.

After the decision was made, Camp Tecumseh staff – to use another 2020 theme – pivoted. The staff met with two questions to tackle: What are the needs of our community? What are the resources that we have?

From those discussions, Outdoor Education Days, Community Days, additional Family Camps, virtual chapels and songfests, Torchbearer Days, eLearn at Camp, and other ideas and programs were born. In addition, our staff reached out to local organizations to see where we could help, whether that was food distribution, healthcare worker support, or emptying out the trading post snacks to bring to a local homeless shelter. The impact of Camp Tecumseh is not limited to our 700 acres or our normal programs. The “I’m Third” motto cannot be contained.

Above: Two family campers enjoy the Black Hole while wearing masks.

Full Disclosure: Camp Tecumseh had a rough year. These programs did help us continue our mission, but not at the scale or pace that we have grown to love. It hurts our staff to not have hundreds of kids sitting in chapel on a Monday morning. It’s painful to walk outside on a beautiful sunny, summer day and hear…nothing. And, even though finances were not the most pressing factor in our decisions to cancel programming, the lack of regular guests and campers has had an enormous impact on us as an organization. Even though we were able to dramatically curtail expenses, there are some things that just have to happen to keep an organization and a large facility alive. Just because we don’t have kids running through the fields doesn’t mean the grass stops growing and, as we are finding out, a lack of facility use is in some ways harder on our buildings and grounds than steady use. 

We have been so appreciative for those that chose to carry over their camp fees or even donate them to our operational needs. Likewise, as individuals and companies have donated to us, it has been encouraging and so, so needed. Even with these expense cuts and generous gifts, Camp Tecumseh is projected to end in the red in the neighborhood of $2 million. We are thankful for years of wise decision-making that will allow us to weather this storm, at the same time, we would be ever grateful for any gifts to help us through this time and into the future.

For me, and many of our staff, one of the most bitter pills to swallow through the cancellation of summer camp, was knowing that Scott Brosman, our CEO, wouldn’t have the opportunity for his “Torchbearer” summer as CEO. For several years, Scott had identified 2020 as his last year of work. After a nearly 45-year career with the YMCA, 30+ of those here at Tecumseh, Scott has certainly earned some additional time with his family and friends. We just wish that we had been able to send him off with a celebration befitting such a wonderful career.  

Scott and his wife Sara have been the epitome of servant leaders here at Tecumseh and in the community.  From working as Adventure Trip counselors in their early years of marriage to returning to Tecumseh where their youngest daughter grew up and eventually married, Scott and Sara have been an impact at camp that will last for generations. 

I was fortunate enough to be interviewed by Scott as a college junior and then come back to work for Scott for 13 years and see his leadership, intentionality, and love for people permeate everything he did. While this isn’t how any of us saw Scott’s career end, the difficult decisions that Scott made in the last year as CEO held up to the quote he had next to his desk for years: Sometimes the hardest thing and the right thing are the same.  

Camp Tecumseh is a better place because of Scott and his vision and leadership. If you personally have been impacted by Scott, I encourage you to send him a note of appreciation. Feel free to send that to camp and we’ll make sure Scott gets it.

Which brings us to “what’s next?”

After a nationwide search, the Camp Tecumseh Board of Directors hired me to succeed Scott as CEO of Camp Tecumseh. I am so honored and blessed with this responsibility, knowing that I am following on the shoulders of several great leaders. In discussing my desire to take on this challenge, I admitted that we face many challenges in the upcoming years: preparing to run a safe summer camp in 2021, finishing out a capital campaign to build the new River Village Dining Hall, and developing a strategic plan that will take Camp Tecumseh into its second century.

I will share that what encourages me through these daunting challenges is knowing that the Camp Tecumseh community surrounds us in support and prayer. I have seen that firsthand and I so appreciate notes and calls that I have already received.

Having worked with weekend groups, directed our Day Camp and Overnight Camp programs and worked closely with all of our programs and departments here at Tecumseh over the last 13 years, I am confident in our staff team and their heart for impacting the lives of everyone who comes to Tecumseh. My vision is to continue the focus on putting God First, Others Second, and Myself Third and seeking out ways for Camp Tecumseh to help campers, staff, and families grow in Trust, Respect, Initiative, Friendship, Joy, and Faith. We will continue to do this through our existing programs, but also seek out ways that we can be a part of our local and expanded communities.

I am excited to be part of leading Camp Tecumseh into the future and appreciate you standing alongside us as we change the world.