A wide smile spreads across Bill Wallace’s face when he walks through Camp Howard, a rustic Christian getaway in the heart of Appalachia.
Untold numbers of children have come to know Jesus over the past half century at this 90-acre camp on a remote Harlan County mountainside.
So for Wallace, director of missions in the Upper Cumberland Association of Baptists, there’s a sense of joy each time a church bus pulls in loaded with kids.
“We’ve had more than 200 children come through the camp in the past two weeks, and 22 have accepted Jesus,” Wallace said, his smile spreading even wider. “If you do the math, that’s better than 10 percent of the kids making decisions for Christ.”
In operation since 1963, Camp Howard is enjoying newfound success. That’s largely because Southern Baptists from other states, moved by stories about the hardships mountain residents are facing, feel compelled to come here to offer help and hope.
“People hear about eastern Kentucky and the poverty situation so much on the news and social media that they are more aware of the needs in that area,” said Teresa Parrett, mission mobilization coordinator for the Kentucky Baptist Convention. “There has always been a big interest in eastern Kentucky.”
National news abounds with stories about widespread unemployment, poverty and drug abuse in the central Appalachians. That, coupled with statistics suggesting a large numbers of people aren’t active in church, has spurred Southern Baptists into action.
“It is so hard to put into words all of the emotions I experience when preparing and coming to Kentucky,” said Lisa Pruett, a registered nurse from West Columbia, South Carolina who comes to the mountains of eastern Kentucky every summer. “My passion for the people can only be explained as ‘a God thing.’ Initially, I had no connection to the Appalachian area but now I feel a part of me never leaves.”
Pruett arrived at Camp Howard with about 30 other volunteers from Kittiwake Baptist Church in West Columbia, South Carolina. They pulled off what Wallace said could best be described as “an exploded VBS with a feeding program.”
Pruett said she is motivated to return year after year by the children’s desire to learn about the love of Jesus. She said she has one question for any churches that are considering ministry in Appalachia: “What are you waiting for?”
Camp Howard makes it easy by providing lodging for mission teams that want to spend a week ministering to local children. Typically, local churches provide daily transportation for children to the camp.
“Our church comes for a week in the summer and then returns at Christmas,” Pruett said. “Bonds are formed with the children and pastors that are built upon annually. There are children from past VBS weeks that seek us out when we come to town.
Pruett said Kittiwake Baptist Church committed about $8,000 for food and supplies for last week’s outreach in Harlan County, one of the places hardest hit by a downturn in Kentucky’s coal industry and by widespread drug abuse.
The accommodations at Camp Howard aren’t posh. But Pruett says the opportunity to reach children with the gospel makes it worthwhile.
Volunteers from Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Gainesville, Georgia., worked at the camp for a week in mid-June, leading 15 children to faith in Christ.
Wallace said the camp’s emphasis on evangelism is life-changing not just for the children who attend the camp but for the volunteers who lead it.
Daniel Rainey, 17, one of the Kittiwake Baptists, had the first-time experience of leading a child to Christ.
“I had talked with people about Christ, but I had never actually prayed with anyone to receive Christ as savior,” Rainey said. “It was really exciting.”
That, Wallace said, was a life-changing for both Rainey and the child.
“When they lead someone to Christ, they’re never the same, and the individual who accepts Christ will never be the same either,” Wallace said. “We have quite a few volunteers who have their first experience leading someone to Christ.”
Wallace said it’s a tearful time when camp ends and the kids and volunteers go their separate ways.
“They go home tired, but they go home renewed,” he said.