Ferncliff, a Truly Innovative Camp.

Jack and I woke up on the last day of the National Conference in New Orleans, finished presenting one last session on big evening programs at camp with James Davis. Then got in the car and started driving the 7 and a half hours to Ferncliff Camp and Conference Center in Arkansas. We had to be in the dinning hall ready to present for Ferncliff’s annual dinner at 6:00pm. It was a hell of a ride. We tried to be as efficient as possible when stopping to use the little boys and girls room, fill up on gas. and managed to gobbled up a half a Subway sandwich along the way. With no room to spare, we did it. We arrived at camp at 6:57pm. We were welcomed in by David Gill, the Executive director of Ferncliff, and his son Joel, the camp director. The room was buzzing with excitement. We had a chance to sit with a woman who was a camper at Ferncliff 70 years ago. It was amazing to get to talk with her and hear her camp memories. Our Keynote that night feels like a blur. I do remember going just over time, but also having the satisfying feeling of adrenaline as Jack and I passed the mic back and forth as we shared stories of visiting over 100 camps with the audience. 

After stepping off the stage, we got to see a slide show that Joel presented about some of the incredible things that Fernclif has accomplished in the past year. Then David came up to say a beautiful thank you to an amazing member of the Fernclif family. Stephen, the maintenance director for the past 10 years, is leaving camp and moving further south for family reasons. His legacy at Ferncliff, stories, and compassion moved the room from tears to laughter and back again. It was truly awe inspiring to watch the love and passion so engrained in this camp community. 

In the morning Jack and I had a chance to present more with board members at their quarterly meeting. We talked in-depth about some of the camping trends we are noticing in the industry as we travel to camps and speak at conferences. It was energizing to answer questions and brainstorm solutions with the board as they so readily engaged with ideas like where does technology belong at camp or how to give campers more autonomy. 

In the afternoon we visited with some of the Ferncliff staff and had some conversations with them as they prepare for their jobs this coming summer. We talked about leadership, and the difficult balance that leadership staff faces as they try to define the line between “boss and buddy”. We also talked with them about where Free Play fits into Ferncliff and the importance of camper driven pllay at camp. 


With out a doubt our favorite time at camp was walking around with David as he gave us an updated version of the tour we took with him 2 years ago when we saw Ferncliff for the first time. They have added so many new and innovative ways to meet their mission.  In the past 2 years Ferncliff has completed construction of the largest straw bail walled building in the United States. Walking inside is a lesson in architecture, environmental technology, humanitarianism, and human tenacity. The building is designed to house groups of people who come to learn about harnessing the power of the sun, to then build solar powered water filters on mission trips around the world. The building is so well insulated that the difference in temperature is about 15 degrees from the outside. The building is heated by wood fire stove that heats up water that flows through hundreds of pipes in the floor. There is a black convection chimney that helps to pull heat out of the building in the summer. The individual guest rooms all have unique floors, build out of various recycled materials. One floor is built with whole beer bottles emptied and stuck in sand upside down. It is breathtaking. The other  floors are built out of recycled stones from the old camp pool site, paper mache, and finally old conveyor belts. Each room is simple but thoughtfully decorated with photographs from an artist on one of the mission trips and each was over flowing with stories about the people that had a hand in building it. 

I could go on and on about the outreach initiatives and the environmental solutions that Ferncliff continues to create, but the last astounding addition, completely new since the last time we saw Fernciff is the YAV program. YAV stands for Young Adult Volunteers. This year Ferncliff has 3 YAV’s who are staying in the old refurbished maintenance barn. The YAV’s live on camp for one year and are in charge of some of the many project that Fernciff has under taken, from the farm program to the maintenance and advancement of the Eco Center. 

The last night of camp Jack and I had a chance to spend with David and Vicki Gill. We were invited over to their house for a spectacular dinner of shrimp mushroom and chicken rice bowls with mango salsa and corn black bean salad. We sat and talked about old memories from camp and also the direction of the camp industry in the future. Jack and I had been waiting the whole three days we were there to ask David and Vicki for advice and guidance and we move forward with our different projects and plans. They as always freely gave their insight and love. We are so grateful for their friendship.