Family day camp offers fun with a message

By Wayne Bryan Published March 16, 2014 at 2:00 p.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Above: Stan and Donna May operate the Family Farm Christian Day Camp near Glen Rose. The couple saw a day camp while attending a conference at a summer camp in Colorado, spurring them to open their own camp at their family farm, a location that lends itself to the name of the camp. Below: A spring-fed pond is one of the scenes campers can enjoy while at the Family Farm Christian Day Camp.

To hear Stan and Donna May talk about their Family Farm Christian Day Camp and their log lodge/banquet hall/conference center, you might think they had nothing to do with building anything.

“Look at this place,” Stan said, in the kitchen of the log lodge on the grounds of the Mays’ camp on Arkansas Highway 67 three miles south of the Glen Rose schools. “Isn’t it amazing what God can do? We had no idea all the things he wanted us to do here.”

“We went to a Fellowship of Christian Athletes conference in Colorado in 1982, and it changed our lives,” Donna said. “God gave us a vision, and we had bought the farm in 1980, and God showed us we could build a camp right here at our house.”

The Mays quickly downplayed what they have accomplished in the 30 years they have operated a day camp for children ages 6 to 12 on their rural land in Hot Spring County. They both say the idea, the camp’s creation and success are only a case of them following a plan given to them.

Both the Mays have have been focused on helping children learn valuable lessons. Stan had a long career as a football coach, starting at Hot Springs Lakeside High School when he was 22 years old. He was a coach at Benton High School and retired the first time as a middle-school principal and athletic director in the Magnet Cove School District.

“In 2004, I got a call from [the Poyen School District] asking me to start a football program there,” he said. “I love the game and the players, so I was there for two years getting things going.”

Donna was a science teacher at Benton Junior High School for 29 years.

After seeing a day camp while attending a conference at a summer camp in Colorado, the couple said, they wanted to open their own camp at their family farm, which gave the camp its name.

“We started in the summer of 1995 with just eight kids, two of them ours,” Stan said. “I think God gave us so few campers that first year so that we could learn what we were doing.”

Soon the children of friends started coming to the camp, including those of the Mays’ fellow teachers. Donna said the teaching community was a great help in promoting the camp and telling parents about it.

“Then some of the kids brought their friends, and it started growing,” she said.

Last summer, around 250 children attended the Mays’ day camp most weeks. The weeks run from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday during the summer.

“The numbers go down to about 150 during the week of the Fourth of July,” Stan said. “That’s a big family time for a lot of people.”

Buses pick up the day campers in Benton, Hot Springs, Arkadelphia and Sheridan, while parents bring in children from places closer in, such as Malvern.

“The kids have different stations through the day, starting at 8:30, and then there is a picnic,” Donna said. “The children bring a sack lunch from home, and we have water and lemonade to go with it.”

The stations resume in the afternoon, including horseback riding, fishing, archery, rifle practice, a zip line and a petting zoo.

“We have chicks, goats, a big turkey and miniature horses, but the most popular farm animals are always the baby kittens,” Donna said.

Along with rides, theater skits and competitions, the camp features hay play, where hundreds of bales of hay are used to build forts and tunnels. There are canoes and paddle boats on one of the two lakes, and a creek where the campers are invited to splash around and play.

One of the newer additions is a 175-foot-long metal slide set on a steep hill on the campgrounds.

“It is something the parents can do with the kids,” Donna said. “It’s not like they can take part in everything.”

Donna said the day is balanced with fun and the Gospel.

“When the kids arrive, they are placed in groups with senior counselors, and we begin each day with prayer and a devotional,” she said. “One of the sections after lunch is time for memorizing Scriptures.”

The counselors are college students who are recruited locally, Stan said.

“Many of them are people who went to the camp when they were younger,” he said. “We also have junior counselors who are kids who want to return to the camp after they are 13, and we put them with the senior counselors so they can help out. Many of them become counselors.”

The counselors who work through the summer get to know each other well. Stan said he has been asked by four couples to be married at the camp this summer.

“Two of them met as counselors at the camp,” he said. “One met for the first time at the camp, and one is a former counselor who wants to be married at the camp.”

Donna said the log banquet hall is often used for wedding receptions, and Stan said many couples have been married on the stone steps in front of the entrance to the hall.

“For 24 years, we started our day camp on our back porch,” Donna said. “It is amazing how God gave us the lodge so we could grow.”

With the log lodge serving as a banquet hall and conference center, the family farm now has meetings year-round with special events and regular meetings.

“We met a couple, Brand and Jill Sullivan, who helped us start a program called While We Wait,” Donna said. “It is for parents who have lost a child.”

The groups talk about their losses, then take part in some activities than bind the couples and the entire group closer together.

“The biggest surprise are the grief activities, like feeding the animals,” Donna said.

“You cry about half the weekend,” Stan said, “but you share, and you find ways to go on because you never get over the grief.”

The couple lost their oldest son in 1996. The Mays said their son was serving in Saudi Arabia and was set to come home soon, but he died in a flash flood, along with 27 others, during a recreational outing.

“The next [While We Wait] meeting at the camp will the first weekend in April, and several people come from out of state,” Stan said.

Adult meetings are becoming popular because of the meeting space in the lodge, but those activities can often spill outside to the areas built for the children.

The slide is a hit with adults. Recently, a meeting of the board of directors of the Malvern/Hot Spring County Chamber of Commerce began at the lodge, and the board members then took part in some team-building activities, including the slide.

“I went down that two times,” said Nikki Launius, executive director of the chamber. “Others did the zip line. I think everyone has a good time.”

The annual Toast and Roast benefiting the foundation for Baptist Health Center-Hot Spring County has been held in the lodge for the past several years. The most recent one honored Phil Clem, a former coach and chief professional officer of the Boys and Girls Club of Malvern and Hot Spring County.

The Mayflower High School football team used the lodge as their summer camp.

The team stays at the farm camp, sleeping in bunks located on the top floor and in the basement of the lodge.

“Those boys don’t eat until they’re full,” Stan said. “They eat until they are tired.”

He said the Glen Rose School District allows the team to practice on the school’s baseball field in the late summer.

The only time the campgrounds are open to the general public is for the Fall Harvest Festival, held in October.

“We buy 7,000 pumpkins, and each kid gets to take one home,” Donna said.

Stan pointed out that the pumpkins are small.

“We have some of the most wonderful people come,” Donna said. “It is amazing how many come from north of Little Rock. It’s incredible.”

The Mays have turned the farm into a successful business and an effective way to teach children about the Bible and the values shared by the Mays. However the couple take no credit for the achievement.

“God owns the farm,” Stan said. “He just lets us work here.”

For more information about the farm and its camps, call (501) 337-4171 or visit www.familyfarm.org.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or at wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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