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Memories and money boost Camp de Benneville Pines

Once feared to be one burst pipe from shutting down, California camp celebrates solvency at its 50th anniversary.
By Cynthia Littleton
11.7.11

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Janet James, executive director of Camp de Benneville Pines

Janet James, executive director of Camp de Benneville Pines in Angelus Oaks, Calif., displayed lengths of rusted pipe to show the urgency of upgrading camp facilities. (Tom Thorward)

The email came out of the blue.

“Are you Amy Roberts?” the sender, Laura Fahr, asked of the recipient, Amy Brunell.

With a few mouse clicks, two California women who hadn’t been in contact in more than 20 years were restoring a bond forged as teenagers during their time at Camp de Benneville Pines, the rustic Unitarian Universalist retreat in the San Bernardino National Forest near Angelus Oaks, Calif.

Brunell was indeed the former Amy Roberts, who knew her old friend as the former Laura Ballard. Their exchange was one of many similar communiqués dispatched in 2005 by a group of people determined to hold a reunion for those who were regulars at de Benneville Pines youth camps in the 1970s and ’80s.

The weekend gathering held in October of that year drew more than 130 people, some from as far away as Hawaii and South America, to the camp, which is owned by the churches of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Pacific Southwest District (PSWD).

For many, the reunion became a soul-stirring moment of renewal and reflection. For de Benneville Pines, the event marked the start of a resurgence driven by the reconnection with people, like Brunell, who hadn’t set foot on its trails in decades.

“It was so incredibly emotional for all of us to come back to this place that had meant so much to us,” Brunell says.

As de Benneville commemorated the 50th anniversary of its founding this summer, the celebration at its July 28 anniversary bash was heightened by the success of the its most recent fundraising campaign.

So far, the drive to upgrade the 14.5-acre site’s aging plumbing system has garnered nearly $600,000 in donations and grants, exceeding the original target. The response has defied the gravity of tough economic times and declining attendance at other camps in the area.

“We met our [fundraising] goal in a year and a half. We thought it was going to take three years,” says Janet James, executive director. “I think it speaks to people really wanting to preserve the camp.”

De Benneville Pines is booked virtually year-round, with about 40 percent of its business coming from non-UU affiliated organizations. It can accommodate about 120 overnight campers spread among its eight cabins.

But for years, de Benneville has been one burst pipe away from shutting down. As the situation became increasingly dire, James even made a presentation to the PSWD's district assembly meeting with hunks of decaying pipe to illustrate the urgency.

The volume of donations spiked in 2010 after an anonymous donor seeded a $100,000 matching grant program. About six months later, another donor came forward—after legwork by James and de Benneville Pines Board Chairman Tom Thorward—with a $125,000 matching grant. The outpouring underscores that for so many UUs de Benneville Pines is a place in the heart as well as a place in the wilderness.

“I don’t know if it’s a vortex or what, but there’s an energy that makes it a magical place to be,” Brunell says. “I think it’s the energy of all the people (through the years) who have loved the place so much.”

The emotional connection to de Benneville is strengthened in many families by the fact that spending time among its abundant ponderosa and sugar pines is a tradition that spans generations.

Parents and grandparents get great satisfaction seeing their children have the same experiences they did in a communal, supportive environment. In a media-saturated age, there’s an inherent spirituality to being unplugged in a natural setting. The spirits of Thoreau, Whitman, and Muir are palpable in the camp’s outdoor sanctuary ringed with skyscraping trees.

But de Benneville hasn’t always been seen as such a haven. By the 1980s, the camp had earned a reputation for an anything-goes atmosphere, even for underage campers. The UUA’s dissolution of the Liberal Religious Youth (LRY) organization in 1982 was also a blow to de Benneville, which had long hosted LRY camps and events.

By the time James took the reins in 1996, the camp was close to bankruptcy. James is revered among longtime de Benneville supporters for her success in cleaning up the camp’s finances, improving fundraising efforts, and taking a professional approach to the management of camp staff and operations.

The halo effect of the 2005 reunion has reinvigorated key camp events, particularly the annual weeklong Family Camp, which has been spearheaded for the past few years by Brunell, a member of the UU Community Church of Santa Monica, Calif.

The level of volunteer organization of camp activities is a crucial factor that helps de Benneville stay financially viable.

“Our model is so different than other camps around us because of the number of volunteers who step up to coordinate and lead camps,” James says. “It encourages people to share with one another, as opposed to people coming to camp with the expectation that they're going to arrive and be entertained. People are much more invested in the camp that way.”

The tradition of volunteer service to the camp stretches back to de Benneville’s founding, during the whirlwind of the Unitarian and Universalist church merger in 1961. After the site was purchased for about $40,000 from a local Boy Scout organization, in the wake of a fire that destroyed the camp’s central lodge, UUs from throughout the Pacific Southwest District pounded nails, dug ditches, and laid pipe to make the camp suitable for use as a year-round facility, as required by its long-term lease from the U.S. Forest Service.

The labors expended back then were recounted with great pride by many of those who attended the 50th anniversary celebration.

Ross Quinn, a de Benneville board member, was among those who shared his emotional experience of coming back to the camp after decades of living out of state.

“The power of this camp—this cathedral of sky and pines and rocks and mountains and clouds—resides in its ability to slow us down and make us feel its connection all over again,” he says.


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