Coming full circle
Southern California camp director seeks to serve youth through the camp experience that inspired him.
By Sam Elders –
“This has pretty much been my life,” said Marty Brown, camp director of The Salvation Army’s Camps Mt. Crags and Gilmore, a secluded property nestled in the scenic Santa Monica Mountain range in Malibu, Calif.
“It’s a special place to be a part of, and you leave this place feeling like you’ve done something good,” he said. “I think I’ve always had an understanding that I want to do a job that means something, and I’ve been fortunate to have found this place.”
Every summer since 1939, the property has hosted a series of camps for underprivileged teens and children in the greater Los Angeles area.
“Our purpose, and really our mission, is very simple,” Brown said. “It’s to serve inner-city youth that mainly are being underserved. We have a vision of serving those youth in three ways: to create programs that are fun, safe, and promote the personal work of Jesus Christ.”
That vision is realized in three camp experiences—Crags, Gilmore and Wilderness.
This year, Camp Crags will offer six weeklong themed sessions from adventure, to sports, musical theater, and SAY Camp—a Salvation Army program for kids ages seven to 16.
Camp Gilmore will run seven weeklong programs, themed “LEGO;” a choice inspired by the 2014 box office smash “The LEGO Movie.”
“We’re talking about how ‘Master Builder’ is such an important part of that movie, and God being our ‘Master Builder,’” Brown said. “There are so many biblical parallels that we’re bringing into our program, so each week is themed with a LEGO set.”
And finally, Wilderness Camp features seven weeklong sessions of outdoor activities. Due to its potentially challenging circumstances, the program is geared toward an older age group, and as Brown points out, an experience like this can make a lasting impression on participants. “ It’s a really impactful ministry there, because as kids get older they are more in tune with asking deep questions and wondering why God has put them here,” he said.
This existential curiosity is nurtured in all three programs. The natural beauty that envelops the camps—the towering cliffs of the Santa Monica Mountains that overshadow the grounds, and the shores of the Pacific Ocean just a stone’s throw away—lends a new perspective to campers, one that is often a welcome change from their home environments. This change of scenery, combined with the camps’ faith-oriented curriculums, can make a significant impact on the lives of these kids.
“When a camper comes from the inner-city into a place like this, they can right away just sense that ‘Wow, this is a different place,’ and it really makes them start thinking about God,” Brown said. “There are definitely things that are accomplished in one week of a camper being here. You see them come to an understanding and a belief system in God that they sometimes didn’t have until they arrived.”
That end result is exactly what he hopes to foster as camp director. “To impact them with the love of staff that care for them and create great programs, to impact them with God using us to teach them about who he is, those are some of our main goals that we’re trying to accomplish throughout the summer,” he said.
Brown’s personal history at the camp is a testament to the profound impact it can have on a person. He first attended Camp Crags at 13, and said he became hooked on the experience. “There were seven possible weeks to come to camp, and I think I went to six of those seven,” he said with a laugh. At age 15 he became a member of the staff, beginning a streak of 11 consecutive years as a camp employee.
He climbed up the ranks, progressing from “maintenance boy to dish washer, to dining room supervisor, to counselor in training, to cabin leader, then head cabin leader, then being on program team, then program director…I just kind of made my way up,” he said. Brown moved to the campground at 18 to work full time.
But the impact that Camps Mt. Crags and Gilmore had on his life isn’t limited to just employment opportunities. “I met my wife at this camp,” Brown said. “She worked a summer here coming from Canada, and we met, and got married, and had a reception at this camp.” Their first of three children was born while they were living at the camp, before the family moved to Canada, where Brown attended school and took a job at another Salvation Army camp called Jackson’s Point. It was not long before he returned to Southern California, this time as camp director.
“As I was coming to the end of my graduate studies and we had our third child, I got a call asking if I wanted to come work here,” he said. “I was very grateful that God put that before us, and now I’ve been here for about a year and a couple months.”
The Southern California Division recently made significant improvements to the property. Every building at Mt. Crags and Gilmore has a new roof, in addition to some general renovations that include new floors, paint jobs and air conditioning. The camp also added new basketball courts and the W. Booth Wiffle Ball Field. Brown revamped the staff structure, and implemented a system to ensure that every camp session reaches full capacity.
“A lot of it is about going to our corps and communicating about what spots we have open,” he said. “Taking away barriers, financial barriers, communication barriers, things like that to ensure that we have full camps this summer.”
But perhaps the feat that Brown is most proud of is the addition of something he calls the “Timothy Program,” an intra-staff discipleship effort where the senior staff members guide the youth that are employed at the camp. “They’re learning how to work at camp, but they also have leaders who are there to disciple and mentor them through their experience,” he said.
Hiring the right staff is a crucial part of the camp’s preparation for this upcoming season; a process that began as soon as the previous season ended. There are 110 staff positions available each summer at Camps Mt. Crags and Gilmore, and Brown goes to great lengths to ensure that the best people are selected, even traveling all the way to England this year to interview potential candidates. He and the other leaders at the camp adhere to a demanding year-round schedule of tasks that need to be completed before the following season, including program development, inventory and re-evaluating what they did the previous summer.
Divisional Youth Secretary Captain Sergio Garcia added that spiritual preparation is also an essential ingredient for their success. “If we start the summer spiritually empty, we will burn out halfway through the summer,” he said.
The staff never loses sight of its mission as counselors to the youth who attend the camp, emphasizing safety, fun, and spirituality. But as Brown admitted, “If there’s one that’s a little above the rest, it’s that we want [the campers] to understand that there’s a God that’s here, that loves them, and cares for them greatly.”