As the setting sun turns the Texas sky a luminous gray, insects in the trees start singing their night songs to accompany the gathering shadows. Girls walk in clusters of two or three down the path carrying pillows, blankets, and flashlights as they prepare for the evening program.
They know what is coming. They’ve been looking forward to their evening for a year. It’s the last night at girls’ camp, and it’s time for the testimony meeting.
The group is large, 145 girls plus leaders and parents who have come for this special evening. Everybody makes themselves comfortable on the ground as the large bonfire is lit. With the stars beginning to appear, it only seems appropriate to sing one of this group’s favorite songs while everyone is getting settled. “The stars at night, are big and bright, (clap, clap, clap, clap) Deep in the heart of Texas …”
As the meeting begins, girls gaze into the depths of the flames that light their faces with a golden glow, listening as each takes a turn to stand and say what is in her heart. A box of tissues gets passed around to take care of the tears that are sure to flow.
“I’m not crying because I’m sad or tired. I’m crying because I feel so strongly about what I am saying.” Wendee Packard
Girls’ camp in Austin, Texas, is a primitive camp—no electricity, no lights, no running water, no showers, nothing but trees, grass, and what supplies you bring yourself. But there is no sense of something missing at this camp, set in the Pedernales Falls State Park. Leaders and girls work together to set up sleeping and food tents, to dig and lash latrines, to clean out fire pits, and to rig makeshift showers. Every drop of fresh water has to be trucked in, and every piece of garbage has to be trucked out. With a lot of organization and cooperation the system, worked out over years of trial and error, operates well.
Always there are preparations made for rain. Some years it rains so hard that the small individual tents cannot stay up. The previous year everyone had to crowd together under one of the big pavilion tents set up for the crafts and programs. It was the only shelter left standing. But what could have been miserable turned out to be fun.
“I didn’t want it to rain but then again I did. Being crowded together under one big tent was a bond among us last year. We had the same bond this year without the rain.” Tisha Perry
It is the working together to make accommodations that adds greatly to the spirit of the camp. In fact, the leaders have purposely chosen to have a primitive camp. It provides the girls an opportunity to put their newly acquired camping skills to work, and just working hard together gets good relationships growing.
Camping and first-aid skills are tested, often with amazing results. For example, the girls learn to bake with only a campfire as a heat source. In celebration of the sesquicentennial of Texas becoming a state, a birthday party has been planned. The girls follow the careful instructions of stake leader Barbara Jamison and bake cakes in cardboard boxes—ordinary cardboard boxes that become makeshift ovens capable of baking a cake.
One ward tackles slow roasting a turkey. It is done to juicy perfection after being hung from a tripod between columns of hot coals held erect by chicken wire, the whole contraption being wrapped with aluminum foil to keep the heat in. It is an all-day project, with girls taking turns monitoring the fire. And after being assigned to watch and replenish the coals as they cool, no one will ever take a conventional oven for granted again.
“When I first looked at the manual, I said, ‘They expect us to do all that!’ I was sure I wouldn’t certify, but I did.” Emily Hodge
Jamie Townsend is the stake camp director. She has set a precedent in the Austin Texas Stake that every girl who comes to camp will certify. “We tell the girls that the reason we come to camp is to first build testimonies and also complete their Campcrafter requirements. We have a tradition here that every girl certifies. They know that before they come because we talk it up a lot. We have slide shows of the year before. They see girls in the workshops, and it looks like fun. We feel it helps a lot when everyone is doing it together, and they all get into the spirit of the thing.”
And the skills they learn are valuable in other settings. One young girl who learned her first aid at camp was running track at school when the girl in front of her collapsed. She said, “Sister Townsend, I couldn’t believe it. All that first aid just came back to me.” She gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation until the injured girl began breathing.
“For four years of camp, it was assumed by my family that I would go. Next year is up to me. I plan to be here.” Chaline Strickland
One of the most notable things about the Austin camp is the number of older girls who have returned to camp to earn their Summiteer awards and help out with all the camp activities. This time there are 18 All-Stars. The name isn’t official; it just stuck from a few years back and has come to represent the crazy, wonderful group of girls who are in charge of the silly skits, the funny songs, the daily awards, and lots of the laughs.
“They don’t want to quit coming to camp,” says Sister Townsend, “and we love having them. Some girls are so dedicated to camp that when they get a summer job they tell their employers up front that they will need a week off.” Indeed, when younger girls are asked about the Campcrafter program, one of their biggest goals is to certify four years so they, too, can become All-Stars.
Barbara Jamison, stake Young Women leader, who helps direct many of the certification workshops, points out another reward. “The girls know that after four years of working, they get to go to Bee Creek on the Adventurer hike and camp with Sister Townsend. It’s a reward.” Bee Creek is a picturesque series of pools connected by natural rock water slides, overhanging with ferns. When the Adventurers return with tales of how beautiful it is, the resolve to complete certifications becomes rock solid in the younger girls.
“The best thing is meeting new people and being a part of such a beautiful group.” Kathleen Williams
Camping in Texas means being hot. Lounging in the shade does little to relieve the heat. But even the heat and the exclusive company of other girls are no excuses for dressing immodestly. Short shorts and tank tops are not allowed. As the camp leaders say on the first day of camp, “If it doesn’t meet dress standards, don’t bother taking it out of your suitcase.”
A new tradition has arisen—camp shorts. These knee-length, baggy, brightly colored shorts are the in thing to wear. A few weeks before camp, girls make a party out of getting together to sew their camp shorts. Elaine Judd explains how she and her two sisters prepared for camp. “We bought material for 25 cents a yard, the more outrageous the colors the better, and we used our standard pattern. It took 15 minutes to sew them up. We all made camp shorts to match. Every year it rains, so we made some camp shorts out of waterproof material just for fun.”
Modesty has become the fun way to dress at camp. The camp shorts are loose-fitting, free-moving, and best of all cool.
“I learned a lot of things at camp, but mostly we learned how to love one another.” Teresa Edwards
Helping everyone accomplish the things they need to do to certify is a formidable task. Some need special help. The Austin Stake has several handicapped girls attending camp, and a special hike has been arranged for them. At first the leaders hope a few of the Adventurers will assist the girls on their special hike. But nearly all 22 Adventurers show up for the hike that morning because they don’t want the girls to think they have been singled out to go on a little 5-person hike. Jamie Townsend explains, “We had another hike with 25 people so these special girls would feel a part of things. We had one girl who is nearly blind, and we had girls holding her hand with such love it brought tears to your eyes.”
“I have a very small testimony, but it grows stronger every day. I never have borne my testimony in testimony meeting at church. Camp is the only place.” Gretchen Behunin
For all the fun times at camp, the water fights, the tent pegs that mysteriously keep coming loose, the little presents from a secret pal, the most enduring memory is of the last night, the testimony meeting. It is there, surrounded by friends and in the beauty of a starry Texas night, that girls can get to their feet and express to their parents the love that they feel. They find words to tell leaders that they are listening to the lessons being taught. And they can tell their Heavenly Father of their desire to return to his presence.
As the darkness of the night settles comfortably outside the ring of firelight, girls are moved to stand and express themselves. Everyone will have a chance to speak if she wants it. “We don’t want to cut anyone off,” says Sister Jamison. “It’s their time. There is so much growth that takes place during this week.”
“I remember when I was younger trying to gain a testimony. I thought it would come overnight with a big boom, but it didn’t. It grew really slow. One day I just knew. Fireworks didn’t go off, but I knew. For those of you who are struggling right now—If you just keep trying, and hold on to the things that you do know are true, they’ll build and they’ll grow, and you can know this church is true.” Cami Anderson