Brian Scheel, 14, stands on a 25-foot cliff above a swimming hole at the Johnston Hospitality Ranch in Etna, Calif. (pop. 781). Taking a deep breath to calm his nerves, Scheel says a quick prayer and jumps.
The Houston teen smiles when he recalls the plunge and how satisfying it felt to conquer his fear of heights—just one of the highlights during camp week last July at the 460-acre JH Ranch. Sharing in his victory with cheers and hugs was his camp partner: his father, Mark.
The Scheels are among hundreds of teens and parents who’ve attended summer camp together at the 300-acre Christian adventure camp founded by Bruce Johnston. While the getaways at the pine-covered mountain ranch are packed with fun, they serve a serious mission of strengthening families and bringing them together.
“All of our problems in our culture can be traced to the breakup of families,” says Johnston, 53, who grew up with 11 siblings in Fullerton, Calif., and cherishes the values instilled by his parents, Gene and Joy Johnston. Bruce, who previously taught at Durham (Calif.) High School and served as a youth pastor, developed the hands-on camp program after his father bought the ranch in 1979.
“I had a real desire to help teach by practical application, to put people in real-life situations,” says Johnston, who works full time as the camp’s director and, with wife Heather, leads many of the staff training sessions. Their children, Mallory, 16, and David, 19, also work at the ranch.
“What bonds parents and teens is shared goals and challenges,” Johnston says. And the camp offers challenges galore: whitewater rafting, horseback riding, wilderness hiking and a challenging rope-climbing course.
Mark Scheel, 53, was impressed by his son’s maturity during a rope-climbing adventure. “There are a number of wires and ropes hanging down and you grab and work as a team to get across,” Mark says. “Brian was up there, helping me out.”
Going to the JH Ranch has become a tradition in the Scheel household as Mark has taken each of his three sons. “We have a full week with no distractions, no school, no sports,” he says. “It’s just you and your son talking about dating and friends and values. It’s a rite of passage as they prepare for manhood.”
Brian adds: “I loved just him and me talking. I drew a lot closer to my dad.”
Success stories like the Scheels’ have spurred growth of the ranch from an initial one-week camp session for five teen girls in 1980 to a host of programs serving 2,500 campers each year. Camps also are conducted for married couples, and a program, Outback America, offers weekend retreats in cities across the United States for people who can’t travel to the northern California ranch. The nonprofit camp ministry is headquartered in Birmingham, Ala., where the Johnstons and many staff members live. They pack up and move West to the ranch each summer.
Along with 30 paid employees, JH Ranch depends on hundreds of volunteers to help with the summer camps. Many are former campers, such as Chrissy Pursell, 20, of Sylacauga, Ala. (pop. 12,616), who says the camp is a life-changing experience.
“There are no iPods, no cell phones, no TV,” says Pursell, who helps with everything from housekeeping to playing the piano during worship services. “You’re forced to spend time with your parents. You’re forced to have conversations.”
One of six children, Pursell at age 15 eagerly anticipated the summer camp when it was her turn to attend with her father, David. “Just being there—a week set apart just for the two of us—was amazing,” she says.
The parent-teen camp costs $1,975 for both family members, and scholarships are available thanks to donations. “We try not to turn anyone away because of money,” says Emily Menendez, the ranch’s assistant development director.
Despite the cost, Johnston says, the rewards are priceless as campers “learn to see challenges, not as problems, but as opportunities to grow” and family relationships grow stronger.
“We do everything with an element of fun and adventure,” Johnston says, “but kids are learning value-based decisions and responsibility.”