Camp Woodbrooke: Taking Risks, Meeting Challenges

In December 2005 a dozen people met around a table in the basement of the Madison (Wis.) Meetinghouse to decide the future of Camp Woodbrooke. At this small Quaker summer camp in Richland Center, Wisconsin, children are challenged to explore life in a simple setting without junk food, television, or video games. The people around that table—the Friends of Camp Woodbrooke—were faced with a challenge of their own. The longtime directors of the camp had retired, and it fell to this group to determine if the camp would continue. They hadn’t raised nearly enough money to cover expenses. They hadn’t hired a director. They hadn’t begun recruiting campers for the session that would start in six months. Had this been a "normal" business meeting, the decision would have been a simple no.

But this was not a normal business meeting, and its participants were not interested in the bottom line. They were interested in continuing a tradition. They were interested in giving children the opportunity to experience fellowship, community, and simple living with nature at the only camp of its kind in the Midwest.

The idea for a Quaker summer camp came to Al and Jenny Lang and their children in 1976, in New Orleans. After moving to the Chicago area in 1977, they looked for possible camp locations, but all of them seemed, according to Jenny, "too civilized or elaborate to fit a simple lifestyle close to nature." In 1979, they rented Friendship Center Camp, near Dodgeville, Wisconsin, which had been founded by Milwaukee Friends. The first session of camp lasted two weeks and hosted eight campers. In 1980, there were two sessions, with a total of 23 campers. That fall, the Langs purchased 140 acres near Richland Center, Wisconsin. It was a perfect, wooded location, with a pond for swimming and a barn. Originally built in 1886, the barn would be remodeled to include a kitchen, dining room, game room, and director’s apartment.

A rush of activity, with the help of many Friends, allowed Camp Woodbrooke to open in its new home that very summer, with two cabins and a total of 34 campers over three sessions. Through the years, the Langs purchased an additional 80 acres and built four more cabins. They also added a Teen Adventure program for 13- to 15-year-olds who could continue their involvement with Camp Woodbrooke, backpacking and canoeing through the nearby Kickapoo River Valley.

The physical space of Camp Woodbrooke is simple. Woodbrooke’s cabins, all named after birds, are primitive and open to nature. The program is based on the Quaker values of simplicity, community, the interdependence of nature, and the inherent worth of each individual. Campers and staff work together to run the camp. Work crews may tend the garden, maintain trails, or cook snacks for the rest of the camp. "There’s a sense of community," says former camper and counselor Lorin Black. "A chance for everyone to pitch in and keep day-to-day life in camp running. It gives a strong sense of accomplishment to be able to say, ‘I helped build those stairs.’"

Campers and staff also work together to choose each day’s projects and activities, from archery and carpentry to canoeing or writing the camp newsletter. Of course, some activities are more popular than others, and if too many children choose those activities, they must negotiate to find a solution that is acceptable to all. According to Dorothy Churchwell, longtime Friend of Camp Woodbrooke, "Participation in decision making and learning to give and take is one of the things that make Camp Woodbrooke unique." Former camper Kari Swanson agrees: "Working with the same people every day, all day, can create tension. You have to learn to work together, and Camp Woodbrooke is an atmosphere that teaches you how to work out problems."

Two or three weeks of working together in this natural setting with no television or other electronic distractions often bring out new levels of confidence and independence in campers. Former camper Ben Skinner remembers that a session at Camp Woodbrooke allowed him to "talk more freely, think more clearly, and dream more lucidly."

The small size of the camp helps build community. Kari Swanson recalls, "I really loved going to a place where I was accepted and I could be myself. Camp was always my safe haven. It is the one place I know where a 19-year-old can go and hang out with a 7-year-old and nobody thinks it’s odd. You all become part of a family."

The support and security from this community allows campers to stretch their limits as they are gently challenged to explore new things. As Jenny Lang puts it, "Each person needs a challenge to develop full potential and each person has the right to choose that challenge. Camp Woodbrooke has the underlying belief that people have the potential to find themselves within the process of creating with others."

Many campers return repeatedly to Camp Woodbrooke. Teens who are too old to be campers often continue their involvement, stepping into leadership roles as "helpers" or later as counselors. Kari Swanson spent four summers as a camper, three summers in the Teen Adventure program, and two years as a helper. Lorin Black also has a long history at Camp Woodbrooke as a camper, helper, counselor, and kitchen coordinator.

In the summer of 2005, after a quarter century as directors, Al and Jenny announced that they were retiring. If Camp Woodbrooke were to continue, somebody else would have to make it happen. A few dedicated Friends decided to explore the possibility of running Camp Woodbrooke as a nonprofit organization with a board of directors. It would take tens of thousands of dollars just to get the camp up and running by the following summer. If they were unable to recruit enough campers, camp income would not cover the anticipated expenses.

Camp Woodbrooke had always had a close relationship with Madison Meeting, and the meeting nurtured the camp through its transition. In the months leading up to the 2006 session, meeting members and attenders pitched in with legwork, elbow grease, and open wallets. When a roadblock appeared or discouragement set in, a solution would appear. One member of meeting in particular was instrumental in making Camp Woodbrooke happen, although he never knew about it. He had relocated to the East Coast, where he passed away. A generous bequest to Madison Meeting arrived just in time for the meeting to offer a financial cushion to Camp Woodbrooke in the form of a promise. Funds would be held in trust and donated if Camp Woodbrooke was unable to meet expenses in the transitional year. With the support of Madison Meeting, other meetings, and supporters—and with the financial security of the funds held in trust—preparations, recruiting, and fundraising continued with new confidence.

By the end of January, with little more than faith, the board of directors made the final decision. Camp Woodbrooke was a go.

It was crucial that the spirit and philosophy established by the Langs be preserved. In addition, new people who got involved brought their own gifts and perspectives, and the camp continued to evolve. The menu changed. A volunteer installed a supplemental heater to the solar water heating system. The Teen Adventure program was revived.

The 2006 camping sessions began with another challenge in the form of a last-minute staff shuffling. Once again, unexpected help arrived when most needed. Lorin Black, now a member of the board of directors, was led to leave his job and instead volunteer as a counselor. He stayed for all three sessions, joining a staff of counselors that included Kari Swanson, who was returning for her 12th summer at Camp Woodbrooke. The rabbits and woodchucks also challenged campers on the garden crew, leaving little for them to harvest. The kitchen crew had plenty to cook, though, thanks to arrangements with a local organic dairy cooperative and a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm.

Like any summer camp, the 2006 session had its problems: disagreements between campers, minor illnesses and injuries, and homesickness. But there were also apples roasted over the campfire, cabin skits, and hikes to Gnome Rock. The Langs’ vision for Camp Woodbrooke continued as campers gained confidence and built community. Shy campers blossomed and bonded with cabin mates. Others beamed with pride as they passed their knife skills tests or built their first campfire. The group shared their "Nature News" with sightings of deer, Luna moths, snakes, or "the Beast," a giant bullfrog lurking in the pond.

The last night of each session was marked by the traditional boat ceremony, where candles were launched onto small wooden boats on the pond as campers reflected on memories of their stay and hopes for the future. The next morning family cars were loaded with duffel bags containing woodshop projects, souvenir plaques signed by cabin mates, and Camp Woodbrooke T-shirts silk-screened by each camper. Parents got tours of the cabins and hiking trails, tracked down misplaced sweatshirts, and took last photographs of their child’s cabin group. Campers exchanged phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and hugs.

After the final session, the board and staff breathed a sigh of relief. They had run three successful sessions with a total of 66 campers. Financially, Camp Woodbrooke had finished in the black, without using the bequest.

Now it was time for the board of directors to make another decision. If Camp Woodbrooke were to continue, major repairs and new buildings were needed, and new campers would need to be recruited. There was yet another challenge: the Board would have to purchase the land from the Langs. That would take a lot more money and years of commitment. The board sat around the table in the barn. Would they continue? Once again, they relied on faith. The answer was yes.

Postscript: The challenges continue. Efforts to purchase the property began and donations reached the 10-percent mark, theoretically enough for a down payment, but banks were reluctant to loan money to a new organization that depended on donations to survive. The board postponed the discussion of next steps as the summer of 2007 rolled around.

Another successful camping season followed, this time with 81 campers. Finally, in the fall of 2007, the purchase went through, with personal loans from supporters covering about half of the purchase price and a bank loan covering the remainder. These loans will need to be repaid. Additional information and updates about Camp Woodbrooke are posted on its website,

Jacqueline Jaeger Houtman

Jacqueline Jaeger Houtman is a member and treasurer of Madison (Wis.) Meeting. Her two children have attended Camp Woodbrooke, and her husband, Carl Houtman, serves on its board of directors.