“When you’ve got 100 children all holding hands and praying together, it’s hard not to be noticed,” says Donna Yeaney. “We want to be noticed.”
For the past five summers, Oakland United Methodist Church has been causing a scene at Fort Loudon State Park. The church has a week-long day camp where children from the community appear to “take over the park,” says Yeaney.
The camp that Oakland calls “F.R.O.G.” ( Full Reliance on God) started in 2007 with the participation of 30 children. Last year, 115 children came. This year, on June 20-24, the camp averaged 95.
That’s not bad for a church with 100 in average worship attendance, says the Rev. Steve Yeaney.
“We’ve had great participation from the congregation. They’re very motivated,” the Oakland pastor said.
The camp staff numbers about 25, including many church members and “junior” staff in high school who are former F.R.O.G. participants.
Donna Yeaney, the pastor’s wife and a school psychologist, developed F.R.O.G. after hearing about a Chattanooga Baptist church that reached out to kids with a park-based day camp.
“During the school year the kids are playing outside. In the summer they go into the house and play video games,” Donna Yeaney said. A day camp in a park could not only brighten a child’s summer, it could show God in a new way to parents who have been “hurt or disillusioned somewhere along the way and feel they can’t go to church.”
Donna Yeaney created a business plan that included liability insurance and “angel investors” from the church. Then she approached Fort Loudon State Park, whose director lets the church use a picnic pavilion and other facilities free of charge.
“Our schedule puts us all over the park,” says Steve Yeaney. The 9 to 3 p.m. agenda includes a Vacation Bible School program with Bible study, songs, crafts, lunch, and afternoon games and swimming.
F.R.O.G. received a $2,000 Change for Children grant this year, which Oakland leaders invested in life belts and towels (for swimming); bullhorns and walkie talkies (for communicating); and a CD player.
“Oakland’s F.R.O.G. camp is an example of how Change for Children helps take God’s word out into the community to kids who might not hear or experience God’s love inside the church,” said the Rev. Gaye King, associate director of connectional ministries. “Through daily lessons, activities, songs, and crafts F.R.O.G. Day Camp volunteers helped kids experience it firsthand. “
The Rev. Charles Maynard, Maryville District superintendent, visited the camp one day and told the children a story.
As he watched the children play, a spectator standing next to Maynard commented, “You know, people just relate differently to each other outside.”
After years of his own experience in camp ministry, Maynard said he appreciates it when others see the value in outdoor ministry. “Oakland has taken advantage of that. Here they are – a multi-racial group of children – enjoying some time together in the park.”
Oakland is located in Greenback, “which is not very diverse,” says Donna Yeaney, so she is especially pleased to see African-American, Hispanic, and Anglo children playing together.
Oakland UMC is seven miles from Fort Loudon State Park, which is in Vonore. F.R.O.G. is publicized through brochures placed at the park and in convenience stores. Participants come from as far away as Lenoir City and Sweetwater.
About 20 children attended the day camp from La Casa del Alfarero UMC (Potter’s House UMC), where Daniel Castillo is pastor. This year, Castillo taught Bible lessons to the F.R.O.G. children.
“What most impressed me is that [Oakland] is taking their church beyond the walls. They may not be a ‘mega church’ but their impact to the community is huge,” Castillo said. “If they had not left their comfort zone, then they would never have been able to serve so many kids.”
Castillo, like Steve Yeaney, believes more churches should utilize their nearby state parks for children’s ministry.
“We’ve got so many state parks in our conference,” Yeaney said, “and we would love to explain our model to anybody who is interested.” (E-mail email@example.com or call 865-591-3343.)
The day camp leaders have already been approached by inquisitive leaders from other churches who noticed the day-camp children – particularly at the end of the day when they’re most conspicuous.
“We hold hands and get in a circle and we sing and shout,” Donna Yeaney said. “We want people to know that we are here, and we love God.”
- A suggested donation is $25 per child, $35 per family, but no one is turned away, Steve Yeaney said. By the end of the week, $1,100 was collected in donations. Without including the grant money spent on new equipment, about $800 was spent to provide this year’s camp, Donna Yeaney said.
- The camp is started each year with about $500 from “angel investors” in the church who are asked to “invest in a child’s life.” Other members commit to praying for the camp and children.
- For the first time this year, Oakland participated in a summer food program offered by the East Tennessee Human Resource Agency (ETHRA). The free, nutritious lunches greatly reduced the cost of providing the camp, Rev. Yeaney said.
- At first, Oakland offered both Vacation Bible School (VBS) at the church and F.R.O.G. camp at the park. Church workers eventually decided to eliminate VBS so resources could be focused on the park ministry. About one-third of day-camp participants are from the church. A member who was at first displeased by the decision to discontinue VBS later said “it is hard to argue” with the impact of the park ministry, after she saw it for herself.
- Vacation Bible School curriculum is used for the camp; this year it was “Big Jungle Adventure.” In the past, Oakland shared curriculum with Axley’s Chapel UMC.
- On one afternoon, Camp Wesley Woods staff members bring kayak and canoes for the children to use on the lake. One church member who works for the Knoxville Zoo brought snakes to share. In past years, the Rev. Richard Rudesill from Vonore UMC came to play his guitar.
- Bethel UMC sent two of their children to F.R.O.G. on scholarship.
- A church member donated an old snow-cone vending trailer which Oakland now uses to transport equipment for the day camp.
- On the last day of camp, the church offers free hot dogs and balloon animals for everyone at the park.
- See more photos on Oakland's Facebook page.