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Fred Anderson: Bright Eyes

(Camp Alkulana photo)
(Camp Alkulana photo)

By Fred Anderson

The name means “Bright Eyes” and for a century Camp Alkulana has brightened the eyes of Richmond youth and especially youth of the inner-city. For most of its existence the camp was an expression of “woman’s work,” envisioned, embraced and enabled by the Woman’s Missionary Union of Richmond Baptists. It was a part of the great camping movement which swept America in the early Twentieth Century and was linked to the “settlement houses” or, as the Baptists called them, the “Goodwill Centers” of Richmond. Children and youth who were benefited from the Centers were prime candidates for the summer camping experience.

Early group of happy campers. (Camp Alkaluna photo)
Early group of happy campers. (Camp Alkulana photo)

The concept was to provide an outdoor living and learning experience for children and youth who otherwise might never have such an opportunity. In 1915 a camping experience was provided just north of Richmond and two years later, the camp located on a permanent basis to Millboro Springs in Bath County. Rustic cabins, a swimming hole, wooded surroundings and the cool country air were among Alkulana’s chief assets.

But there were greater assets. There were teaching opportunities. There were spiritual moments. There were countless times when a camp counselor listened to what was on the heart and mind of a camper. These are what helped to produce so many “bright eyes.”

The camp leaders across the long years became legends: Nannie West, Eva Gravatt, “Mother” Myrtle Hazelgrove, Marie Greenup. To those who spent summer days at the camp these are more than names. They are persons who cared, coordinated and conducted. They personified Alkulana for the early campers. In more recent history, campers were led by Barbara Davis and, for thirty seasons, 1978-2008, by Gracie Kirkpatrick.

In 2001, Beth Reddish Wright, then a freshman at Stetson University in Florida, came as a summer camp counselor. She reflected: “After my first summer at Alkulana, I felt that I had finally found a ministry that truly seemed to make a difference in children’s lives. I had never felt so nurtured and simultaneously challenged. I learned so much there. My first year at Alkulana was one of the most valuable educations I have ever received.”

Beth continued to work in the summers while she pursued graduate studies in social work at Boston University. It was at camp that she met her future husband, Art, who also was a counselor in 2004. Three years later the counselors were married; and when Gracie Kirkpatrick retired in 2009, Beth transitioned from a counselor to the director of the camp. She and her husband, who now teaches at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, became persons quickly identified with all aspects of Alkulana.

As part of celebrating the camp’s centennial, Beth researched and wrote a history of Alkulana which was released last month under the title of Come Along, Join Our Song. It would be expected as the present camp director that Beth would know about the camp today but it is to her lasting credit that she delved into the history and held up the accomplishments of all who went before her. She took another step. She interviewed camp alumni and solicited their remembrances of the camp of their youth. Through research and contacts she captured the spirit which is Camp Alkulana and wove all of those historical and contemporary accounts into a readable and enjoyable history book.

Camp Alkulana now. (Camp Alkulana photo)
Camp Alkulana now. (Camp Alkulana photo)

Come Along, Join Our Song is a tribute to that long line of dedicated women who led the camp, to the far larger group of Richmond Baptist women who supported the ministry, to the Richmond Baptist Association (now known as River City Faith Network) which kept the trust of those early women who started the camp. It is a tribute also to the men and women engaged in the Baptist Goodwill Centers (now simply known as “the Centers”) who took time to identify potential campers and to encourage parents and friends to provide a way for the children to have a life-enhancing experience.

The book itself is a triumph – 237 pages of engaging text and numerous photographs – for those who were involved in the camp centennial. Copies can be secured from the River City Faith Network, 3111 Moss Side Ave., Richmond, VA 23227, for $30 plus $5 for shipping and handling.

The new book will become a treasure for those who have ever played on the camp grounds, giggled in the cottages after lights out, splashed in its stream, fellowshipped with other campers and made new friends and, while there, learned some of life’s best lessons. It will be a keepsake for those who experience the joy of helping campers – of guiding them, listening to them, and bandaging skinned knees, scraps and cuts. It also will be a cherished reminder to those who have never been to the camp but have cared about its ministry. And it is a book to enjoy just for the sake of reading about a positive, life-transforming ministry in the mountains.

Camp Alkulana now. (Camp Alkulana photo)
Camp Alkulana now. (Camp Alkulana photo)

Camp Alkulana is a genuine success story – a uniquely American, distinctly Christian, proudly Baptist story with its primary focus upon influencing the lives of city youth and with its core foundation based upon love. To cap the celebration, this month Camp Alkulana was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

There is another way that Baptists could celebrate the camp’s centennial. They could help fund the fees for campers. This writer’s Sunday school class – the Friendship Class of River Road Church in Richmond – has done this across the years and is laying plans for a sponsorship for this summer. Sponsorships are $500 and enable an inner-city child or youth to, indeed, “come along, join our song” at Camp Alkulana. (Sponorships can be sent to same address listed above.)

Virginia Baptist Mission Board BlogFred Anderson is the executive director of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society as well as the Center for Baptist Heritage & Studies.

Click here if you want to read more BGAV history articles from Fred Anderson.