Cultivating Character

(This article was the cover story for the January/February 2007 issue of InSite magazine, published by the Christian Camp and Conference Association.)

“I honestly don’t think there is an institution in the Southeast that’s been used more than the Alpine Camp for Boys to build up churches and to lay a foundation in communities for reponsible, spiritual male leadership, whether in corporations, educational institutions or the church,” says Bill Boyd, senior pastor of All Saints Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas.

He continues, “If you were writing a contemporary Christian history of the South, Alpine might have the most significant chapter. You see a huge cultural impact that Alpine has had.”

Dick O’Ferrall, Alpine’s founder and director emeritus, says, “One of our former campers who went on to serve as a counselor, is now president of one of the larger evangelical seminaries in the United States.” Dick recalls a father talking with his daughter before she went to college as a freshman. “He told her that he would definitely consider it a good qualification for a candidate to be her husband if the boy had worked at Alpine.”

Situated “high atop Lookout Mountain” – as Alpine’s slogan states – this all-boys camp has a reputation for cultivating “men who have this interesting combination of what it means to be leaders and to be nurturers,” according to Bill Boyd. “And that’s what wives want. They’re saying to their husbands, ‘I want you to lead me, but I also want you to nurture me.’ ”

The 340-acre Alpine Camp for Boys is located in the far northeast corner of Alabama, outside the town of Mentone. Its property includes massive rocks; lots of green leaves; a rushing waterfall; a clear, quiet river; an athletic field; a huge waterslide; and rustic log buildings. Its program offers horsemanship, watersports, climbing, archery, riflery, crafts, biking, team sports – as well as Project Adventure.

But beyond its facilities and programs, the Alpine Camp is “an environment where parents can send their boys that will shelter them and provide an opportunity for them to build character and confidence,” says Glenn Breazeale, who co-directs the camp with his wife, Carter. Carter and her sister, Toy, are the daughters of Alpine’s founders and owners, Dick and Alice O’Ferrall.

Timeless impact through unique attributes of ministry

How has the Alpine Camp earned its reputation for building character in boys and young men? “The main ingredient is to hire well-rounded Christian, college men as counselors,” Dick says. “This has been the key to impacting the lives of young men for Christ. Without mature, Christian college men, this ministry would not exist.” Glenn adds, “We want the counselors to show what it looks like to be a Christian, not only in the devotionals they do with the boys, but in every aspect of their lives.”

For this reason, according to Bill, “Dick has always invested heavily in ministering to the staff. Dick’s understanding of camp is that your camp is only as good as your staff. He would say, ‘With a good staff, we can have a great camp in a parking lot somewhere.’ The facility is a luxury after that.”

Alpine’s character-building ministry to campers – boys in grades two through nine – is the direct beneficiary of the character-building that’s occuring among its counselors. These two levels of ministry – to campers and to counselors – differ in many ways. But first, we’ll explore briefly the elements they have in common.

Extended stay residence program. “Our main thrust is our two, 25-day sessions, which would seem to be less and less popular, because families want one- or two-week sessions,” Glenn explains. Yet each of Alpine’s two, main sessions (or “terms”) lasts essentially one, full month. Although this is rare within modern camping, Dick says, “we emphasize the 25-day experience with our camp parents, and encourage them to allow their sons to participate.” Glenn adds: “We’re committed to that because we feel it really allows the boys to build those relationships with their counselors, which is key to our philosophy.”

Recorded music stays home. Rather than being a fasting time away from their music, Bill explains, “we view it as a feasting time – feasting on relationships, feasting on creation, community.” For more details, see the sidebar titled “Sounds of silence.”

Only boys. Although it seems obvious, this environment – different from a co-ed camp – permits boys to develop their unique, male characters. “While girls learn face-to-face, boys learn side-by-side,” says Glenn. Carter adds that Alpine provides supervised independence within a safe environment – a combination that allows boys to gain self-confidence. She says, “We have so many former campers who want their sons to have the same experience that they had. We really are the same camp that Dad started out in 1959.”

Standard of excellence. Dick credits his wife: “Alice has particularly led us in a direction of excellence in everything we do at Alpine – from program to facility to relationships. She says, ‘If you surround children with order, beauty and excellence, they’re going to respond in kind.’ ”

Beyond these elements in common, Alpine’s primary objective is to build into the lives of their counselors so that they, in turn, are equipped to minister to the campers. Glenn recalls, “Besides my parents, my counselors had probably the biggest influence on me.”

“All of sudden, what’s true and how that should look in a life, they see it embodied in their hero, because their ‘hero’ is their counselor,” according to Bill. How is this accomplished?

Incubation chamber. God uses Alpine as an “incubation chamber,” according to Wilson Shirley, who is Director of Student Ministry at a church in Ridgeland, Mississippi, a suburb of Jackson. “One reason is that it’s a place where your spiritual gifts really have the opportunity to express themselves. For me, I did not know that I had the gifts of leading or teaching. Teaching is my strongest gift, but my first opportunity to teach in front of a group – and lead people in God’s Word – was at Alpine.”

Wilson, whose eight-week-old son already has an Alpine Camp t-shirt, worked at Alpine several summers. He points out that Dick O’Ferrall is instrumental in helping counselors identify their spiritual gifts. “Mister O gave me leadership responsibility. He saw that in me even before I knew that I wanted to be a leader.”

Camp minister. Carter observes, “What we’ve gleaned from Dad is that you have to take care of your staff in the summer.” For this reason, the camp minister’s “only job is to have Bible studies and one-on-one appointments with counselors,” says Bill Boyd, who has served as Alpine’s camp minister twice. He explains that a lot of those appointments are ones that counselors set up with him. But also, as the counselors are being observed, the minister often wants to talk with them about what he’s observing. In this way, they receive support and encouragement on a regular basis, and when issues arise, they can be “engaged very quickly.” Glenn says that they tell counselors: “As you pour out yourself into these boys, we’re committed to pouring into you.”

Huge commitment. Staff are the people at Alpine with the longest time commitment during the summer – between 11 and 12 weeks – which is roughly twice as long as any of the campers. This is a big commitment for a college student, but Glenn says: “in allowing themselves to serve for that long, they really end up growing.” Carter points out that some camps hire separate staff for separate camps. But “we find that the counselors gain so much from being here, from day one, to be committed to something: a self-sacrificing job.” “At Alpine,” says Bill, “the breadth of the ministry is dealing with campers; the depth – the deepest ministry – is going on with the staff. You can see a real transformative process take place.”

Changing wet sheets. For most of the counselors, as Carter points out, this is the first time they’ve been responsible for someone else. She observes that counselors are in a cabin with six boys, and some are bed-wetters. “The counselors have to change those sheets every day.” Glenn says: “We tell the staff, ‘You are being just as much a Christian, a witness to the boys, by changing wet sheets for 25 days in a row, and keeping his confidence, never letting other boys in the cabin know about it.’ ”

Carter says, “A lot of the counselors wind up calling their moms, halfway through the first term, saying ‘I don’t know how you did it as a mother.’ ” They tell them, “Thanks for all you did for me,” because now they realize what a big job it is.

“It is very difficult to recruit male counselors,” Dick admits. “If I thought I had to go out and find 74 Christian college guys, I’d run in the other direction. But the Lord is faithful.” Because the counselors are of paramount importance, Alpine places priority on their recruitment, training and accountability.

Below, Pastor Bill Boyd addresses each of these points. Besides serving as camp minister, Bill has been cabin counselor, head counselor, and full-time staff member. He has traveled to help with Alpine’s recruitment, served as program director, and now teaches at their staff training each year for a ten-day period.

Recruitment. “Alpine spends more time, more money and more energy on recruiting staff than they do on recruiting campers. I’ve seen them fly to Texas to interview one person.” Alpine’s process always includes application; background check; and face-to-face interview. “We’re looking for someone who exhibits a real hunger to grow in Christ themselves. They’re also guys who can generate fun. We want campers to remember this environment, where God’s Word is center, and where they say, ‘I had the time of my life!’ ”

Training. “This is where Dick gets five stars.” For ten, straight days prior to the first session of camp, he provides practical training on how to deal with the boys. He always brings in experts, such as Christian psychologists who can speak about child development and discipline, plus ancillary topics like Attention Deficit Disorder. The staff also does serious, team-building exercises, and a lot of role-playing with critiques and discussions revolving around specific scenarios, such as a camper who simply won’t obey you.

Accountability. As a basis for accountability, the expression of expectations and standards begins at the recruiting stage. Over the years, Dick has added more oversight staff. For instance, each age group now has more than one head counselor, so that the counselor-to-head counselor ratio is about 4- or 5-to-1. Like managers, head counselors are responsible for maintaining a certain tone and order within an age group – observing, demonstrating, encouraging, correcting. Cabin counselors turn in a cabin report to their head counselor once a week.

Many counselors previously were Alpine campers

During each 25-day term, 250 campers are the direct beneficiaries of the character-building that’s occurring among the 74 counselors. For example, Carter says: “Camp is a safe place to learn about not always winning. It’s great because so many things are going on at camp, so many places where boys are able to excel, but sometimes their team might not win.” Glenn continues, “Camp is a safe way for a boy to learn how to deal with disappointment or loss, or things not going exactly the way he wants it to. Things like that help to build character in boys. And if they hear it from this college-age guy that they really look up to, maybe that’s going to reinforce it even more than if they hear it from their dad.”

In addition, campers learn responsibility and teamwork through cabin inspections; through team sports, they learn how to handle their tempers even when they’re angry; and they learn etiquette and courtesy through family-style meals in the dining hall. “Today so many families aren’t sitting down even once a day together,” Carter says, “and so we’re really committed to keeping that tradition.”

In fact, both Carter and Glenn agree that one of their core objectives is to maintain the legacy that Dick and Alice established at Alpine Camp for Boys, nearly fifty years ago. Carter says, “I love being here and being a part of raising up the next generation of Christian men and Christian leaders. In today’s world, these kinds of men are rare. So we want to keep the tradition that Mom and Dad started.”

Glenn concludes: “My passion is to continue the legacy that Carter’s parents have started and the ministry that they’ve built up: to provide a safe place for boys to come in the summer, a safe haven from the world where they can gain a lot of the things I got, growing up, when my parents sent me here. We always want to be thinking of ways that we can do our programming better and upgrade facilities, but in terms of the key principles, goals and mission of our camp, we want that to stay the same.”


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