Camp encourages running, faith for area youths

·5 min read

Jul. 22—This summer's Southwest Missouri Running Camp gave young runners an opportunity to improve both their running pace and faith during a week of games, team building and encouragement.

"With running, and with life, if you're tired of where you've been, you've got to try something new," said Jake Holt, the camp's director and founder. "We just hope to create with them a new thing, show them there's something different out there waiting for them. If they don't know Christ, then that thing might be him. It might be the very thing that radically transforms them."

The camp took place this summer in two sessions, July 13-17 and July 18-22, at the Frank Childress Scout Reservation south of Joplin. It was open to middle school and high school students, and was overseen by the nondenominational organization Glory Field Ministries.

Holt started his running journey in junior high school. He attended Southwest (Washburn) High School, which was a small school with no football, so all the athletes ran cross country. Holt was an all-state runner in high school and became a coach at East Newton High School in 2001. He coached at the high school for 21 years, and his athletes earned all-state honors more than 80 times. Starting this fall, he will become the cross country coach at Crowder College.

Launching the camp

Holt began the Southwest Missouri Running Camp in 2008. Knowing the financial struggles some parents face sending kids to events, he wanted to establish an affordable running camp in the area. The first year attracted 50 kids, and it has grown to around 400 kids this year.

The camp started out primarily as a running camp with Christian overtones. Since then, it's evolved into almost a church camp on steroids, Holt said.

"When I first started camp in 2008, I had only been a Christian for two years," Holt said. "As my walk with Christ has continued and grown, my desire to see kids come to know him has increased to the point where it's more important than anything in my life."

Holt said the camp is something cross country teams look forward to all year long. Runners come from across the country, and Holt estimated half the students are repeat campers.

Most of the running is done in the mornings along paved, gravel and dirt roads. For the rest of the day, there are team-building activities, relays and strategy games. The camp ends with a timed 5K race.

Holt also brings in speakers like former Olympian Joe Falcon, who ran a 3:49 mile, and the fastest junior in the United States, Connor Burns, who has run a 3:58 mile. In the evenings, campers attend praise and worship sessions with faith speakers.

Holt and the counselors say they hope to instill in the young runners a desire to work hard, be a good teammate and help others become better. On the faith side, Holt wanted to get across to the campers that God loves each of them.

Holt recounted one of the evening faith exercises, when campers nailed their problems to a cross. This echoed the freedom campers received from running, he said.

"We want them to know they can walk out of here with a new outlook on life," Holt said. "They don't have to let those things weigh them down ever again."

Learning life lessons

The camp was open to runners of all abilities, with a running group for everybody. The top runners completed eight to 10 miles a day, while the lower-level groups might walk or run a couple of miles a day.

Gracie Johnson, 18 and an incoming senior at East Newton High School, was excited about her progress. She had just completed a good run and was hoping for a promotion to an upper group. In her seventh year at camp, she was learning leadership skills she hoped to carry over into the fall cross country season.

"I've learned more at this camp than I have anywhere else," Johnson said. "I've learned to be more supportive of my teammates no matter what. I've learned to always encourage them and that God always has a plan for you, through injuries or anything that you go through. Here you face many trials throughout the week, but in the end you're toughing through it and you realize you can do so much more. You have more potential than you think you ever could have."

Johnson said she looks forward to the camp every year, and said a lot of people call it their second home. She always felt welcomed and encouraged by the counselors and speakers, and she's tried to pass that encouragement on to younger runners.

"I wasn't the best kid coming in; I kind of had a hard heart," Johnson said. "Now, I'm head over heels for God. It's helped me put things in the past that I needed to let go. I've been able to grow stronger with him and become a Christian leader in my school and on my team."

Caelsea Ferguson, 13 and an incoming eighth grader at East Newton, found a model of faith at the camp as well. After talking with her counselors during a campfire session, she decided to be baptized.

"Our counselors let us know we're not going through things alone," Ferguson said. "Everyone helped a lot and supported me. It's been pretty cool."

For Holt, running and faith go together naturally, and he wants to pass that passion for both along to his campers.

"Running is a laboratory for life, and my life is centered around him," Holt said. "Running gives you an opportunity to connect with nature, and God is nature. He gives us an opportunity to test ourselves, to escape for a while the hardships of this world. You get out of life what you put into it, and you get out of running what you put into it."