By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Correspondent

Honey Creek has always been an easy sell. As the coastal retreat center for the Diocese of Georgia, “The Creek” normally has steady bookings for summer camps, parish retreats and family reunions on its 100 acres of maritime forest.

But 2020 has been anything but normal.

Sandwich-making during pandemic

With no group visits since March 15 and summer camp programs canceled for the first time in more than 90 years, Honey Creek has been unable to find uses for its 40 lodge rooms and 100 dormitory beds. Even plans to supply emergency lodging through a state government partnership haven’t panned out. No one who’s tested positive for COVID has needed to quarantine at Honey Creek, which means no compensation beyond a $1,000 deposit from the State of Georgia to keep space open for that purpose.

Now funds are running low. A $35,000 cash reserve on hand in March is now almost depleted, according to Executive Director Dade Brantley. He has only enough left to sustain operations through the first week of July, he said. He’s hopeful new donations will come in, but meanwhile he’s had to let contractors go and is doing plumbing repairs himself.

“We could just have to lock up the doors” temporarily, Brantley said. “The diocese is able to help some, and they are helping to whatever level they can. We have hopeful plans for hosting groups starting August 1, honestly. So if we can keep our heads above water until August 1, we will slowly recover.”

Honey Creek’s struggle — to pursue a hospitality mission and manage costs without revenue in a pandemic — rings all too familiar among the approximately 90 members of Episcopal Camps and Conference Centers. Many are hard pressed not only to find funds to pay bills but also to tell their support bases how they’re making a difference during the COVID-19 crisis.

“One of the significant challenges of being a camp or conference center right now … is that they are not folks’ top priorities,” said ECCC spokesperson Ashley Graham-Wilcox in an email. “This brings programmatic and fundraising challenges, in addition to the health and economic challenges underlying everything right now.”

ECCC is now gearing up for a new fundraising push on behalf of cash-strapped members. July 6 marks the start of “Camp Week,” a time when donors will be urged to help build up emergency operation funds at camps and conference centers that are burning through reserves.

Some have already scaled back future plans. Starting July 5, Camp Mitchell in Morrilton, Arkansas is suspending operations indefinitely, according to a camp statement. A “Save Camp Mitchell” Facebook group formed in May had drawn 888 members by mid-June. In Newbury, Massachusetts, Adelynrood Retreat and Conference Center will not open this year.

Roslyn Retreat and Conference Center in Roslyn, Virginia, has canceled all remaining bookings and paused operations until 2021. With no revenue, Roslyn plans to draw on its endowment to keep staffers financially whole, including benefits, and maintain facilities. Staffers are also receiving income through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.

“Roslyn is also in a position to be able to plan for the future, the shape and contours of which are unknown but which may look different from the past,” the Center’s Memorial Trustees said in an April 27 letter.

Surveys suggest most people who use camps and conference centers have put their plans on hold. A May survey of 794 retreat users at 15 Episcopal ministry centers found that only 29 percent of “committed regulars” were likely or very likely to attend a retreat or conference this summer. That contrasts with 48 percent who said they’d likely attend one next fall, according to Sacred Playgrounds, the Christian camp consulting firm that conducted the survey.

Meanwhile camps are taking steps to modify this year’s programs substantially. For example, as of June 9, at least 81 of the 119 sites affiliated with Lutheran Outdoor Ministries had decided not to open for traditional camp.

Some camps, however, are trying to stay connected with kids even though they can’t gather them on site. The Episcopal Church in Minnesota will run a new virtual Camp Agape that brings campers together with their cabinmates from last year twice a week via Zoom videoconference. On other days, they’re encouraged to do fun faith-themed activities with family and friends, wear their camp t-shirts while doing good deeds in their neighborhoods and record a short video testimony to share. In the works are plans for occasional, socially distanced meetups, such as cleaning up a park together or a day paddling canoes.

“We don’t want to recreate camp in a box, but we do want to provide something that’s spiritually formative for these kids this summer,” said Sarah Barnett, ECMN missioner for children, youth, camp, and young adults. “Our first move was to have every young person texted or called by an adult and by a youth peer minister [to foster] individual, caring connections. We’re also leaning into helping them develop their sense of personal spirituality and practices.”

Other facilities are exploring where a COVID-related ministry might lead. The Diocese of Central Florida’s Canterbury Retreat & Conference Center in Oviedo has a history of sheltering evacuees when hurricanes pound the Florida coast. Building on that tradition, Canterbury this spring provided emergency lodging for a handful of individuals displaced by COVID-19, including a local family that couldn’t make rent after a job loss.

Canterbury provided quarantine quarters for an Episcopal priest and an emergency medical technician who’d tested positive for COVID-19 but couldn’t return home lest they jeopardize the health of family members, according to Canterbury’s executive director Chalmers Morse. That ministry now seems to be winding down. Housing the COVID-infected is doable only when Canterbury is otherwise vacant, Morse said. The center was scheduled to begin hosting small groups again in the week of June 22.

“It will be very small as we’re practicing social distancing,” Morse said. “Instead of taking 200 people, we’ll probably take 40 people.”

Those that haven’t had any takers for their emergency lodging offers are nonetheless forging new partnerships that they hope will bear fruit from this pandemic period. The Claggett Center in Adamstown, Maryland, contracted with Frederick County to provide systems at the ready, from meals to housekeeping, if individuals need a place to quarantine. Guests could potentially include health care workers, first responders or inmates, should county jails be deemed overcrowded at any point and pose a risk for coronavirus spread.

On a month-to-month basis, Frederick County pays Claggett a day fee to keep the property available for exclusive use. That means the property is closed to the general public for now; even neighbors can’t walk the trails as they’re accustomed to doing. The contract covers about 20 percent of Claggett’s operating costs, according to co-executive director Lisa Marie Ryder.

As of mid-June, Claggett had had no takers for its quarantine services, but the contract nonetheless is helping pay bills until the center re-opens for hosting groups. What’s more, the new partnership means Claggett might have a major new client when the county has training events or lodging needs in the future.

“It’s building a completely new relationship,” Ryder said. “It wasn’t founded on an existing trust with one another. That’s been a really beautiful part of this process.”