Story last updated at 6/25/2014 - 2:14 pm
As a nonprofit run by Avant Ministries, Echo Ranch Bible Camp is an unusual kind of business. Its staff members are not just volunteers, they pay to work there - and it's been like that for decades.
"It's a message of hope. It's a secure place (campers) can come, and someone loves them," said camp director Randy Alderfer. "It's a crazy business model. You buy your plane ticket, you spend $400 to come here ... a lot of counselors come back every year, because it is just life-changing. It's meeting kids where they are and saying 'Hey, there is somebody that cares.' ... some young people, and adults, too, have never heard that before. God gave his only son. He loves you."
This year is Echo Ranch Bible Camp's 50th birthday, and its influence isn't limited to Southeast residents who go to church.
In the fall, winter and spring, Echo Ranch hosts retreats, field trips, company bonding sessions, and more. Forty percent of its clientele are not affiliated with a church.
In-town support staff member Bob Ehmann estimates that each year, between 850 and 900 kids come through the summer camp. In 2013, they came from across the country and from 14 Southeast communities outside Juneau.
Coltin Lanz, now a counselor, grew up in Juneau and attended a record 35 times as a camper. He's now 19; he began attending when he was seven.
Over the years, he's seen some changes. But his favorite things have stayed the same.
"The atmosphere is unlike anything else," he said. "It's kind of a free place. You can be yourself ... I think without it, I would not be anywhere near the person I am today."
Echo Ranch, past Goldbelt Inc. land at Echo Cove, is an ideal location, full of sun and irises, looking out over Lions Head Mountain and Berners Bay.
Avant Ministries, which owns Echo Ranch, is a nondenominational organization whose mission is to "plant churches."
Avant was founded in 1892 as World's Gospel Union and more recently became known as Gospel Missionary Union; it "planted" several churches in Southeast Alaska and is still planting them throughout the world. It was involved with Echo Ranch Bible Camp from the beginning.
Esther Quiring and Dellene Love recently completed a book about that history, available on Amazon and at the camp office in Auke Bay. A shorter book, called "Stories of Echo Ranch Bible Camp of Southeast Alaska," is also for sale.
According to the book, Echo Ranch Bible Camp's land belonged to Allen and Catherine McMurchie. Allen McMurchie homesteaded the land in the 1940s.
The McMurchies were closely aligned with the Minfield Children's home, a place that hosted children brought there by Alaska Social Services. Many had parents in jail.
In 1964, 55 children came out to the camp, slept in a hayloft, and "that was how it all got started," Ehmann said.
The McMurchies deeded the property to the missionary union, spurning a multimillion-dollar offer from a pulp mill.
The camp is planning a big birthday celebration for the third week of August, including all available former directors as well as former campers and employees.
Kids come to the camp from all different situations, Ehmann said. Some come from happy homes; others come from more troubled circumstances.
Regardless, what the staff provides the kids with is the same: a safe, loving environment. "It's huge," Ehmann said. "The general focus is just being a place where kids, people, can come, where they feel safe."
They also offer many scholarships for students who are struggling, and to outlying communities whose children will need to travel to Juneau to attend the camp.
Ten-year-old Hayden English lives in Florida. His cousin, fellow 10-year-old Trenton English, lives in Juneau. The camp gives them a chance to spend time together. It was Hayden's first time at the camp and Trenton's second time as a camper. (Like many Juneau residents, he's come other times for shorter intervals, like field trips.)
"I think so far that it's really good, it's really fun," Hayden English said. "(I like) how it talks about God and we get to do a lot of fun stuff."
Both boys agreed the zipline, laser tag, and horseback riding were some of the best offerings, but Trenton English also said he loves the cabins, and the counselors.
"They were always super nice, even if I was being rude to another kid, or to my brother," he said.
Cousins Layla Perrin and Eliya Blomquist said they wanted to come to the camp together.
"My favorite thing is the horses," Perrin said. "They're really nice, and there are lots of them."
The camp is a family tradition now, for many, Ehmann said. Campers from the early days sent their children, and now they send their grandchildren.
Ten-year-old Annabelle Frijlink, a first-time camper from Seattle, is one of those. Her mother, uncle, and other family members attended the camp when they were younger.
"My mom told me about the zipline, and how fun it was," Frijlink said. "I'm so glad that Echo Ranch has been around for a long time, because it's a very special place and it feels like home."