Camp is Where the Heart is for the Higgins Family

by April Towery

 

In the early 1980s, David and Nancy Higgins and their four sons joined family friend, Rip Gorman, for a visit to an East Texas camp in the Piney Woods. They didn’t know the trip would change their lives and the lives of their sons forever.  At that time, Wes Woodard was the director of Frontier Camp. David Higgins was acquainted with Wes; both men had studied at Dallas Theological Seminary. The family spent a Saturday at the camp and ran into some more old friends, Charlie and Kathy Bryant. Kathy and Nancy had known each other previously when they worked together at Sky Ranch Christian camps.

David and Nancy’s four boys – Jeff, Greg, Brad and Scott – ranged in age from 13 to 6 years old at the time. The eldest Higgins son is now 52 and has seven children and a grandchild. By the way, he married Charlie and Kathy Bryant’s daughter, Ginger.

That day back in the early 1980s, Wes Woodard saw something special in young Jeff Higgins.  “Wes said, ‘How would you like to work at camp?’” the father David recalled. “That was our introduction. He hired him on the spot.”  The Higgins family left Jeff – who was thrilled at the opportunity – at the camp.  He stayed for a couple of weeks working in the kitchen washing pots and pans. The way Jeff recalls it, his parents sent his clothes on a Greyhound bus and he went into “town” – Grapeland – to pick them up. “That weekend changed all of our lives forever,” Jeff said.

His father, a former Christian school principal, also noted how that small gathering impacted the entire family. Jeff’s first work experience there likely influenced his brothers to follow in his footsteps. “Jeff loved it,” David said. “That was the beginning.”

David served on the camp’s board of directors for almost 30 years and still marvels at the fact that over a 50-year history, the camp has only had two [longtime] executive directors, Wes Woodard and Matt Raines.

“I appreciate the fact that the camp has always stood firm in scripture, teaching the Bible and sound doctrine,” David said. “What they taught at camp underscored what we were teaching at home. I believe all the kids were saved before they went to camp, but they grew in serving. They learned to be in submission to those in authority. It’s been a blessing to me that Frontier Camp has been stable and has stuck to their doctrinal position.”

The four boys now say they “got to grow up at camp,” learning hard work, leadership and a love for the Lord. “You would get physically tired, but it never got old,” said Scott, the youngest of the clan. Scott has some great stories and memories. And he makes no apologies for the fact that he liked to show off that his dad was on the board and his brothers served in leadership roles.

The first time Scott encountered Head Cook, Carol Kiefer, who would later become his close friend and confidant, he decided to turn on the Higgins charm. “I went through the dinner line and asked for an extra roll,” he said. Carol told him he could eat his meal and then come back to see if there were any extra rolls.  Maybe then he could get a second helping.  “I took so much pride in my dad being on the board,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Oh, no, you don’t understand, I’m a Higgins.’  Like, hey, I’m entitled.” He laughs about it now. And he’s pretty sure he did not get the extra roll!  But that pride he felt in his family is now passed on to another generation. Scott and his wife Monica’s boys, ages 10, 8 and 6, will get to see their dad lead the worship music at Frontier Camp’s 50th anniversary celebration, set for Nov. 22-24.

 

The early days

After Jeff stayed behind that first summer back in the early ’80s, there was never a question in any of the boys’ minds about whether they’d go to Frontier Camp.  To this day, Jeff says the top three godly influences in his life are his father, former camp director and Moody Bible Institute graduate Arthur Betz and Wes Woodard.  “Arthur Betz scared me so bad, I was afraid not to work hard,” he said. “Working at Frontier Camp and studying the Word under Arthur Betz and Wes Woodard shaped me. I love the scriptures to this day because of that time. There’s hardly a day that goes by that I don’t think about those men.”

Some member of the Higgins family has been at camp almost every summer since 1981.  It’s literally part of our DNA,” Jeff said.

Jeff and Ginger were married in their early 20s, and their oldest son, Andrew, met his wife, Lauren, at camp. Ginger, who also served on Frontier Camp’s summer staff for several years, recalls that she first grasped the lessons of Romans 12:1-2, truly making the connection between what the Bible says, and how God’s people were meant to live it, in a living room Bible study at Frontier Camp.

“When Arthur Betz taught the junior staff about Romans 12:1-2, he wanted us to live out those verses at camp.  But he also wanted us to live this way beyond camp,” Ginger said. “At camp it was renewing our minds at morning devotions, Bible study, campfire and cabin devotions. It was being immersed in nature, being encouraged by other young believers and being away from the distractions of the world. It was presenting ourselves as living sacrifices for campers by carrying campers up the hill on our backs, making up games for campers so they would have fun or be entertained and enduring all kinds of discomfort for the benefit of the campers. FC junior staff Bible study continues to impact my adult life as I study God’s Word, have devotions with my kids, take part in women’s Bible studies, go to church, Sunday school and teach Cubbies in Awana.”

Greg Higgins, the second son, now 50, also uses the lessons he learned at camp in his adult life. A turning point in his life occurred following a season of “goofing off” rather than taking seriously his commitment to serving God as a member of FC’s summer staff. “I was more about having a good time,” he said. “A bunch of us broke curfew during a staff retreat one winter. Wes told me to go ahead and take the summer off and see if I wanted to work there or not. The Lord really worked in my life through two major car accidents. I became more serious again in my faith. God brought His discipline in my life. Wes was not a guy to hold a grudge. He asked me to come back in 1989.” And in 1994, Greg joined the Frontier Camp board of directors, a position he continues to hold today.

“Wes used a motivator, telling us to live our lives for the Lord, to think of the future kingdom,” Greg said. “There is reward in the next life based on what you do in this life. I get one chance to bear fruit for the Lord in this life, which will merit a ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’ I don’t want to look back and wish I’d done something different.”

The eldest brother, Jeff, is reminded of Frontier Camp when he’s studying the scriptures or visiting with other Awana leaders.  But Greg remembers life lessons he learned at FC in his simple chores around the house.  “There isn’t any time I do the dishes at my house when I don’t think about doing pots and pans at Frontier Camp,” he said. “We were taught to get the bacon grease off the bottom of pans with a spatula, and I still do that.”

He also thinks of Wes when picking up litter. “He wanted to keep his part of God’s creation clean,” Greg said. “It’s just something I learned at Frontier Camp and it has stayed with me. You had a healthy fear of Arthur Betz and Wes Woodard. You knew they loved you, but if they needed to, they would bring discipline. Excellence really sums up what they were looking for. Arthur would get on his hands and knees during cabin inspection. If he wanted it cleaner, we’d get it cleaner.”

Greg and his wife Laurie have two children, ages 6 and 3. As a board member, having seen the camp grow and evolve, Greg says he’s looking forward to his kids getting to play and work at the place his family loves so much.  His first lodging there was an old horse barn with no air conditioning and a huge industrial fan. He’s seen the camp evolve over time as the board has prayed about things like having a pool built and starting Fossil Creek teen camp – and the Lord provided.  “The board decided, and God moved quickly,” Greg said. “We have good meetings and good fellowship. Our goal is to do what the Lord would have us do.”

Brad, the third son, who is now 46, attended as a camper and was hired on as a “mow boy.” The decision to apply for the job of junior counselor was a natural one, as his brothers had such good experiences there.  “Working at Frontier Camp certainly had an impact on my work ethic,” Brad said. “Wes Woodard operated a tight ship, for lack of a better term, and he expected you to do your job.  If you didn’t, he wasn’t one to shy away from setting you straight. Wes didn’t demand that you be excellent in how you worked, he just expected it. I certainly believe that attending and working at camp impacted my spiritual life through things that were taught by Wes and others.”

Scott recalls seeing the joy on Wes Woodard’s face while he was worshipping through song. “I would just beg Wes, ‘Is there anything I can do so I can stay the rest of the summer?’” Scott remembers. “I had zero homesickness, ever. And I can already tell you which one of my kids will be like that.”

Having the influence of strong Christian parents (mother Nancy passed away about seven years ago) and three older brothers, Scott trusted Christ at the early age of 5.  He said his faith and maturity grew through camp.  That maturity, however, did not prevent Scott from earning the not-so-coveted Klutz Award one summer.  He left a case of milk in the infamous brown van for a week. The milk exploded and the smell was less than pleasant.  Faithful servant, Richard Stephens, cleaned up the mess without saying a word. But Wes determined that there would be no ballot process for the Klutz Award that week. It was going to Scott Higgins.

Scott was a Counselor in Leadership Training at age 12 and made the leap to counselor that summer after he turned 13 in July. “The very last week of camp they made me a junior counselor. And my brother Greg was the program director,” Scott said. “I had campers that were older than me. I thought it was the coolest thing in the world, like I had arrived.”  He went on to be one of the best trading post managers in camp history. He actually made a profit rather than giving away snacks and T-shirts like some who had gone before him. Scott also loved leading music and building relationships with campers and other staffers.

“I adored Wes Woodard,” he said. “I have a hardworking father, but Wes taught me how to take initiative and work hard, pick up trash on the road – not just the discipling aspect. He taught me how to take care of things. He would strike the fear of God in me but balance it out with love. That man loved me. Wes taught me what servant leadership looked like. He was the guy mowing the grass or digging in the septic tank.” Now working for Samsung in a leadership role, Scott said he isn’t afraid to get in the trenches with those who report to him.  This is one of the many lessons learned at Frontier Camp.

He also immensely values the friendships he built with Carol Kiefer – despite her refusal of the extra roll – and Matt Raines, then the camp’s assistant director. “It always felt like family,” he said. “You’re doing life together, 24-7. It was so much more than a job.”

 

What’s so special about Frontier Camp?

Over and over again as we’ve compiled these personal stories for Frontier Camp’s 50th anniversary, we’ve heard from parents, board members, counselors, campers and full-time staff that Frontier Camp is a special place. “It’s not the stuff; it’s the staff,” Matt Raines always says. There are lifelong friendships and marriages built there. Hundreds have come to know Jesus there.  And just about everyone who has attended has walked away with a stronger faith.

“When you worked there it didn’t seem like work,” said Brad, a police officer who is married to Kendra and has two children. “Looking back now it seemed that everyone on staff was on the same page and worked well with each other. Another thing that made Frontier Camp special was that it was serious about teaching God’s word from the early morning devotions before breakfast to the afternoon teaching, campfires and the cabin devotions. You were always being taught Biblical truth.”

Jeff pointed out that while the staff wanted kids to come to Christ and hoped they did, sometimes they may have impacted lives they never knew about. “We may not know all of that on this side of eternity,” he said. “Leading kids to the Lord, that’s what it was all about.”

The family patriarch, David, said he’s been thrilled to see his boys grow in their relationships with God through their service at camp. Now David has 14 grandchildren and one great-grandson.  He said he can’t wait to see what camp has to offer to the next generation.

“When I first went to camp, the office was Wes and Jean [Woodard]’s bedroom,” he said. “Since that time it’s been amazing to me to see the improvement of the facilities. The cabins were air conditioned [in the 1980s] but the dining hall and kitchen were not. The camp was in some debt when I started out on the board. By the Lord’s provision, it’s not anymore.”

As the Higgins men look to the future, they can’t think of a better place for their kids to spend their summers. “It was a real blessing that I was able to be a part of Frontier Camp,” Brad said. “I have a lot of great memories and still recall a lot of fun things I was part of.”

The sentiment is echoed by his brothers. “The fact that I think about camp often in my own daily life shows the deep connection that was made,” Greg said. “It’s in my blood.”

The brothers plan to have a reunion of sorts with their dad and their former co-workers at the camp’s 50th anniversary celebration in a few weeks.

“When I run into people from camp that I haven’t seen in forever, we pick up right where we left off,” Scott said. “That’s because we were family during those summers but it’s also because we’re believers.”

Jeff said he and his group plan to stay with his daughter Ashley.  They will be sleeping on air mattresses on the floor of the Frontier Camp home where she now lives full time.

“I’m so thankful Frontier Camp is part of our legacy,” he said.

The Whole Higgins Clan

 

Jeff Higgins with Arthur Betz and Wes Woodard

 

Matt Raines

Author Matt Raines

More posts by Matt Raines