Silver Lake Family Camp off Highway 88 in the high sierra, besides being a cherished favorite place to get away from it all, has quite a story to tell. A group of about nine campers with a shared long-time connection to the almost-90-year-old family camp, came together one night to “explore” how the camp could be kept open without auspices from the city who founded it in 1921. The city was Stockton. The news was dire: the City decided to close the camp, to save the expenses of running it. The year was 2009.

The nine (members of the Silver Lake Campers Association) continued to meet, with no particular skills or other background to lend to such an endeavor. Their unifying feature was their abiding love for their camp–nothing more. They knew that the camp would fall into ruin, be vandalized, or would otherwise never open again, if they did not themselves step in to save it.

They made a proposal to the City: a hefty business plan. They listed tasks to be completed and otherwise organized themselves, writing bylaws, setting up a web site, electing a chairman and director and hiring a camp manager, cooks, and crew to work the camp for the minimal 4-5 weeks of camp each
summer. They struggled with marketing with no advertising dollars. They wrote grants, made presentations and sought donations from supporters and the community. These gutsy camp lovers, like the bumblebee who does not know it cannot fly, flew!

The board of nine heavily relied on volunteers that first rag-tag year in 2009. That year and later, volunteers came in droves. The First Baptist Church of Stockton, despite no real connection to the effort except their community-mindedness, sent 25 volunteers to clean cabins, rake excessive forest duff, cut and haul firewood, clean the bathrooms and kitchen areas, set up the lodge and adjacent patios, and do almost anything else assigned to them. Eager volunteers helped open camp, made repairs and small upgrades, painted this and that, and did whatever needed to be done, in incredible solidarity.

The second and third years were not nearly as smooth, as Mother Nature played the cruel joke of two long, wet and snowy winters, which caused the cancelation of two large youth groups who had traditionally used the camp. The financial blow was substantial and threatened to cause the whole operation to fold, especially coupled with an expensive generator breakdown. Once again, volunteers came from all around, and this time shoveled snow right up until days before the first campers were to arrive. Serendipity prevailed, however; as an added attraction in camp they now had a long “luge” and a handful of sleds to zing down a steep mountainside, something they had never been able to offer, as the snow is gone most years by the time camp opens in early July.

Fundraising became much more critical because of the two bad snow years, and mounting debt forced the board members to consider giving up the ship.
Loyal vendors and providers did not press for payment, which was a godsend. They wanted the camp to succeed, having watched so many other municipal camps like this one fold. A fairly successful 2012 reduced the debt, but continuing with camp and its ongoing learning curve was a difficult decision. In the bleakest moments as the board considered all the elements that had conspired to sandbag the camp, they clung to their whisper of hope, regrouped, prayed, and forged forward once again.

Each year, setting rates, complying with all the federal and state
regulations, securing the safety of the campground and its users, hiring the
best staff, maintaining equipment, attending to marketing to get
out the word that the camp remains viable, and myriad other things consumed the board members (amateurs all), none of whom ever thought they would be this “involved.” The convoluted learning curve, coupled with an amazingly cohesive and determined board and sustaining volunteerism, has been what has saved this camp and what is more, allowed it to thrive in spite of missteps and dirty-rat tricks of Mother Nature. If this board has learned one thing, it is that no “unexpected” emergency is unexpected!

All in all, Stockton Silver Lake Family Camp is a testament to the volunteer
spirit of the people of Stockton and its surrounding communities. Looking back upon five difficult years of struggle, without the financial resources the City once had to shift monies from one budget to another, the result has been phenomenal and should stand as a shining example of what can be achieved when people step up for what they believe in so fervently. The people who cherish this camp experience (dubbed “bearable camping”) are lucky to have the leadership that has saved this wonderful sierra retreat.

Judy Bonfilio

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