By Ben Herr |

Summer Camp Countdown: 2013 (with Matt Butera)

Last summer. It really wasn’t that long ago, was it? For some of us, it feels like just yesterday. For others, they can recount so many important events between August and December of this past year, perhaps it feels like a whole new era.

In summer 2013, the theme was “HELP!” with theme verse Romans 7:24-25…

“What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.” (NIV)

Before getting to the interview, I’ll also reference one of my favorite verses wherein someone cries out for help. It is a man whose son is in desperate need of healing, and Jesus says that he can heal the son, if only the father believes he can. The father’s response:

“I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24, NIV)

For our penultimate Summer Camp Countdown interview, we turn to Junior Counselor Matt Butera. This year was Matt’s first year on staff, after many years of attending Black Rock Retreat as a camper. Matt talks about this transition from camper to counselor and the personal challenges he went through, and how he turned to a Higher source of strength for help.

Please enjoy the following interview!

Patrick: When you first arrived at Black Rock Retreat in 2013, and you put on your “HELP!” T-Shirt, were you thinking, “I’m going to help people!”…? Or did you think, “Uh oh, I definitely need some help here…” …? Or maybe a bit of both?

Matt: I guess I thought, because I need help, I can help people. Or, because I’ve needed help, I can help people.

Even before I started working at camp, I’ve been through so many events in my life where I know I’ve needed to rely on God for help, and I can tell others those stories of what God’s done in my life.

Patrick: The image on the T-shirt shows a person climbing up a rope. What do you think of that image?

Matt: He looks like he needs a lot of help to get up, but he’s just trying to pull himself up.

Patrick: What do you think he needs to do?

Matt: He definitely needs to keep climbing, he can’t just stay there. But, I don’t know, he’s in a tough situation. It seems like he’s already made a bad decision by climbing by himself.

Patrick: Now, you’re a long-time camper; do you remember your first year at Black Rock Retreat?

Matt: Yup! It was 2006, “HYDRATION.”

Patrick: And you’ve attended every subsequent year?

Matt: I skipped 2010, but other than that, yes I was a camper every year and I also got to volunteer a few different times.

Patrick: You’re relatively young, so this past summer, you had a difficult decision to make. You could apply to work on staff, but that would mean giving up the opportunity to attend teen week as a camper. How did you make this decision?

Matt: It was a hard decision, because I loved being a camper so much. And the application process was very overwhelming, and I prayed about it a lot.

I remember handing in my application at Senior High Winter Camp, and I was incredibly nervous at the time.

Patrick: What was harder: doing all the paperwork in filling out the application, or the interview process that followed?

Matt: The paperwork required a lot of thinking; the interview was nerve-wracking. They were both very challenging.

Patrick: As a counselor, what kind of message did you try to impart on the campers?

Matt: I made a lot of connections with campers who felt like they were too young to make a difference in this world. Like, they were similar to me in that they knew the Gospel message, they understood how God’s grace affects them to a certain extent, but they didn’t believe they had anything in them to inspire others, or that they had any real talents.

But I’m like … I’m still young! And I’m working at camp making a difference, and I can only do that through God working in me. So whatever situation they have in their own lives, whatever is waiting back home, they are there for a reason and if they live out their calling they can have a real impact. That was pretty much the gist of the encouragement I gave these campers in one-on-ones.

Patrick: Going back to the image on the shirt … whenever I look at that, I see a guy [or girl] who is just totally overwhelmed by the challenge of the situation. Can you go back to this past summer and recall a story where you felt overwhelmed and you really had to turn to God for help, because you knew it was the only way it would work?

Matt: Two things come to mind. One of them was Special Week.

Patrick: Can you describe Special Week to our readers, in case they aren’t familiar with it?

Matt: It’s a week at Black Rock where we have adults with physical and/or intellectual disabilities come in and stay in the cabins, just like any other week of camp. And we have a great time, loving them, sharing the word of God in a basic and simple way. For many of these people, it’s the highlight of their year.

Patrick: So what made it challenging for you?

Matt: I’d never worked with anyone with disabilities for any length of time before. So for the first few days, it was definitely overwhelming. We spend the whole training week learning the normal flow of camp, the behind-the-scenes, and that was challenging enough. And then right at the end of that week, we had separate training sessions to prepare for Special Week, which is how we kicked off the summer camp season.

So I’d never been in a leadership role in a ministry like summer camp, and I’m just getting my footing, and we start the summer with people I know nothing about.

So yeah, I was overwhelmed. But we had a great cabin, and the other counselors knew the campers already, and it was comforting being surrounded by people who understood. But I still felt overwhelmed by the challenges I knew to expect: messes to clean, tantrums and arguments to resolve, and difficulties in basic communication.

Patrick: Yeah, there’s a lot of trial and error involved, especially with the difficulty in communication, if somebody is non-verbal or not fully verbal. So how did you deal with times when you felt like you just couldn’t give anymore?

Matt: My co-counselors [Tyler Gehman and Seth Gregory] and I, we knew that we had each others’ backs. So if any one of us felt exhausted, we could go to the others and say “hey, I need a break, and I’ll be back soon.” And I’d do that, and they’d do that, and it worked.

And those breaks were totally rejuvenating, because I really knew I was giving my all and emptying myself as a servant, so with that rare bit of free time I could go to God for comfort and strength.

Patrick: So what was the other example you wanted to share?

Matt: The other thing that came to mind … one of the 4th-5th grade weeks, I had a cabin that was split in terms of behavior and maturity. Half of them were very quiet and independent, but the other half needed constant, hands-on attention. They were going crazy.

So I was giving all this attention to the ones demanding the attention, and I knew I wasn’t able to give as much as I wanted to give to these more reserved children.

Patrick: You’ve known that feeling as a camper yourself, right? I remember talking to you [note: Matt and I have known each other Matt’s whole life; we’re both native Yorkers and our families are close] where you were in a cabin as a camper, and you wanted more time with the counselor, but there were other campers with a lot of issues that were taking up a lot of time and attention.

Matt: Yes, absolutely. I remember that my favorite time as a camper was having time to hang out with counselors and just talk to them and learn from them. And when that couldn’t happen because of difficult circumstances, that was just a bummer.

So as a counselor, I remember what being a camper was like, and I want to be that counselor that can take time to just hang out, talk, and be a positive influence on these kids. But it’s hard to do that when you’re constantly having to resolve needless arguments and fighting.

But the time that I really felt overwhelmed was when two specific campers stayed behind when we left for an activity. Earlier in the week, my co-counselor Shilo and I used time during cabin devotionals to really try and iron out all of the issues in our cabin. And we thought we had it covered, but there were these two that just constantly bickered and fed off of each others’ strife. So we were all exiting the cabin, but these two stayed behind and when I looked back, I saw them trying to hit each other with sticks. So Shilo went with the rest of the cabin, and it was up to me to put a stop to this nonsense.

So I immediately take the sticks, and it’s like, “okay, it’s up to me, I can do this.” That’s internal monologue, I didn’t say that to the campers. But anyway, I’m talking to them very sternly, trying to hold their attention by looking them in the eyes. As I’m doing this, the Summer Camp Director [Josh Foley] comes into my peripheral vision from across the hill. I knew it was my job as a counselor to take care of things like this, so I felt conflicted and I also felt nervous since I knew that, essentially, my boss was watching me deal with this difficult situation. I was pretty terrified. Every word coming out of my mouth, and every choice I made, I felt like it was being scrutinized. And I’m not going to go into the details of this lengthy conversation where I was trying to get to the root of their conflict. But essentially, they did resolve their conflict.

Patrick: And at what point in that whole scenario were you turning to God or others for help?

Matt: I knew God was with me during the whole altercation. I saw these children fighting, and it was just so senseless. But I know that God’s seen that. He’s seen it in my life. He’s seen it in the world, in large-scale politics and war. So much of the conflicts are artificial, and they’re pointless. And I did turn to Him for strength. I also remember, the night after that big fight that I went to resolve … Vespers and cabin discussion that night were amazing, for me as well as the campers.

And as for Josh witnessing the whole thing, Josh left me a note affirming me in the way I handled it. So I’d say God was there, because I couldn’t do that on my own. Even though the details of it are a combination of silly and inane, God was there.

Patrick: I want to close out this interview with the following question. In our next post, we’re going to be revealing the summer 2014 theme. As of my interviewing you, I still don’t know it. But you do know it, don’t you?

Matt: Yes, I just found out a week or two ago!

Patrick: Without giving it away, can you give us a hint?

Matt: You’ll be seeing … a lot of … “stability.”

Patrick: Interesting! And will we see you at camp in 2014?

Matt: I hope you will! I’m sending in my application to return to camp this week!

Thanks again to Matt for speaking openly with me about his 2013 summer camp experience as a first-year Junior Counselor.

Were you a camper or staff member during 2013, when we were all calling for “HELP!”? Were you in Matt’s cabin this past summer? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below!

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