Written by Holly Kays 18 February 2020
Neither Jamie and nor Ruffin Shackleford ever attended summer camp as children, but they believe they were built to lead it.
Jamie first heeded that calling at the tender age of 10, when she invited all the neighborhood 3- and 4-year-olds to attend her three-day-a-week backyard summer camp. All it cost them was a quarter to help pay for snacks.
Meanwhile, the Shacklefords spent their separate childhoods living life outside. Jamie started skiing at age 9, backpacking at 11 and paddling at 13. Ruffin’s childhood included ample exploration of the West Texas deserts with his father, who was head of the art department at the University of Houston, and summers on horseback at Cataloochee Ranch in Maggie Valley.
“When we got married we had that passion for wilderness and the outdoors, and we knew that someday we would like to have a full-time wilderness ministry,” said Jamie.
The wakeup call
For a long time, that ministry had to be part-time. Ruffin worked as a power plant manager, and together the couple has raised six children and given a home to 14 foster kids. Still, they found ways to fit their calling into the complexities of daily life. While living in Colorado, they started a small business leading cross-country ski trips and winter camping trips through the mountains. By the time they moved back east, most of their own kids were grown, so they began a program that took court-involved youth on backcountry adventures in lieu of a stay at juvenile detention.
“It was a really neat experience,” said Jamie. “We saw so many changed lives that a friend encouraged us to start a chapter of Youth for Christ.”
They did, in 2001 chartering a chapter of Youth For Christ in Roxboro that now continues as an independent nonprofit serving 900 kids each week.
Throughout all of this, backcountry sessions were limited to three weeks in the summer, when Ruffin would use his vacation time to run a summer camp. In 2004, they started building the log cabin that now serves as Outdoor Mission Camp’s main building, and in 2008 Ruffin quit his job so that he and Jamie could run camp full-time. The SHERPA program — a summer discipleship program for college students, many of them from other countries, who would help lead camp sessions.
“That was very fulfilling for a number of years, and then we had some big life changes, and I think that precipitated this change,” said Jamie. “Ruffin had a stroke three years ago, and we lost all our parents within two and a half years of each other. It was pretty traumatic, and we were so busy we didn’t have time to grieve. Before you knew it we were worn out and knowing that we needed to do something a little different.”
The experience forced Jamie, 62, and Ruffin, 65, to take a hard look at their lives, at their organization and at the future.
“That was like a wakeup call for us,” said Ruffin of his stroke. “We hadn’t been that in tune with the reality that change is coming. And it is coming.”
That realization, coupled with a change of focus for Outdoor Mission Camp’s parent organization Youth For Christ, means that things up on the mountain will look a lot different going into the new decade. For one, OMC is no longer affiliated with YFC. It’s now an independent nonprofit officially called Outdoor Mission Community.
The parting of ways with YFC was done by mutual agreement, said Jamie. YFC is in the midst of a campaign to unify the focus of its various chapters, centering those efforts on ministry to 11-to-18-year-olds within school campuses. That had never been what OMC was about. It made sense for OMC to leave the YFC umbrella.
Expanding the mission
It also made sense for OMC to re-examine its own focus.
“We kind of started outreach as lone wolves doing this, and it worked for a while because we were young, we had a tremendous amount of vision, a lot of experience, a lot of capacity ourselves. It could work for a while like that,” said Ruffin. “But as we get older, as our lives change, as the outreach expands, pretty quickly it goes beyond what two people could do or what a host of volunteers could even do.”
Under its new name of Outdoor Mission Community, OMC will no longer be in the business of planning, hosting and running its own schedule of camps. Instead, the nonprofit will work as a support organization that helps other groups and organizations provide wilderness experiences to people of all ages and backgrounds.
“It needs to embrace what many different people in the community can bring to the table,” said Ruffin. “We hope that’s what we’re doing is providing a vehicle so many people could come in and have a greater impact on our community.”
This could manifest in a variety of ways. OMC could facilitate adventures by equipping groups with the bikes, canoes and other outdoor gear it’s accumulated over the years. It could help the group with planning, or securing the proper permitting, or finding volunteers. OMC could also provide training opportunities and raise money for grants funding wilderness experiences for people who normally wouldn’t have the opportunity.
“We’re really excited about the potential of that, really empowering others to pursue these same passions and visions,” said Jamie.
Camp Ability WNC is a good example of the type of support OMC hopes to offer. For seven years, OMC partnered with the organizers of Camp Ability, which is a summer camp designed for children with special needs. Last year, with help from the Shacklefords, Camp Ability was able to become a standalone 501c3 nonprofit.
“That’s a good example I see as to how we could share something,” said Ruffin. “In that case, it was experience and wisdom.”
There’s no better place than WNC for an organization like Outdoor Mission Community to flourish, the Shacklefords believe.
“We’ve got great hiking clubs in this area, people who are already interested in the water in our community, people who are already interested in the national park,” said Jamie. “We have really great resources in our community that might be interested in sharing those passions with other people.”
Currently, the Shacklefords are working to grow the board overseeing the nonprofit. They hope to eventually end up with an active board that will take a real leadership role in the organization’s future.
“I’m really hoping that in a couple of years we can hire a new director and I can step back and be on the board and watch things grow,” said Jamie. “That’s what we did with Youth for Christ Roxboro, and it flourished.”
The next generation
Throughout their careers in wilderness adventure, the Shacklefords have emphasized inclusion and outreach. The outdoors isn’t just for the middle-class white families who make up the lion’s share of visitors to national parks — it’s for everybody.
In the past, many of OMC’s camps have focused on kids who normally wouldn’t have the money or opportunity to spend a week in the woods. The La Aventura camp focuses specifically on Hispanic teens, while other sessions work with kids from the inner city.
“There’s a world of need out there, said Jamie. “We’re called to meet it, every single one of us, and share what we have with others. They are our neighbors.”
They’re also our future. America’s racial makeup is becoming ever more diverse, but visitors to its public lands remain disproportionately white. If those resources are to remain protected in the generations to come, buy-in from all ethnic groups is essential. As Ruffin used to tell his employees at the power plant, you never wash a rented car.
“As we look at the change in demographics, there will be more and more minorities in our country,” said Ruffin. “If they don’t have ownership of our national parks, it will not be taken care of. So that means a lot to us, to share ownership of the national park on a greater scale.”
It’s not just about ethnic inclusion, though. It’s also about generational inclusion. Kids today spend less time outdoors than they did even five years ago, according to the recently released 2019 Outdoor Participation Report from the Outdoor Foundation.
“Kids went on 15 percent fewer annual outings in 2018 than they did in 2012. The decline in youth activity was particularly concerning as youth participation is a strong indicator of future activity,” the report reads. “In fact, adults that were active outside as children were twice as likely to be active when they became adults.”
That’s a problem in need of a solution, said Ruffin.
“That generation, they’re going to be gone in a flash,” he said of his own age group. “The young people that are not getting out into the park are the ones all of a sudden that inherit this. What are they inheriting? They don’t have a clue what they’re inheriting.”
He and Jamie look forward to working with the WNC community to reach out and touch lives in a way that will instill a love for the outdoors and a passion for life in general. The camp is an important ingredient to meeting that goal, but it can’t be the only ingredient. There’s a role for everybody to play.
“They need many touches in their life,” Ruffin said of the youth OMC seeks to influence. “Camp provides an intense one, but after that, they need a mentorship of some sort, and that can come from a number of different places, but that ongoing mentorship is super important to reinforce and encourage somebody that’s made a positive choice to change their lives when they’re up here at camp.”
OMC is excited about its new identity as Outdoor Mission Community and is looking for partners to help it realize its new vision of supporting area organizations interested in getting people of all ages and ethnicities out in the woods.
A volunteer training session to include wilderness first aid, ages, and stages, reflective listening, top rope belaying, leave no trace, debriefing, storytelling and abuse prevention will be held in May.
To get more information, join the board or discuss partnering on an event, contact OMC at firstname.lastname@example.org or 336.583.9932.