Kathy Wilder

[The Episcopal News] Camp Stevens Executive Director Kathy Wilder was two years old on her first overnight camping trip, and the experience stuck.

“It was up here, in these mountains, where I live and work now. It’s a special place to me,” says Wilder, who was born and raised in San Diego and grew up in an “outdoorsy” military family with a love of camping.

Officially named the camp’s executive director in 2020, she aims to spread that love – for the outdoors, the environment, and for restorative justice – to all people, and especially to young people.

The Julian camp offers a variety of programs, such as a May 12-14 Mother’s Day weekend for families and wilderness experiences for groups and individuals. The successful 2023 summer program provided exploration of the camp’s 250 acres of forests, trails, gardens, buildings, team-building challenges with the high ropes courses, a climbing wall, swimming, archery, arts and crafts as well as spiritual connection.

“The camp experience is unlike almost anything else kids do,” Wilder said. “Camp is a place where they not only have planned time and engaged time, but there is also informal time. They don’t have cell phones here. They are engaging socially in a way that is harder to find these days. This is the kind of human connection people need, not only to connect with each other but with themselves.”

The camp, she is convinced, “allows for all these touchpoints with the community together, but also [allows] individuals to take a breath and see themselves as part of this greater world, whether in a person, or an amazing 400-year-old tree, or picking tomatoes from the garden. It’s the camp magic I grew up hearing about. It really is a sacred space for people to be their whole selves.”

Kathy Wilder meets with Bishop John Harvey Taylor and Canon to the Ordinary Melissa McCarthy and others (via Zoom) in Taylor’s office in 2022. Photo: John Taylor

“We also do community gathering,” Wilder said. “We play music, have chapel talk and twice a week they stay overnight in sleeping bags. They cook out, sleep out, see the stars, and have a cool experience. We evolve the program to meet the needs of the group. The focus is on relationship building.”

Spending time at the camp is a tradition for students in their senior year at St. Margaret’s School in San Juan Capistrano, said Lora Allison, upper school director of community life and a former camp board chair.

“They had an incredibly exciting visit to the camp this year. They go for usually two nights and three days, and the goal is to have them focus on bringing the class together as they face their last year in our community,” Allison said.

This year, with input from Wilder and camp staff, students selected from a series of options. “Some did a California and Julian history experience, where they worked with partners in town. We had students learn to bake bread, to work with the kitchen team, and we partnered with local bakeries. They got to go into town and learn the whole process of baking, and how that is such a substantial piece of the economy.”

Other students chose an extended outdoor experience. “I love that I can pick up the phone and say, ‘Kathy, I have this idea for our students,’ and she and her team are so eager and willing to go for it. It was resource-intensive; they had to get incredibly creative to accommodate those options of our students.”

Such creativity and vision are hallmarks of Wilder’s tenure, said Allison, who chaired the board while Wilder was the interim director after the departure of former executive director Beth Bojarski in 2017. “Kathy is wise and discerning and leads with her heart but also with a relevant and current lens of equity and belonging.

“She is constantly wondering how we can make this place accessible and welcoming to even more people. That’s something I continue to love about her leadership,” Allison said.

Keynote speaker Valerie Kaur poses with Kathy Wilder at Camp Stevens’ 70th anniversary weekend in 2022. Camp Stevens photo

Navigating the pandemic revealed Wilder’s grace and strength, she added. “I know that was hard on the organization, but there was no better person to be practical and optimistic in the face of adversity, especially when people are deciding that communal living and camping and summer camp with unfamiliar friends is not something they’re going to subscribe to.”

There was also the “not your typical” 70th anniversary celebration in October 2022, with renowned filmmaker, author, and Sikh activist and civil rights attorney Valerie Kaur as keynote speaker. Kaur’s best-selling book, See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love, proclaims a vision of creating a world where everyone “is a part of us that we do not yet know.”

The celebration included a restorative justice retreat; inviting Kaur was brilliant, Allison said. “As someone who thinks about community intentionally in my job, I was inspired by her leadership that weekend. It was like widening the footprint of Camp Stevens.

“At a time when many organizations celebrate by welcoming people who are familiar … Kathy brought people that were unfamiliar and maybe (who) could cross-pollinate Camp Stevens with their knowledge, around belonging and diversity and equity and justice and all those relevant and meaningful topics. And it’s just a drop in the bucket of what she does daily. She is a revolutionary leader.”

The Rev. Stefanie Wilson, chaplain at St. Matthew’s School in Pacific Palisades, agreed. “Kathy has this fantastic way of being both enthusiastic and visionary and incredibly organized and capable and hard-working. She sees the big picture and the small one at the same time, and it’s such a gift. It has been an incredible gift over her time at Camp Stevens.”

Wilson grew up going to Camp Stevens and now serves as a board member. During the search for an executive director, “It became immediately clear that Kathy was the candidate who loved Camp Stevens so much and was going to work so hard for it. At the time she was hired, she was just starting her graduate degree program in camps and conferences, and now she’s almost finished with it. Her tireless work has been incredible, especially during Covid.”

Kathy Wilder, lower left front, attends a board meeting for Episcopal Camps and Conference Centers (ECCC), a consortium of such facilities in The Episcopal Church.

Although forced into lockdown along with others, Camp Stevens remained of service to community, as a pickup site for food, partnering through the Diocese of San Diego with Episcopal Relief and Development. The camp is owned by the Los Angeles diocese but is located in the San Diego diocese and serves both as well as Southern California and beyond. The Diocese of San Diego was created in 1974 from an area that was formerly part of the Diocese of Los Angeles.

“Like every organization, Camp Stevens has struggled, and Kathy has approached it with honesty and heart,” Wilson said. “Every time we have a board meeting, she has a new idea, a new way that the camp not only can continue to thrive but also to grow and change, and she’s pushed the board to grow and change as well.”

Wilder recommended the board engage the Sacred Ground curriculum, part of the wider Episcopal Church’s racial reconciliation ministry. “From that and beyond she started the justice retreat that happened this year,” Wilson said. “She’s taken her experience of camp and believes in it so much that she wants to make it ever better. She goes above and beyond to encourage everyone to be as curious and full of wonder and enthusiasm as she is. It sets the bar high for all of us and I think it makes everyone around her want to work harder.”

The Rev. Canon Greg Larkin says his connection to Camp Stevens predates him: His parents, the late Rev. Robert and Catherine Larkin, “met at Camp Stevens. I was attending Camp Stevens before I could be a camper. Back in the early days clergy could take a week as the dean of the camp and lead a program and that’s what my parents did.”

Larkin was board chair when Wilder was hired as director. “I’ve known Kathy because she had two previous stints at Camp Stevens before this. Kathy’s always had a great spot for Camp Stevens, and she carries the place in her heart.”

Kathy Wilder reports to the 2021 meeting of Diocesan Convention on how Camp Stevens weathered the COVID-19 lockdown, which caused all 2020 summer sessions to be cancelled and 2021 sessions to be run at a reduced capacity. The camp returned to full capacity in 2022 and 2023. Photo: Janet Kawamoto

A long history with Camp Stevens

Wilder’s first experience of Camp Stevens was a lifechanging three-month internship while an undergraduate at Kalamazoo College in southwestern Michigan. “I had an incredible time. I was studying to be a high school teacher and I realized during my time at Camp Stevens how much I loved teaching even more because the outdoors was a combination of all my favorite things.”

After stints with Americorps, teaching in alternative schools, and with the Girl Scouts, Wilder found herself back at her “stronghold,” Camp Stevens, as operations director during the 2007 fire. The fire was started Sept. 15 by trespassers on a remote part of the property. It burned 70 acres of forest and destroyed twelve buildings, including the chapel, four guest lodges, six summer camp cabins, one summer camp bathhouse, and four other buildings.

Although the fire was devastating, rebuilding “was an incredible experience,” Wilder recalled. “I spent the next two years helping to clean up the site, doing construction projects. There was a lot of heavy lifting. Organizationally, I learned so much. It was a big time of growth and realization for me.”

Kathy Wilder, at right, poses with her wife, the Rev. Hannah Wilder. Photo: Laurel Ofstein

When Wilder married the Rev. Hannah Wilder, now vicar of St. Mary’s in-the-Valley Church, Ramona, she left that job “so our son could keep going to school in San Diego,” but always felt connected to Camp Stevens. In 2016, their son Owen became a counselor, Wilder said proudly. A year later, she joined the camp’s board. Beth Bojarski moved to Ohio, and in 2018, the board tapped Wilder to become interim director. “I could not say no to that offer,” Wilder recalls. “It’s my dream job.”

As interim, Wilder “didn’t just sit there and be a placeholder,” Larkin said. “She was actively involved and doing things to help the camp. She got us straightened out financially, got us fully computerized. When it came time to look at the permanent position and to interview candidates, it was just hands down that Kathy was the best person for the job and that has proven to be true, because she understands camping as a ministry, and not every camp director does.”

Patsy Brierley, a camper since the 1950s, agreed. Her longevity with the camp has translated into “honorary board member” status, she says, laughing. “Somebody said, I’ve been on the board forever.”

Wilder is a consensus-builder with a collaborative leadership style, she said. “Kathy doesn’t make decisions alone without sitting down with the staff and talking it through. I thought it was amazing the way she guided that group through Covid. We would not be a camp if it hadn’t been for her. I’m just really delighted there are people like Kathy in the world who are able to lead but can bring people along with them. She is amazing.”