Beth Bojarski is talking about building relationships and reaching out as she reaches for blue-, brown- and white-shelled homegrown eggs in the commercial kitchen at the Camp Stevens dining hall.
Eggs are just one of many wonders the camp’s new executive director is celebrating this particular day: “We’ve got about one hundred chickens now; they’re really starting to produce.
“Just in the last three to four weeks they’ve started laying and we’re at about 30 or 40 eggs a day. This last weekend was the first time we served eggs from onsite to a retreat group.”
The camp, chickens and eggs have also made a big impression on Bojarski’s four-year-old son
Eliot: “Every time we come over here for a meal we have to go out and see if there’s an egg,” laughs the 6-foot, red-haired Bojarski, 34, while frying eggs in a cast iron skillet for breakfast. “And if we make it over here before they [the chickens] are out we have to let them out and put them back in again.”
The previous evening, a Sunday, the staff hosted a community meal where about 50 Julian locals dined on pizza baked in the wood-fired oven and salad greens grown in the camp’s organic garden.
Earlier that same day Bojarski, a Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS) graduate, had both preached and facilitated an adult forum at St. Dunstan’s Church in San Diego.
Exchanging roles with spouse Mitch, an Episcopal priest, and relocating from Kentucky with Eliot meant “hitting the ground running” when she arrived in August 2012, Bojarski recalled.
First impressions, necessary adjustments
With a plate of eggs, caraway seed wheat toast and oranges in hand, Bojarski settles comfortably in by the dining hall fireplace on a cold, rainy Spring morning.
She says she balances significant professional challenges — managing the 256-acre camp, its staff of about 20 and an annual budget approaching $1 million, an upcoming capital campaign, rumors of an earlier-than-usual fire season — with personal ones: Like acclimating after uprooting and “moving cross country away from family and friends and letting go of the control of being a stay-at-home parent.”
Now Mitch is the stay-at-home parent and serves as a supply priest in a local San Diego parish.
When they arrived, Bojarski started building relationships by doing dishes.
“One of the first things I learned here was dishes, because … the camp functions by
community-based involvement and everyone does everything with the exception of a few specific gifts,” said Bojarski.
“But everybody does dishes and everybody knows how to do dishes and it’s something that happens here all the time.”
A lover of stories and huge believer in “finding the wonder and holy in daily routine and how that builds service and is an act of service,” she also began immediately reaching out to campers and guests — scheduling reservations, sending hand-written thank-you notes, making telephone calls and mostly just listening to Camp Stevens stories.
“I don’t think I’ve talked to one guest who isn’t blown away by their experience here, whether they’re coming back for the thirtieth time or are here for their first time,” she said. “That created a lot of my first impressions here. And it speaks volumes about the quality of our staff and our facilities.
“And the food is something that comes up time and time again as being really phenomenal,” she added.
There are some things that just take getting used to. “The fire stuff is really new to me,” Bojarski said. “It took me a while to temper down my emotional response to helicopters. I think I transferred it from the tornado sirens in Kentucky to helicopters in California. I had to realize that just because you hear one doesn’t mean there’s a fire close. The adjustment was necessary.”
Backpacking, creativity, self-reliance
Bojarski, an avid knitter and sometime jewelry maker—the three-inch feather earrings she sports are recycled from the camp chickens — recalls being “the shy kid overwhelmed by camp” while growing up in the Finger Lakes region of Central New York, near Syracuse.
As a teenager she discovered backpacking and wilderness journeys. Along with them came creativity, self-reliance and a love for the Adirondack outdoors “where my soul lives.” She backpacked in college, taught outdoor living skills, environmental ethics and facilitated team building and groups using rock walls and challenge courses.
She and Mitch married after completing undergraduate coursework and by the time they moved to Virginia to pursue theological studies in 2005, she’d earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester, and a master of science in recreation and leisure studies at the State University of New York at Cortland.
She was eight months pregnant with Eliot when she graduated in 2008 with a master’s degree in theological studies. The couple moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where Mitch served as a parish priest and she became youth director for the Episcopal Diocese of Kentucky.
She points to a tattoo, one of several inked onto her left forearm and wrist, of a tulip tree and the name Ella, the daughter she lost in pregnancy about 18 months ago and “who is an important part of my story.”
“I blogged a lot about it when it happened,” Bojarski recalled. “We planted a tulip poplar tree for her. I believe people should talk more about grief. Ella was technically a miscarriage although we had ashes and a service. I have had so many people and women, particularly, say that they’ve experienced something similar but didn’t know how to talk about it.”
An established legacy; ‘Seeds of Hope’
Camp Stevens, owned by the Diocese of Los Angeles, served more than 5,000 people last year, including about 500 summer campers, and Bojarski is eagerly anticipating joining this year’s counselor training.
“I will be a staff person at counselor training. It’s the pinnacle, I’ve been told, of what Camp Stevens does. It is about intentionality and community building and nature-based experiences. It’s a 10-day intensive program for about 30 teenagers aged 16 to 19 to prepare them to be counselors for the summer. I’m really excited about that.”
A series of four six-day sessions for campers begins July 7. “We went back to six days for the session and the staff are really excited about that,” Bojarski said. “It allows for better formation and helps the kids get to know each other more.”
With about eight months as executive director under her belt, Bojarski says she doesn’t mind being “the new person” in camp.
“Sometimes I feel this is great, totally comfortable and sometimes I go to a church where I’m the new kid. I will be the new kid for a long time, which is okay. I really do get it.” She succeeded Canon Peter Bergstrom, who retired in 2012 after 40 years as executive director. “Peter’s legacy is outstanding,” Bojarski exclaims.
“He and especially John [Horton, the administration director] have made it easy for me to come in and slowly find my footing, and the board has been really supportive.”
“Beth brings a wonderful and thoughtful view of camping, the Episcopal Church and caring for God’s creation,” Horton said in a recent email to The Episcopal News. “She has a really good idea of where the camp has been and where it was going before her arrival. She is not only dedicated to that direction, but eager to push new boundaries in the same direction.”
Her fresh perspective “on furthering the camp’s mission and reach, both in the dioceses and the greater community at large” has both encouraged and energized the staff, he added.
While there are no obvious major changes in the foreseeable future, Bojarski does hope to add “a little more oomph,” a few more direct connections between existing programs and the communities served.
As with food, the heart of the camp’s mission. “One of the opportunities we have is to do more production, but also more education and connection within our own Julian community and the dioceses with the farm and garden program,” she said.
“The farm and garden program is an opportunity for students, for adults, to get their hands dirty,” she said. “There’s all sorts of research that demonstrates, that … shows that kids and adults who have nature-based experiences are less likely to be diagnosed with psychological disorders.”
She pauses for a moment to confer with Michael “Slim” Salemi, garden programs manager, who has entered the dining hall about collaborating on an upcoming presentation.
There is also the opportunity “to feed people,” she said. “I don’t know what it would look like but it would be incredible if we could connect more with the Julian community and feed folks who straight up need food and to teach folks in churches and other organizations that we are a place where folks could come.”
All of which makes the diocesan “Seeds of Hope” initiative, in which the camp will be participating, “part of an epic moment. This is incredible.”
She’s also savoring more opportunity. “We just purchased a movable greenhouse built on rails. We can start growing earlier and extend the growing season. We can grow lettuce longer. It’s already filling up.”
In spite of the unseasonably cold and damp weather, strawberries are starting to emerge. Crops of broccoli, cauliflower and onions “are in the ground” and “we made budget last year. That is amazing because it was a transition year,” she added.
She and the staff and board members are brainstorming about how to conduct an upcoming “last capital campaign post-fire” to rebuild some of the buildings lost during the 2007 fire season — including the news Bergstrom Lodge, to be dedicated in honor of Peter Bergstrom and his wife Vicki.
‘Right directions’: the environment
Bojarski spent much of her 12th wedding anniversary, April 21 — the day before Earth Day — at All Souls Church in Point Loma preaching and also discussing “the biblical mandate to take care of the earth and why that’s something as Christians we ought to be concerned about.”
She adds, “At some point, if you could boil the whole of the gospels down, today’s headline would be ‘Jesus takes care of the poor.’ I don’t think we can do that without taking care of the water and food sources and environment.”
Another reason to be involved: “I think about urban settings and children in particular in urban settings, because the research shows that kids who have nature-based experiences are healthier and more well-rounded and I feel like that’s a good enough reason for me.”
She doesn’t “fund-raise from the pulpit but that doesn’t mean I don’t talk about creation care or Camp Stevens” when visiting churches to get the word out, said Bojarski. It costs about $550 to send a child to summer camp for one week and about one-third of campers receive scholarship assistance from the Blum Campership Fund, she said.
Her master’s thesis, To Serve and Guard the Earth, a curriculum exploring the relationship between Christianity and creation care, was published in 2010 as a resource for communities of faith by Morehouse Education Resources (www.churchpublish ing.org).
Redeeming the church
She hesitates when asked what she wants people to know about her. “It’s a bit like writing your eulogy,” she admits.
But being at Camp Stevens “is exciting for me personally because it’s an opportunity for me to do two things which are my life’s passions.
“One, to work in a place where I can help Christians really understand and take on the call to earth stewardship, creation care. That’s something I feel really strongly about. And the other thing is, to be in a place where I have an opportunity personally, to redeem the church, redeem the Christian faith, redeem Jesus, however, to environmentalists and folks who, for whatever reason, have left the church, or been burned by the church or never met the church.”
She adds: “I hesitate to say the church because it’s not about the institution for me, it’s about the ideology and belief and that’s something I think the whole church is going through right now, sort of figuring out — do we go to church or are we the church? I get really excited about it.”
While most Camp Stevens guests do not self-identify as Christian, it “presents a really wonderful opportunity for us to teach similar principles a lot of different ways and to demonstrate what living in community and taking care of one another looks like,” she said. “And then, when there’s this connection — ‘y’all are Episcopalian, aren’t you?’ — we can say, ‘We sure are.’ It’s a wonderful witness of what the church could look like.”
Meanwhile, she aims to keep reaching out, building relationships, “and that’s primarily what I’ve been doing,” she said. “It helps that I love stories and love hearing stories, so tell me about your love of Camp Stevens.”