Within the Charis Fellowship there are several camps, many of which have been in operation for decades. At the helm of these camps are faithful leaders who are committed to sharing the Gospel through camp ministry. Rick and Connie Strapello have been faithfully serving at Camp Mantowagan in Saxton, Pa., for more than forty years. Below is a story from Grace College reflecting on their time at camp. See the original story on Grace’s website here.
The words “summer camp” are often associated with thoughts of s’mores, jumping in the lake, and singing around a campfire. Kids wait in anticipation for what is often coined the “best week of the year,” and it all happens because of the hard work of passionate and enthusiastic camp staffers. Camp directors, counselors, and other staff give tirelessly to provide fun and transformative spaces for children to grow.
There is something sacred about time away from home and stepping out of a routine to allow the Holy Spirit to work in hearts and minds and ultimately transform lives. No one knows this better than Rick and Connie Strappello who have served in camp ministry for 44 years. Still to this day, it brings them no greater joy than to welcome campers to Camp Mantowagan in Saxton, Pa., and watch the Lord faithfully work in the lives of youth.
How It All Began
Rick knows the transformation that can take place at camps because he himself came to Christ at camp. It was the summer before his seventh-grade year, and Rick was moved by the example of the pastor who was his camp counselor. He watched his interactions with others and saw the pastor’s faith lived out in a real way.
“I did not have a father figure, so that was really impactful for me,” said Rick.
On the final night of camp, all of the campers were gathered around the fire. Campers were invited to come up and place a stick into the fire to symbolize their commitment to Jesus. At that moment, Rick felt the Spirit nudging him to make a decision to follow Christ.
“I felt called to go forward,” Rick remembers. “I put a stick into the fire and accepted the Lord into my life that night.”
Little did he know at the time, in the years to come, he would witness many young people, just like him, surrendering their lives to Christ at a campfire at camp.
Rick met his wife Connie many years later, in 1973, at Grace College. Rick was a sophomore and Connie was a freshman, and the two hit it off right away. The following summer, they were married. Through many connections made on campus, God began steering their hearts to pursue full-time camp ministry. So when Rick graduated in 1976 with degrees in Bible and Greek, the Strappellos packed up all of their belongings, hopped in their truck, and began journeying around Colorado — destination unknown. As they passed camps on the road, they would stop in and apply without a clue as to where the Lord would lead them. God closed doors and led them back to Pennsylvania where Rick served as a youth pastor until the following summer when they landed at the YMCA in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Making Camp Home
The Strappellos worked in programming at the YMCA until Rick applied for and was offered a position as camp coordinator of Camp Mantowagan in Saxton, Pa. The camp had just opened and had only two weeks of camp that summer. Rick told them it had potential, but he knew there was a lot of work needed.
That December, the Strappellos moved onto the camp property, and two days later, they had their first child. As a new mom adjusting to a new home, Connie remembers there were several obstacles. “When they turned the water on in the house, the water came out orange. It was an interesting beginning,” she laughed. Despite the fact that Rick and Connie were not convinced that Camp Mantowagan would become a long-term home, God continued to show them that this was where he wanted them.
“At first Rick said, ‘We need to give it three years.’ And then he would say another five, and then another five, and then another,” said Connie.
Other opportunities for camp ministry would come along, but they always felt called to stay at Camp Mantowagan. Five years after being hired, Rick’s title was changed to executive director of the camp, and the work he had been doing for the district youth was given to other people so he could focus on the growing camp, which was now used year-round. Connie continues to play a number of different roles, as the counseling director, registrar, photographer, nature hike leader, and camp store manager. For the first twenty-five years, Rick and Connie were the only full-time employees at Camp Mantowagan. Together, they are able to look back and see how their gifts and passions have equipped them for camp ministry side by side.
Faithfulness on Faithfulness
Rick and Connie look at their 44 years of experiences at Mantowagan and are only able to describe them as evidence of God’s faithfulness.
God has met many of the camp’s tangible needs. The Strappellos would no longer recognize the camp they arrived at in 1977. Countless people have generously donated to the camp in order to make building and camp improvements. Most recently, the camp was gifted a large stream waterfall and a gazebo. Because of faithful donors, the camp is completely debt-free.
God has also met their personnel needs. Most of the college-age counselors who work at Camp Mantowagan are students who went to the camp as kids and desire to pay it forward.
“We get emails from people who came to camp years ago saying how much they loved their experience here,” said Connie. “Families send members to camp as third-generation campers because of the way it has impacted them.”
But all of this pales in comparison to the spiritual needs that God has been faithful to meet time and time again. The couple agrees that the most amazing part of working at the camp is seeing people come to faith in Jesus Christ.
“God is really using it to reach those who don’t know Christ,” says Connie.
Rick and Connie’s philosophy is simple: love the people who come. As a partner of many parachurch ministries which bring in children from broken homes, Camp Mantowagan serves as a haven for many who are hurting. It is a place where they can turn in their phone, disconnect from the outside world, and just be present with the God who created them.
Two years ago Rick began to only work 20 hours a week during the off-season and they moved off the camp grounds and now reside in James Creek, Pa. Their son, Lee, who also graduated from Grace, followed in their footsteps and now serves as Camp Mantowagan’s executive director after working 17 years full-time at camp. Rick and Connie still serve at Camp Mantowagan full-time every summer because, after all these years, they still see camp ministry as a worthy and fulfilling endeavor.