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The Journey to the Summit: Photos from 40 years of Mountain T.O.P.

40th Logo - 5

People usually have a lot to say about turning 40.  It’s a big milestone in the life of a person and people handle it a number of ways.  Here are a few of the more popular reactions:

  • Forty isn’t old, if you’re a tree.
  • I’m not 40, I’m eighteen with 22 years experience.
  • Just remember, once you’re over the hill you begin to pick up speed. – Charles M. Schultz
  • Life begins at 40 – but so do fallen arches, rheumatism, faulty eyesight, and the tendency to tell a story to the same person, three or four times. – Helen Rowland

Here on the Mountain as we look back over these 40 years there a lot of things we could say about turning 40. The life of MTOP has had its ups and downs. The programs have grown in number and in size. The needs of the community have changed through the years and we have done our best to adjust.  We have taken turns I don’t think anyone could have ever expected and have gotten where we are today because of those turns in the road.

I think the only thing to say is how grateful and humbled by where this ministry is today. At the George Bass Brick and Mortar Dinner at the end of February we had speakers from every decade of Mountain T.O.P’s history speak about the changes and growth in that time. Every single speaker shared about how incredible it has been to be a part of what God has done in this ministry and how no one could have imagined where we are today.

As a way to celebrate all the good work that has been done, all that God has provided, all the lives changed in and out of camp, we wanted to show a glimpse of the past 40 years in a slideshow. Not only can you see some incredible pictures of families, worships, staffs, and camps, but also some incredible ’80s hairstyles.

 

Keep sending in your pictures to olivia@mountain-top.org of your time on the mountain. Be sure to include what year it is from and what program it was.  We’ll be sharing more pictures and slideshows throughout the year!

I have learned, every day, that the Lord is good: by Rachael Osborn

1383701_10203908623779651_4650063001838215128_n6 summers as a camper.
2 years on staff.
1 Fall AIM Weekend.

This isn’t much of a Mountain T.O.P. résumé, especially compared to those who have been coming to the Mountain more years than I have been alive, but it is something. It is something special to the development of my faith. I remember 2009, when the theme was “Amazing Grace,” because that was the year that I truly understood the concept of being saved because of God’s mercy and not my own works. I think back to last summer and getting to spend 10 weeks diving into the partnership of faith + works and how great it is that we can genuinely rejoice in suffering. Then I think about this summer… what have I learned?

I have learned, every day, that the Lord is good.

I have learned that though the AIM numbers are small, the Lord is good. We have seen some of the smallest AIM communities which has hindered us from serving as many families as we would like or accepting as many Kaleidoscope/Summer Plus/Quest kids as we would like. We still have a long list of families with expressed needs and teenagers that want to come to camp… and some days, this fact can be quite disheartening. When all we want to do is serve more families, all we have is a small handful of volunteers available to do so. We start to feel like we are not making a significant difference; we start feeling like we are not making any difference. We fear people are losing an interest in the AIM program, we fear people aren’t going to come back, we fear we are failing.

But then I remember, the Lord is good.

The Lord has reminded us though our communities are small, they are still mighty. It’s an awful cliché to use, but it describes every community we have had this summer. The Lord has reminded us that small communities mean closer communities, where everyone has a chance to get to know everyone. The Lord has reminded us that each community was created according to his sovereignty.

I have learned that though the odds may be against you, the Lord is good. Leading a group of people who are the same age as your parents and grandparents is no easy task. We have struggled to find common ground, to figure out how to teach old lessons in new ways, to keep programming fresh and relevant, to meet the needs of Christians who are more spiritually mature than we are.

But then I remember, the Lord is good.

The Lord has reminded us of 1 Timothy 4:12, “Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young. Be an example to all believers in what you say, in the way you live, in your love, in your faith, and your purity.” The Lord has reminded us that we have different perspectives to offer, unconventional methods to try, new ideas to share, and the command to live as an example to all believers — no matter the age. The Lord has reminded us that he is our source of boldness, wisdom, and strength.

I have learned that detail-oriented planning is important, yet, preparing your heart for the work of the Holy Spirit is absolutely vital. I have learned that the greatest treasures of my summer have come during mid-afternoon talks on the office porch, the quiet moments of setting up worship, and when a staff member has more happies than crappies. I have learned nothing is more encouraging than hearing a first-time camper excited about taking lessons from the Mountain back to the Valley.

All because the Lord is good.

The Lord has strengthened, empowered, and encouraged small groups of people to make an enormous difference in the lives of 2 very special ladies of Tracy City and 67 day camp kids. The Lord has guided our path as we walked the balance beam of risk-taking and experimentation. The Lord has provided countless circumstances only described by saying, “that was a God moment.” The Lord has fulfilled his promise of doing immeasurably more than we could ever ask or imagine.

I have learned, every day, that the Lord is good.

The importance of this week cannot be put into words: by Neighbors Helping Neighbors Director, Shellee Merryman

When Olivia asked me to write something about Neighbors Helping Neighbors I was really excited. This week meant more to my staff and me than I could ever explain. Then I realized I had to somewhat put my experience into words. I am almost at a loss of words from this camp week. It was… Perfect. Emotional. Emotionally Draining. Spiritually Fulfilling. Loving. Beautiful. Passion Filled.  Perfect. 

NHN campersI’m sure many of you have never heard of Neighbors Helping Neighbors, so here’s a little backstory.  In 2013 there was an awesome idea to have people from the Cumberland Pines service area come to Baker Mountain to participate in a YSM Service Project week. The idea formed, churches were contacted, and the week happened all within about three weeks of eachother. This camp week, with 1 adult, 9 youth, and 8 staff members made such a big difference in everyone’s life that was involved that it became known as Neighbors Helping Neighbors (NHN) and was continued this year. 

NHN this year tripled in size from last year. We had 3 churches bring a total of 30 youth and adults to form our wonderful community of 38 people. The only criteria to come to NHN is that the Sunday attendance of your church must be 100 or less.  Besides having smaller churches that come to NHN, this week is unique for many different reasons. The churches that have come so far (in the 2 year history) are Tracy City First UMC from Tracy City, Morton Memorial UMC from Monteagle, and St. Luke’s UMC from Chattanooga. Both Tracy and Morton are located in Pines service area, literally serving their own neighbors. And St. Luke’s is right down the road in Chattanooga (2 of their youth were from Signal Mountain, part of Baker service area). 

NHN worship 1NHN is one of the best things that could happen to this ministry, to the people of Grundy County, to these youth, and to the staffs involved. Mountain TOP’s Day Camp program has continued to grow throughout the recent years and if you’re wondering why I went from talking about NHN to talking about Day Camp, bear with me.  Just like what the Day Camp Manager, Monica said, “The Day camp programs are where we are shaping the future of this community, and making a permanent change” (and if you haven’t read her post I recommend you do). Of all of the youth we had attend NHN from Tracy City, the majority of them participated in at least one Day Camp program, if not multiple programs throughout the years. And these Day Camp programs do help shape the future of this community. But so does NHN. The youth coming to do a Service Project when many of their families have been on the receiving end of these various projects…that is something that helps make a permanent change. The youth realize what they are doing. They realize that they are more capable than they ever thought.

This camp week showed the youth that came to our camp that they DO have a chance. That they CAN and WILL make a difference. That they CAN have a future. That they ARE people. That people DO care about them. That they are not nothing. These amazing youth that walked around our camp can now go home and help more neighbors. Help people by using what they learned last week at NHN in their own communities. We are helping these youth (and adults for that matter) build resilience. We are shaping the future of this community and making a permanent change just like Day Camp. We’re just doing it a different way.  We are giving all of them something this mountain desperately needs, a sense of hope. 

These awesome campers came to Baker and did the same thing that a normal Service Project week would. They worked 4 days out in the county, doing yardwork, construction, and painting. And they had worship, games and sharing every night. It was awesome having them in camp. I don’t think you could every find a community that was all so dedicated and invested in the week like those 30 campers (I know I haven’t in my 3 years on staff and 5 as a camper). The happiness and willingness, desire to be part of that community, passion to learn about the Lord, hard work in the county, that doesn’t happen every camp week. 

NHN worshipIt was awesome for so many different reasons but it was great in camp because we were able to do more intricate worships in small spaces that aren’t usually used. On Monday we played a game at the ‘Y’ (the piece of grass between the boys and girls cabins), we had sharing at the Prayer Dock, and had worship on the Side Porch, where we couldn’t fit many more people. The response involved everyone pouring rocks and rice into little bags for them to take. More people would have made that not possible. On Tuesday we had stations worship at the Prayer Dock, it’s normally in the ‘field’ and the intricate space was awesome. On Wednesday we had worship the front gate, a place that can work with big communities but was more fitting for the small group! The messages were so personal because we knew so much about all of the campers that we could connect it to their life. 

All of the campers got so much out of spending their week at Baker Mountain. They saw my staff and me as role models. They realized they could be like us, college students and doing something we love and enjoy. But in return, my whole staff was filled immensely with love and passion. I have never seen a staff be so close to every single member of the camp community and known so much about every camper like they’ve felt like they’ve known each other for years. It was awesome getting to see the smiles on the faces of all my staff all week. Whether the smiles stemmed from seeing the campers enjoy themselves, interacting with the campers, knowing they had a place to sleep and food to eat, or anything else. Their smiles put a bigger smile of my face every single second.

NHN worship 2This week gave my staff an awesome opportunity to more clearly see the difference we are making every step of the way. But for some of these campers, it meant they had the same bed to sleep in all week. It meant they had 3 meals a day the entire time they were here. It meant they had people looking over them, caring for them.  That is part of the reason my staff cares so much about these people who were our campers. We know some of them don’t have the best lives at home. We know some of them have never been told how great they are. We know that some of them have never left Grundy County, but the important thing is they have now experienced this great week at Baker Mountain. They now know what they are capable of. 

shelleeA lot of emotion came with this week, but one thing is for certain; my staff knows why we were all called to be on the mountain this summer. Why we were called to be here this week. My staff knows why the 8 of us make up Baker Evens. It doesn’t have to do with the weeks on the calendar, or the individual place we come from, but because together we form a cohesive team that was able to reach the lives of all 30 campers. The personal experiences we had been through made it possible for us to connect with campers in ways many people wouldn’t be able to. 

Perfect doesn’t begin to describe the week that happened. It was the most emotional week anyone on my staff will ever experience. The importance of this week cannot be put into words. Nor can the experiences. One thing my entire staff will agree on is that this week was the best thing that ever happened not only for the youth and adults involved, but for every single one of us. 

Psalm 56:3-4 sums up a lot that we learned from our campers this week, “When I am afraid, I will trust in you. In God, whose world I praise, in God I trust; I will not be afraid. What can mortal men do to me?”

Peace, love, joy,

~Shellee Merryman

-Neighbors Helping Neighbors Director 

Day Camp: Shaping the Future of Our Community, by Monica Welcker

Monica in her YRG
Monica in her YRG

Two years ago, if you told me this was where I would be, I would have laughed. A lot. The thought of working with kids was not even an option or consideration for me. I had never been interested in teaching or anything relevant to the Day Camp program at all. I liked to build things, and help people with their physical needs, so I thought being a Service Project Ministry Coordinator was the job for me. But as we have been talking about in camp, there is a difference between a calling and a desire.

After my final year as a service project camper, I knew I was going to be on staff. I knew I was being called to be on the mountain, helping the amazing people in the county, and reaching out to our campers as a staff member. I decided to answer the call, and apply to be a Service Project Ministry Coordinator.

Day Camp kids at Sewanee
Day Camp kids at Sewanee

I got the call from Kim a couple weeks after my interview, offering me a position as a Day Camp Ministry Coordinator. It took me a good 24 hours to even realize what was going on. I had never heard of the day camp program, and I had no idea what it meant to the ministry. I did know that I loved this ministry and everything it stood for, so I accepted the offer.

The first few weeks were tough, because I had no idea what to expect at all; but soon enough the rewards started pouring in. Seeing how appreciative these kids were for such little things is life changing. This is probably the hardest job I will ever have, but it is also the easiest, because of how rewarding it is. I have never had a problem with motivation because every day, I can see the work I do paying off. It is amazing. 

Monica for blog

I now believe that Day Camp is the heart of this ministry (and yes I am a little biased). Don’t get me wrong, I do think that it is extremely important that we help the people of this area with the current physical needs they have. It is more than necessary to build some steps on a trailer so they can meet codes and keep custody of their kids, or a wheelchair ramp so that an elderly person can exit their trailer, but the Day Camp programs are where we are shaping the future of this community, and that is making a permanent change.

This program focuses on building resilience in the youth of the community, so they know how to face all of the issues that they will no doubt encounter. Not only that, but it helps to inform the kids of this community that they have options in their future. They don’t have to stay in Grundy County and live in the same house they have always lived in. They can go to college, they can become a pilot, or a doctor, or whatever they want to do. And I can tell you first hand, its working. I have heard kids after our visit to The University of the South raving about how much they want to go to college. I have been told after our visit to the airport that kids didn’t know how cool it would be to be a pilot. We are instilling motivation into them, that they will hopefully carry for the rest of their lives.

Coming into my second summer with this program, now as the Manager of the Day Camp program, I see exactly how God is working through me and why I have been called here. I’m here for the kids in this county, but I’m also here to keep growing our program. This program does not get nearly enough credit, and it is because of the mindset that I used to have as a camper. The mindset that it is more rewarding to build a porch than it is to “babysit” kids (I can assure you, it is far from babysitting). My goal is to start changing that. The program can’t grow unless we get more participants coming to camp, and only limited kids in the county can come if we don’t have enough vans to transport them. I am extremely excited that I have the opportunity to embrace these goals. I think that there is huge potential in this program, and I can see it growing already from what has been happening this summer. 

Already, the first week, we had 64 kids signed up. This coming week, we have 56, and almost 70 seatbelts to fill for the last week. Last year we had to tell kids they couldn’t come because we didn’t have enough seatbelts, and this year I am having to hunt down forms to make sure kids get signed up in time. The program is growing, and I cannot wait to be a hand in continuing that.

The Truth about Summer Staff

Back in January I contacted one of our staffers to see if we could talk to her parents about their journey with her from her first time applying to now, when she is entering her third year on Summer Staff.

We know many parents have a difficult time fully digesting what a summer will look like for their son or daughter if they are on staff.  So I contacted Stacy to see if her parents would talk about what their initial thoughts had been about Stacy being on staff.

They were quick to respond and wonderfully honest about what their experience has been with Mountain T.O.P. that I think are extremely helpful to those looking to apply in the coming years.

Here is what they had to say.

Hi Olivia,

I smiled when I read your email to Stacy.  I certainly do remember how I felt when Stacy told us she first wanted to serve on staff two years ago (seems like a lot longer than two years!).  I was very apprehensive.  Very frankly, I was a little put off by the emails that came to prospective staffers: they seemed very slanted to all the things that Mt TOP required of candidates.  You must do a pile of paperwork all due at very specific dates, you must commit to an uninterrupted eight week service (Stacy’s grandfather was quite ill at the time), you must earn half of your salary, you must arrive with a car, and (oddly) you will need to make your own accommodations and pay your own way for the alternate week breaks.  I was pretty hesitant.  We weren’t at all sure we could promise her a car (we had four teen drivers sharing two cars at the time).  And to top it off, Stacy goes to college in Massachusetts and even if she convinced her professors to let her take a couple final exams early, and if her dad flew one-way to get up there to help her drive home, and if she only spent one night at home in Cincinnati at the end of spring term, she would still be arriving two days late for training.  And also, why would I want my 18 year old daughter to go to rural TN and drive throughout the counties knocking on strangers’ doors and  going into their homes by herself?  At the time I had no idea how respected Mt TOP is in the area.  Stacy told me she would always wear her staff shirt and name tag when she was out in the counties, and I didn’t have any idea how influential that could be.  I remember thinking that she was very very naive… a shirt and name tag didn’t really seem to provide much protection for a young person out on her own. Even though our church had gone for many years to Baker, and all four of our kids had enjoyed four years as campers, in February of that first year, it still seemed like there were many more concerns than it was worth.  Surely Stacy could find something else meaningful to do with her summer.
Stacy's 2014 Staff
Stacy’s 2014 Staff
But Stacy begged us.  And then the adult leaders from our church who knew Mt TOP called me.  And then I got up my nerve and called and talked with Ed’s wife, Glynn.  And later I had a second call with Ed.  Everyone offered reassurance.  It was explained that there are repeat host families that offer housing to the staff on the off periods.  Staffers stay in pairs or groups and not entirely on their own in others’ homes for these breaks.  They assured me that Stacy would be welcome even if she arrived a couple days into the start of training.  The homes that Stacy would be entering had been pre-evaluated by full-time staffers and they told me that the staff is well-trained about not going into homes that don’t appear safe.  They were patient with my concerns and there was a kindness and welcoming attitude in their voices that I hadn’t sensed in the group emails to applicants.  Slowly I began to let go and get more comfortable.
Stacy on staff in 2013
Stacy on staff in 2013
Stacy has gained so much from her two years on staff.  She has become very self-reliant.  She has learned to multitask and prioritize her day.  She prepares for what needs to be done but she doesn’t get rattled when the day doesn’t go entirely according to her plan – adjustments are made and the day is not a loss.   She can speak almost effortlessly (it seems) in front of our church and other groups.  She has also learned simpler more practical life skills like writing fundraising letters, office skills, driving through unfamiliar areas, meeting new people, working in groups, and introducing herself with a sense of ease and humility. She has learned to deal with people of very diverse backgrounds, she has engaged in more than a few conflict-resolution situations, and she has become much more mature and at ease with herself and others.  Some of this is likely from just being two years older and two years farther into college life, but I really believe that the lion’s share of the changes in Stacy is due to her two summers on staff at Baker.  She has grown into a much more confident and (as her mother, dare I say) accomplished individual, and for that we give thanks to those who have guided her and led her at Mt TOP.  And, maybe the icing on the cake is that she has loved her time on staff in Tennessee, made lifelong friends of other staffers, and deepened her personal faith immeasurably.  That is a treasure she will always appreciate.
Stacy's first year on staff
Stacy’s first year on staff
So, in conclusion, I had a lot of misconceptions.  I had a lot to learn about how Mt TOP works.  And I’m eternally grateful that it has played such a significant role in Stacy’s last few years.  Stacy is spending this January interning each day with a church-run coalition that assists homeless Cincinnati families (Interfaith Housing Network).  She leaves for 15 weeks in Bolivia on January 28th but she has already begun a packing pile for TN in her room.  As I write this she is in her room writing partnership letters and thank you notes that her Dad and I will mail out in March when Mt. TOP announces the summer staff choices.  And later this week she will get her health physical and prepare to submit some of Mt TOP’s forms and paperwork.  When she returns to Cincinnati in May she will have just two full days with us here at home before she heads to TN for training.  There’s not enough time for all these tasks, and as her mother it’s sometimes tough to see her working so hard. Preparing to take this summer’s position will be demanding, but this time, instead of me being filled with concern and doubts, I am thrilled that she  has the opportunity and grateful that she will have the chance to grow her skills even further while continuing to serve the families of the Cumberland Plateau.
Holly Purcell

Share Your Story

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Mountain T.O.P. has been serving on the Cumberland Plateau for 39 years.  In the 2015 we want to celebrate our 40th year of ministry through sharing the impact this ministry has had through your stories and photos. Was it your first mission?  Was it your first time leading a group on a mission?  Who did you meet?  What made the most impact on your life?  How did you connect with God?  Did you hear your call to ministry here?

Share your experiences by emailing them to info@mountain-top.org.  We can’t wait to hear how God moved through you while you were here, and how you carried your experiences to the valley below.