Alive at Crystal Springs

Beside the ancient waters near Dowagiac, campers find new friends and new life in Christ.

KAY DEMOSS
Senior Editor-Writer, Michigan Conference

It was dedicated August 10, 1860 as the Big Springs Camp Ground. Since 1874 the outdoor ministry near Dowagiac has been known as “Crystal Springs Camp,” and according to local historian Barbara Cook, it’s the oldest religious camp in Michigan.

The site has a glorious past — the tabernacle and cottage grounds filled with 8,000 people during the revivals of the 1890s — and today Crystal Springs Camp and Retreat Center looks ahead to an awesome future.

Autumn splendor at Crystal Springs. The Stella Cooper Memorial Tabernacle and cottages once accommodated 8,000 guests in the glory days over a century ago. ~photo courtesy Dan Stuglik

Dan Stuglik, full-time Camp Director since January 2018, says, “We have sort of shifted focus with the help of our mission statement: To create a welcoming Christian sanctuary that removes distractions between our guests and God. Stuglik and his team measure everything that happens at Crystal Springs. “We ask ourselves, will this help us be welcoming and will it remove distractions?” Ever a tranquil setting, the water and woods are valued and used to further that purpose.

Another intentional shift at Crystal Springs has been outward-focused. “We want to be an asset to our community,” Stuglik explains. “If you are in the area, you see our camp outside of camp often.” For instance, in April 2018 Crystal Springs’ pedal cars will be taken to the YMCA in nearby Niles for Healthy Kids Day. The pedal cars are also available and advertising Crystal Springs’ activities at other community events.

In addition, Crystal Springs hosts two major community events each year. Three hundred kids enjoyed Trick or Treating at Crystal Springs in October 2017. And the 2018 Easter Egg Hunt is about to happen.

The camp experience itself is not the same as it was even 20 years ago. Dan considers meeting the needs of modern parents and campers as a vital part of the mission to be welcoming. “Modernizing our retreat and family camps has been important,” he says. Air conditioning and a partnership with Terminex pest control have been significant. “We are the only summer camp we know of with NO mosquitoes,” Dan exclaims. “We often hear campers say, ‘We haven’t seen a mosquito since we got here.’” There’s an emphasis on safe and homey buildings. “Our cabins are as comfortable as anyone’s house,” Dan reports.

Current projects include renovating a retreat house and staff house, and updating multi-media equipment in the chapel.

This miniature train — The Crystal Springs Express — takes mini campers to their cabins after they check in. It also makes an appearance at the Dowagiac Lighted Christmas Parade each year. ~photo courtesy Dan Stuglik

The emphasis on welcoming and visibility in the community has brought new and diverse camping experiences to Crystal Springs. The reality is that United Methodist churches are not sending as many children to camp as they once did. “We still have empty beds at United Methodist youth camps,” Dan says. “So we work in the gap.”

New guests now fill the facility spring, summer and fall … various Christian churches (United Church of Christ and Seventh Day Adventists) and schools (Southwest Michigan College, Western Michigan University, and high school band camps from Chesterton, IN and Dowagiac). And the ministry has international dimensions, too. There’s an Indonesian group that celebrates on the grounds and Crystal Springs also hosts a Quinceañera, a Hispanic tradition celebrating a young girl’s coming of age. In addition, Crystal Springs has become a wedding venue. The renovation of the tabernacle is now self-sustaining thanks to revenue from weddings.

This year’s United Methodist Camping season kicks off on Memorial Day with Big Kids Camp. What are Dan Stuglik’s hopes for the 2018 season? “Every year I want to finish a little bigger than the year before in numbers and improvements.”

This is Dan’s sixth season at Crystal Springs. A Coloma Township police officer at the time, he came in as a part-time camp director in 2012. He had been both a camper and a counselor at Crystal Springs before that. “This is a place where I always enjoyed volunteering,” he recalls. “I loved it as a 150-year-old site and thought it would be neat to be a piece of that history.”

Dan calls himself, “the guy taking care of the place right now.” He feels privileged to be a person who took his turn as a steward of Crystal Springs. “Someday,” he reflects, “I will be gone but this place will still be here serving God.”

Summer fun comes in all shapes and sizes at Crystal Springs. There are six camps on the docket in 2018 for kids of all ages. ~photo courtesy Dan Stuglik

What is a highlight of his ministry? “I’m always blown away by the support that we get at Crystal Springs both from the community and from United Methodists.” He describes it as confirmation of how special Crystal Springs was and is. “I am not crazy thinking this place is important,” Dan notes. “Others see Crystal Springs as a big deal, too!”

One thing for certain, Camp Director Dan Stuglik is not afraid of change. “We must always look to adapt and be ready for something new,” he says. “That’s what has done well for Crystal Springs.” He emphasizes that “you sometimes have to change your approach” to meet needs in the church and in the community. Dan enjoys camp director trainings and especially likes “to visit bigger camps to see how they are doing the next thing.”

The Mission of Crystal Springs Camp and Retreat Center is: To create a welcoming Christian sanctuary that removes distractions between our guests and God. Is it working? These Facebook reviews from guests suggest that it most certainly is…

“I call it holy ground; a part of history and a big part of finding peace in today’s busy world.” (Janet Smiedendorf) … “My daughter had a great time! I had a lot of anxiety sending her to camp for the first time as she has a severe peanut allergy. They went above and beyond to accommodate her.” (Juliette Nunez) … “Had my first experience here with band camp and loved it. Thank you so much for a wonderful week. Going to come volunteer when needed.” (Becky Bolton)

Click here for more information about what’s ahead in coming months at Crystal Springs.

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