Summer Staff Memoir: Emme

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I have come to camp every year ever since I can remember. It has always been the place I imagine when I’m told to go to my “happy place”. I imagine strolling down Nazarian Way beneath towering trees, and holding a glass mug filled with warm tea. The plum trees along the side of the road are blossoming and there are kids yelling and screaming all over the big green field, in the gaga ball pit, and on the playground. Laughter is everywhere.

This is where I’ve spent a lot of my life growing up. I’ve gone through grief, joy, friendship, and frustration; all of it here. When it was all too much, there was always someone waiting to listen. When the joy was too much, there was always someone to laugh with. Camp for me is a sense of belonging to a group of people called “camp people”. We’re teachers, pastors, students, and really anyone with a heart full of love. Summer Staff is about sharing the threads of your life with a group of people for 6 weeks and weaving something beautiful.

But the skills we learn, the people we become, the courage we store up; it doesn’t all stay here when we leave. We take our experiences working with different age groups, abilities, cultures, and ways of thinking into the real world with us. That’s why I keep coming back: to kindle the same spirit in the lives of every camper I come into contact with. To encourage them to keep coming back and learning more about themselves and God, and what it all means in the real lives we live. As great as a week at summer camp is, we spend most of the time trying to prepare them for when they leave. We try to give kids a real, honest, and practical Christianity that they can understand in the context of their daily lives.

When I graduated high school and left the day after my ceremony to show up for our Summer Staff orientation week, I was incredibly excited but really nervous. Did I really have what it takes to be a summer staffer? There was no question in my mind that this was how I wanted to spend my summer. But, I didn’t know what it was like to spend 5 weeks straight doing camp. Would I be able to counsel all different ages? What about Friendship Camp, our camp for developmentally disabled adults? Would I be patient, responsible, and sensitive enough for their needs? My first Friendship Camp came and while there were hard moments, it was all worth it because friendship campers are filled with joy! While all campers have struggles, not every camp has this unbridled sense of happiness and belonging. That week I learned that the secret to Friendship Camp was love.

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Over two years after my first summer on summer staff I was flying to California for a part of my winter break from college. I noticed one of the passengers on my flight was guided over to his seat and he was talking loudly to his attendant. I recognized a lot of his language patterns, like when he got stuck thinking in loops, “I get off the plane in San Fransisco, right? I get off the plane in San Fransisco, right? Then I get on the plane to Houston to see my brother? Then I get on the plane to Houston to see my brother?”. The passenger reminded me of my friendship campers: I thought there was a strong possibility that this man had some sort of developmental disability and he was being cared for by the airline attendants. It wasn’t any of my business, but I was surprised that I hadn’t ever remembered seeing an adult with developmental disabilities flying on a plane by themselves before.

I went to use the restroom before the plane took off and through the thin plastic wall of the airplane bathroom I could clearly hear sobbing. I washed my hands and left the bathroom. When I turned the corner I noticed a flight attendant comforting the man, “It’s okay, Evan,” I heard in passing.  He was clearly upset, and I knew that having a buddy sit with him might help with the anxiety that may come with flying.  When the flight attendant passed me, I pulled her aside, “Hey, I don’t know if this would be helpful, but I’m trained in working with Developmentally Disabled adults, its part of what I do during the summer, and if you’d like I’d be happy to sit with Evan and see if I can cheer him up!”. All my words came tumbling out of my mouth. I was nervous. I didn’t want to seem like a know-it-all and impose, but I did want to help if I could. The stewardess jumped at my offer, “If you wouldn’t mind that would be so sweet”! She began to tear up, “He has had such a rough morning”.

As I moved my backpack and myself to the back of the cabin and sat with Evan, I wanted to get to know him. I introduced myself, and he returned the favor. As I asked Evan questions about his life, I told him about mine. When we took off, I told him that it was just like a roller coaster, “We’ll go really fast at first, but then fast will feel normal. There might be some bumps, but the pilot is the best pilot in Alaska Airlines whole fleet, so he’s got us covered”.

The rest of the flight was smooth sailing. When I read, I looked up from my book every couple minutes just to double check that all was merry, but Evan had quelled the sadness within him. The only thing he asked me for was help opening his coffee cup because the lid was too tight! The rest of the flight went easily, including the surprise turbulence and the roller-coaster hands-up landing!

Sitting with Evan was no big deal, and it allowed me to truly be present on a plane ride I probably would have wasted otherwise. However, such a simple thing as sitting with someone wasn’t so easy for me two years ago. When I graduated from high school, I no doubt would have had empathy for Evan, but I don't think I would have been comfortable or courageous enough to offer my services to go sit with him. Working at The Woods gave me those things, but more importantly The Woods gives similar experiences, skills and courage to everyone who sets foot across the bridge. Camp gives us the ability to go out into our communities and change them for the better.

So yeah, summer camp is exhausting but there is also this feeling that no matter where we came from, who we are, or who our parents are: we all are God’s children. This is what is so crucially electrifying about Christian youth ministry. Christian ministry is about creating a family of fellow believers, of people trying their best. We walk with each other so that nobody has to walk through life alone.

One Day Challenge Course Programs

Are you familiar with Westminster Woods’ one day challenge course programs?  On our extensive redwood challenge course, students develop teamwork, cooperation, trust, and perseverance through activities facilitated by our professional staff. In small groups, students will collaborate to solve problems, overcome obstacles, and strengthen the classroom community. Programs typically are held 9:30-4:30 and include teambuilding initiatives and an optional high ropes experience.

The day begins with students meeting their Teacher Naturalist facilitators and learning important concepts such as ‘Challenge by Choice’ and ‘Success at Every Step’ that set the tone of both focus and fun for the rest of the day. Then in small trail groups of about 10-14, students will complete a series of fun, community building initiatives that build into complex team challenges. These activities are specifically designed to increase the group’s ability to effectively communicate, problem solve, think critically, and evoke personal leadership abilities.


After a morning of teambuilding activities, many schools opt to add two high ropes elements to their afternoon. Teacher Naturalists carefully choose two elements to meet the needs of their group. Students have the opportunity to challenge themselves as individuals, work as partners, and coalesce as a team as they support each other through mentally, emotionally, and physically demanding high ropes activities.


At the end of the day, the whole school comes together to complete a closing activity, reflect on their challenge course experience, and connect what they have learned to daily life. One day challenge course programs are a great opportunity for school groups to strengthen their community and set the tone for the school year ahead.

Are you a teacher interested in reserving a challenge course program for your students? Inquire here!

Winter Programs at The Woods

Winter is a magical time to be at Westminster Woods. During the winter months, the forest becomes a lush paradise with swelling creeks and tributaries, spawning coho salmon, meandering banana slugs, and flourishing plants and mushrooms. If you’re lucky enough to come to The Woods in the winter, you might get the chance to explore all that a thriving coastal redwood ecosystem has to offer in the wet season.


Rain or shine, our Teacher Naturalists run meaningful and engaging school programs. On rainy days when groups venture out on trail, everyone is equipped with a sturdy poncho to stay dry.

After adventuring into the forest and observing the effects of a good rainstorm, students can dive deeper into their scientific practices in our two new indoor laboratories. In the Microscope Lab, students have the opportunity to discover a microscopic world they may have never noticed before. And in our Skulls Lab, students can explore the structure and function of animals that live right here at Westminster Woods!

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On cold and wet days we may wind down together with a hot cup of cocoa and class meetings can be held around the meeting room fireplace. At night, students and chaperones stay cozy in heated cabins. Sabertooth, one of our legendary Teacher Naturalists, first came to The Woods as a 7th grade student. When he remembers his week of rainy adventures, he recalls “My Teacher Naturalist told me there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes for climate. So, we put on our ponchos, laced up our rain boots and had a great time splashing in puddles and searching for critters. The hardest part was getting home and trying to explain to my mom that I wanted to play outside in the rain.” Whether the sun is shining or rain is falling, students, teachers, and chaperones are sure to a have a memorable experience at Westminster Woods.


Check out this video made by one of our amazing schools for a sneak peak into a school trip to Westminster Woods!

Updates from The Woods

Dear Friends of The Woods,

We are eternally grateful for the support we receive from the amazing Westminster Woods community. It is because of all of you that we are able to provide a wonderful facility and quality programming to schools, churches, guest groups, families, and everyone in between. In this brief report, we have exciting news to share, and a summary of 2017 finances.

First, our School Programs department, which provides thousands of students each year with outstanding character development and science programs, received generous support in 2017 from the Margaret V. Ping Foundation and other donors, for a brand new microscope lab and a skulls and skins lab! These two labs, created to support our teaching of Next Generation Science Standards, have already been a hit – students have been able to discover a whole new world within natural objects they observed while hiking and exploring throughout The Woods.

We have long wished to upgrade and remodel our camp cabins with added bathrooms, but the limitations of our septic system have stood in our way. After four years working with a specialist to develop plans to upgrade our system, the plans have finally been approved by Sonoma County!  We have three years to complete the septic work, but we can begin with a model cabin or two as soon as this year.  Our community’s continued support will be as important as ever, with plans to keep upgrading cabins until the job is done. Here’s to the future of The Woods!

We have a few big 2018 events to announce, starting with Westminster Woods Friends & Family Summer Camp, which will be Tuesday, July 31st – Friday, August 3rd!  This all-new camp program will be run by our Ministries and Summer Staff Leadership Team.  We invite all friends of the Woods, including families, grandparents, individuals, and former staffers to join us.  Registration coming soon!

The all-new Ocean Trek fundraiser will take place on Saturday, September 29th – a 13-mile hike from The Woods to the Sonoma Coast!  In conjunction, our Weekend at The Woods will be September 28th-30th – families, couples, friends, and singles of all backgrounds are welcome for  swimming, Challenge Course, hiking, games, campfires, and S’mores!

Details about all of these events will be shared via email, social media, and our website – stay tuned for updates!  In the meantime, thank you for your continued support of our mission and goals.  Please refer to the Give Back page of our website for donation options. 

Counting Our Blessings - 2017 at a Glance

Westminster Woods is growing stronger – financially and overall – thanks to the dedicated efforts of our staff and board, and the faithful support of our donors.

We ended 2017 with a net revenue of $97,000 over expenses. These funds will largely be used toward upgrading our septic system and remodeling cabins, which should help increase our future revenue!

We encourage you to make supporting our camp ministry a regular part of your planned giving. Regardless of whether you contribute monthly, quarterly, or annually, your tax-deductible gift will make a difference in the lives of kids, teens, and adults, in 2018 and for years to come.

Here’s a glance at our 2017 revenue sources and how our expenses were allocated. Note that revenues from our renowned Challenge Course program are included under income for School Programs, Guest Groups, and Ministries.

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With gratitude and faith,

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Chris Rhodes                                        Brian Gidney                                                                          Executive Director                                Board President

6 Reasons to Send Your Child to Summer Camp at The Woods

Have you signed your child up for summer camp yet? Summer Camp at Westminster Woods is a life changing and life giving experience. From new experiences to new friends, your child will come away with life long memories. Take a look at the list below for six of the reasons to send your camper to summer camp. 

6 Reasons to Send Your Child to Summer Camp at The Woods!


In today’s fast paced culture we need to practice unplugging from the over stimulation of data and technology. This steady stream of information and stimulation impacts the still-developing minds of children in many ways. Therefore, it is important to help children learn that removing yourself from the screen filled world is not only a good thing, but also vital for their developmental health. Summer camp is a tech free zone. Without the distraction of phones, gaming devises, and tablets children are free to play using the original play devise… their imagination and nature.



Summer Camp is a great opportunity to stretch and grow through trying new things. Westminster Woods provides unique experiences and activities for children to challenge and grow themselves in developmentally appropriate ways including challenge course, outdoor exploration, faith based activities, and play. 



Campers will learn vital interpersonal relationship skills such as, learning to actively listen to others and beginning to understand empathy.  Plus the value of life-long friendships created through engaging activities, a week of play, intentional conversations with small groups and at meals. 

4. PLAY 

Have free time for unstructured play. “You can learn more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”- Plato Most therapists today say that children are over scheduled. Their lives are so packed they don’t have time to play. For more information about the importance of play check out the National Institute for Play.



God created the world and so often we miss the beauty around us. At Westminster Woods we seek to help children slow down and see what God created. For many of our campers it is the first time ever seeing the forest and we have the privilege of helping them see the beauty of creation. Spending time in nature is an amazing way to connect with God and find a respect for this little planet we live on. We are located in a coastal redwood forest and the historic Dutch Bill Creek runs through our property. Campers will be able to explore this property by hiking, stream activities, and intentional reflection time in nature.


Our desire at Westminster Woods is to create a safe spiritual space to encounter the Triune God (Creator, Savior, and Holy Spirit). Where campers can experience God, question God, and discover God without feeling pressure to believe something they are not ready to believe. Westminster Woods holds the belief that this place is one of the many avenues of faith discovery. A week at summer camp allows campers to encounter God through engaging with summer staffers, fellow campers, speakers and other volunteers to uncover more of who God is in their life. This place is a stepping stone of faith, where campers can take home the mystery of faith to continue to uncover more of our loving God.

Register before April 1st and receive a $25 discount. Use the code “EARLYBIRD” at the online checkout or on your paper registration form. Please don’t hesitate to contact the Ministries Department if you have questions about the program or registration.

Click here to register or find more information about summer camp!

School Programs: Fall 2017

Westminster Woods School Programs “fosters the development of character, community, and science literacy in students through experiential outdoor education.” During the fall of 2017, School Programs provided programming to nearly 2,500 students from 50 different schools! From the first week of September through the middle of December, students came to The Woods to participate in forest ecology hikes, watershed ecology studies, and challenge course experiences. Whether they were studying macroinvertebrates in our brand new microscope lab, working together to solve team challenges, or singing songs around the campfire, students were able to connect with their classmates and learn about their natural environment in an exciting camp setting. Check out the School Programs infographic below for more data on the reach and impact from fall 2017!

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Westminster Woods has a New Logo!

Dear Friends of The Woods,

Westminster Woods has been serving the community for over 70 years and a lot has changed and evolved during that time. As we grow, it is important that our logo continues to represent our ever-adapting organization. You may have already noticed our new website and social media presence, and we are thrilled to debut our new logo as another unifying visual representation of The Woods.


The administrative staff and board members discussed the values of Westminster Woods - from their perspective and their campers' - and developed elements that would best represent those values in a logo. The elements you may notice include:

  • Three trees: In likeness to the stunning forest that spans our 200 acre campus, and to represent the Holy Trinity, three redwoods were incorporated.
  • Circle: To represent both the everlasting love of God and our commitment to serving our community, the trees were wrapped in a circle.

After weeks of collaborative design, line tweaking, and font choosing, we finished our new logo! I want to extend a special thanks to Katie O'Brien, our new Communications Coordinator for her leadership during the process, and Jonny Angulo, one of our new Teacher Naturalists for his computer design skills. 


You will see our new logo in various places including our website, social media channels, and the summer camp brochure (hitting doorsteps any day!). Stay tuned for future communication and camp store merchandise with the new design. 

In Faith,

Chris Rhodes, Executive Director

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Ping Microscope Lab

School groups come to Westminster Woods to engage in hands-on, experiential education in our 200 acre outdoor classroom . While here, our professional Teacher Naturalists design lessons to inspire curiosity, student collaboration and investigation. Students engage in redwood ecology hikes, challenge course adventures, and stream studies in Dutch Bill Creek. To further enhance this exceptional experience, we have added a new microscope lab! This lab allows students to explore the world around them on a new level: the microscopic level!

Students might collect benthic macro invertebrates in the creek and then use the microscopes to observe the structure and function of a dragonfly nymph. Students may conduct a lichen investigation and then use the microscopes to compare the structure within different lichens. Students might use the microscopes to make observations of patterns within redwood cones and then utilize their journals to make detailed scientific drawings. Students may investigate decomposition within soil and discuss their findings with peers.  

The microscope lab was built to support our teaching of Next Generation Science Standards and has already been a hit with students!  Students have been able to discover a whole other world within natural objects they observed while hiking and exploring throughout Westminster Woods. Their curiosity and enjoyment can be witnessed as students interact with the microscopes. Exclamations of “I’m a scientist!” and “this is so cool, can we come back again, later?” can be heard as students react with wonder and awe of their new discoveries. 

We are grateful to the generosity of the Margaret V. Ping Foundation and excited to use our microscopes as tools to bring science and learning alive.  


Giving Back

November 2017

Dear Friends of The Woods,
Sonoma County and other areas of the North Bay are just starting to recover from last month’s devastating wildfires, which will have wide, long-lasting effects. We are extremely grateful that Westminster Woods was spared from any fire damage and all of our staff members are safe.  
This crisis has impacted so many in our area, and we have been reminded of the role we can fill in helping people deal with loss. In response to the fires, we opened our beautiful campus to members of the affected community for Free Open Space Play Days while the fires were still active. Several hundred liberated kids and their grateful parents came to play outside and enjoy a respite from the toxic air closer to the fires.   
Our School Programs department proudly serves over 15 schools from the Santa Rosa area, but many of those have had to cancel their annual outdoor education trips due to the fires. As a result, we are now offering any available space to other schools in the areas affected by the fires as a place to gather and spend time in nature. We are blessed to be able to support our community during this unprecedented, challenging time.
We know that many of you have already made significant contributions toward helping those in need during this time. While The Woods has lost significant income as a result of the fires, we are confident that, with the support of our community, we will finish the year strong and have our best year yet in 2018. Please consider making a donation to help us continue to provide a sanctuary for transformative experiences to our guests.  
If you would like to make an online donation, visit our Give Back page. If you prefer to send a donation by check, our address is:

Westminster Woods
6510 Bohemian Hwy.
Occidental, CA 95465

Thank you for your support of The Woods. 
In Faith,

Chris Rhodes, Executive Director

Post-Fire Community Gathering Space

Post-Fire Community Gathering Space
Monday – Thursday
10:00 – 4:00
October 25 – December 14

Westminster Woods
6510 Bohemian Highway
Occidental, California 95465 
707-874-2426 x623

School communities that were affected by 2017 wildfires are invited to come together at Westminster Woods.

We welcome groups of up to 120 people to meet on our beautiful campus in Occidental. Your space will include one indoor meeting room as well as access to our outdoor playground, grass field, and redwood picnic grove. We are excited to share our space with as many schools as possible, but unfortunately reservations will be subject to availability.

Teachers can inquire by emailing the following information to Paige (

  • Coordinating teacher name and email
  • School name
  • Expected number of participants
  • Desired date range (if any)

Please note that this offer is available 10:00 – 4:00, Monday – Thursday through December 14, 2017. Groups must bring their own food (as needed), and are asked to help clean up their area before departure.

Westminster Woods Camp and Conference Center is nestled amid a forest of coastal redwoods and offers year-round opportunities for connection, reflection, discovery, and growth. Learn more at

Westminster Woods Open Space Play Days

Westminster Woods Open Space Play Days
Friday 10/13 – Friday 10/20
9 am – 4 pm

Westminster Woods is offering free Open Space Play Days through Friday 10/20.  Though we are typically closed to the public, in response to the wildfires, we welcome our community to come to play and rest on our beautiful campus in the redwoods. 

We are located at 6510 Bohemian Hwy, between Occidental and Monte Rio – see our driving directions on our website. When you arrive, proceed across the bridge and follow signs to parking. Please check in at the Main Office; all guests will be required to sign a liability waiver upon arrival. RSVPs are not needed.

Dogs on leashes are welcome. Please feel free to bring your own picnic or snacks (there are several food options in Occidental). Please check the air quality forecast and make the best decision for your family based on the current conditions. 

Learn more about Westminster Woods at

Driving directions:

Westminster Woods
6510 Bohemian Highway
Occidental, California 95465