Every year, at a camp by a lake in the piney woods of East Texas, the lives of tens of thousands of children and young adults are changed forever.
Pine Cove Christian Camps began in 1964, when four men in a boat on a lake prayed for God's favor on their new vision for a Christian summer camp in the woods.
Now, 50 years after its first summer with campers, Pine Cove has grown to a $40 million ministry, with more than 80,000 children from across the world visiting its six camps across 800 acres in East Texas, and even more at its four camps on 700 acres in Central Texas near Columbus, and the newest location - a 100-acre camp in South Carolina.
"The Lord did it, but He had to use a person," said founder Bill McKenzie. "Nothing like this ever happens in a committee."
McKenzie was born in 1930, and grew up in East Texas. While teaching high school in Fort Worth, he would often invite his students to his family's land south of Tyler. In 1964, after a day spent fishing on the lake with three of his friends, McKenzie asked his father for some land, and built two 20-bed cabins.
In 1967, he said, "It was time to go or not to go. We decided to go."
With 200 acres from his family and a borrowed $150,000, he formed Pine Cove Christian Camp, which hosted its first campers in 1968.
"There's a reason I called my book ‘Live for What Outlives You,'" McKenzie said. "I never wanted to run Pine Cove, so I made it something separate from myself."
He served as chairman of the board for eight years and as a board member for 40 years. Now, he says, he enjoys visiting the camps as often as he can, and offering big-picture advice on the ministry he created long ago.
Pine Cove has grown exponentially since its inception. The first camp hosted 367 boys and girls. Now, it hosts more than 40,000 kids each summer, and an equal number of churches, retreat groups and conferences through 86 events over the rest of the year. The camps draw more than 1,800 counselors from colleges across America and the rest of the world - and beyond.
"We have counselors from Switzerland, Africa, China, Brazil," said Jason Wallace, senior director of marketing and strategic partnerships. "In fact, we once got an email from a guy who said he was on the International Space Station. We thought it had to be a prank, but we checked it out, and it was real. He was thanking us for accepting his daughter as a counselor here. So if I ever need to go to space, I know a guy."
Chief Operating Officer Matt Edwards says that 13.5 percent of their campers say they gave their lives to Christ while at a Pine Cove camp.
Sixteen-year-old Carson Grace Rucker of Tyler has attended Pine Cove Christian Camps since she was in elementary school and said the week at camp is always the highlight of her summer.
"Every single time I go, I meet new friends, reunite with old ones, and grow closer to Jesus Christ," she said. "The counselors at Pine Cove pour into my life each year, and I miss them so much."
But the relationship that has left the most impact is the one Rucker has developed with God through her time at camp.
"The games and activities at Pine Cove are so fun, not only because I get to participate in them with my camp friends, but it always relates back to Christ, which is Pine Cove's main mission and focal point. ... Pine Cove is the reason I have a good relationship with Christ, and every year I look forward to that relationship maturing."
Edwards says that more than 80 percent of students return from year to year, usually choosing to come the same week each summer to see their favorite friends and counselors. That percentage is even higher for family camps, which the whole family attends.
"We have been to Pine Cove family camp three times, and absolutely love it" said Shahana Trull of Hawkins. "The moment you drive onto the property, you know something special is going to happen. ... We come back because we love who we meet and how it draws us together as a family. I cannot express to you how amazing this camp is for families."
From advertising materials, to its website, to signs and posters across the camps, Pine Cove makes clear that it is "Christ-centered, others-focused and seriously fun."
That's what they teach the 1,600 college students from more than 130 colleges at two-day training sessions each year. The counselors are trained on safety procedures and on how to mentor and minister to specific age groups.
"Our staff really is our program," Wallace said. "The horses, the lake, the boats are cool, but if you don't have something more than that, the kids kind of say ‘whatever.' It's really our great people and those relationship that keep kids coming back."
This often involves finding ways to break down barriers and connect to campers. For instance, all the staff and campers get camp nicknames based on something about themselves.
"So I'm Payless, because I'm cheap," said Wallace with a chuckle. "There's a long version to that story, too, and it's really something that helps us connect to the kids. It instantly gives you something to talk about. They'll spend their whole week trying to figure out what your real name is, and then we'll all tell at the end. ... One of our mantras is, we want to do stuff people can't do at home."
Pine Cove also is making some changes in the near future. By the new year, they plan to have moved their main offices from their original location in the woods to a newly remodeled location in Tyler. They also plan to expand their Camp in the City program, which brings their mission and ministry through day camps in cities across the south, and to add three more camp sites in South Carolina.
CEO Reed Livesay says Pine Cove's $40 million annual budget comes from fees, fundraising, and donations. The average family can expect to pay roughly $3,500 for a weeklong camp, $260 for a week of Camp in the City. Scholarships account for some $1.5 million and help roughly 15-20 percent of campers. And 76 percent of families have a monthly payment plan.
"A day at Pine Cove is hard," Livesay said. "We really push everyone to serve beyond our own strength, to rely on God. ... It's a challenging environment that produces eternal results."
Pine Cove's main location is at 15791 County Road 1113, by Lake Palestine.