By June Mathews
For Jonathan Owen, camp isn’t just a summertime experience; it’s a fall, winter and springtime experience, too.
“My life has been camp for the past 20 years,” he said. “I actually grew up at camp.”
It all started when Jonathan’s dad, Herb, founded Camp Straight Street in 1996. At the time, Herb served as the children’s minister at Shades Mountain Independent Church, a position the younger Owen now holds in addition to serving as the camp’s director.
“I like to tell people I’m the new and improved version,” Jonathan joked. “I’m actually in his old office. Dad was always telling me how similar I was to him, and one day I said something just like he would say, and it hit me: He was right. But that’s a good thing.”
Herb now runs a similar day camp in Arlington, Virginia, while serving as a minister to children and families at Cherrydale Baptist Church.
“My dad has always done camp ministry,” Jonathan said. Then tongue in cheek, “We call each other on the phone, steal each other’s ideas and take credit for them.”
Jonathan will be sharing some of those ideas when he speaks March 12 at the Tedx event in Birmingham, during which 15 local professionals from many disciplines have been invited to discuss their most creative ideas.
Life at Camp
Camp Straight Street began as Shades Mountain Christian School’s summer program. Jonathan started working there as a counselor when he was in high school, and now he’s been the camp’s director for 10 years.
Camp took a pleasant personal turn for him when he met wife Kristin there. They now have three daughters, the oldest of whom will be attending Camp Straight Street for the first time this year.
Named for the street where the Bible’s despicable Saul of Tarsus was converted and renamed Paul, Camp Straight Street has served thousands of children and their parents over the past two decades. It started out not so much a camp as it was a continuing care program for the school kids during the summer.
“The mentality behind Straight Street is that we’ve got kids in our community who need a place to go for the summer, so why can’t it be us?” Jonathan explained. “The people we have in mind are the parents who need camp to help them function during the summer while school’s out.”
The camp is also designed so kids can come when they need to. Some kids sign up for a week, some for a day. Yet others may sign up for the entire nine weeks. Eight weeks of the program is day camp; the ninth is an overnight camp at Hargis Retreat in Chelsea.
“We’re as flexible as parents need us to be,” Jonathan said. “We offer early care and after-care, and we work really hard to make our camp as affordable as we can. We have scholarships for kids who might not otherwise be able to go to camp, but we also have kids from wealthy neighborhoods. It’s a microcosm of our community, very diverse racially and very diverse economically.”
Despite the impression that a camp run by a minister at a church facility might give, Camp Straight Street is not a church camp, though Bible teaching is part of each day.
And although the days at Camp Straight basically run on the same schedule, the themes change each week to keep things fresh. Themes might include Carnival Camp, Studio Camp and Adventure Camp, as well as TV Camp, which includes such reality show-based activities as Iron Chef and Straight Street Idol competitions.
“One of the things we like to do at camp is create these larger-than-life moments,” Jonathan said. “Our kids will likely never be on ‘American Idol,’ but at camp they’re the biggest thing on Straight Street, with 400 kids cheering for them. It may not be a big thing to us, but it is to them.
“A lot of kids who come to our camp don’t feel like school is a safe place, and some don’t feel safe at home. So we want to create a place where they feel safe and loved and accepted for who they are. It’s not so much about what we do as how we do it.”
During its first summer, Camp Straight Street attracted about 60 to 90 kids weekly with only a handful of volunteers to help. Last summer,
about 450 kids went each week, requiring a staff of 80 that includes about 30 volunteers.
It’s that summertime staff, along with year-round administrative director Heather Spigner, whom Jonathan credits with making the camp program run so well. Their collective effort resulted in Camp Straight Street being voted a “Best Day Camp in Birmingham” by Birmingham magazine.
“We put a high importance on the people who work at our camp because that’s what sets us apart,” he said. “They’re fun, and they love the kids. And we work really hard to create a family atmosphere with our camp staff, holding get-togethers with all the fun of camp and no kids. We want to create fellowship and a sense of belonging among our staff because if they feel like they belong, so will our kids.
The summer staff includes high school and college students, as well as some teachers who want to work with kids over the summer. Some of the current counselors went to Camp Straight Street as kids.
But when camp is over for the summer and everybody else goes back to school, it’s only the beginning of another year of camp for Jonathan and Heather.
“If we’re not giving out receipts, we’re interviewing prospective counselors for the next summer,” he said. “Camp may be nine weeks long in the summer, but it never ends for us.”