ASHLAND – At this time last year, Carol Joy Holling Camp was into its second week of summer camp. Kids filled the grounds with laughter, noise, excitement, music and worship.

Things are much quieter this summer. For the first time since the camp opened in 1969, there were no campers due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s incredibly different,” said Executive Director Jason Gerdes.

It was a difficult decision to cancel summer camp, according to Gerdes. The administration consulted with the camp’s medical and nursing directors before concluding that for the safety of the children, counselors and staff, they had to shut down.

Gerdes said the fact that the campers are children was an important factor. The concept of social distancing, staying at least six feet apart to prevent transmission of the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, is not natural for youngsters.

“It’s just not possible to keep kids socially distanced,” he said.

Campers also come from all over the Midwest, which means there could be added exposure threat. And there are children with underlying medical issues who come to camp. The medical staff is not equipped to screen or take care of these campers during a pandemic, Gerdes said.

The loss of summer camp is a big revenue hit for Carol Joy Holling Camp. The pandemic has also affected their other source of income – retreats. The camp, which is operated by the Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministry (NLOM), has several retreat facilities that host meetings, conferences and other similar events, which have been shuttered since March.

“We lost all our fee revenue except donations,” said Gerdes.

The staff has taken advantage of the closure to complete projects on the property and develop new programming for the future. The shutdown has also allowed them to move up construction of a planned building project.

Holling House, located in the TrailHead section of the camp, will be replaced with the Hazel Dillon Lodge. Work on the $3.2 million building was scheduled to begin in August, but instead will start next week, according to Gerdes. A groundbreaking ceremony is planned for July 24.

“It gives us a ray of hope,” he said. “Something positive to look forward to.”

Campers at TrailHead slept in platform tents. The new facility will house campers in large bunk rooms with attached bathrooms that accommodate eight youth. A kitchen and dining space will be used for meals and a lower level fellowship area will also serve as a storm shelter. The building is geared towards campers in grades 1 to 6.

“We will be much stronger in giving them their best first experience coming to camp,” Gerdes said.

The original timeline had the facility finished before campers arrived in 2021. With the extra time, they will be able to lodge spring retreat guests in the new building and make sure all the kinks are worked out before the kids arrive in the summer, Gerdes said.

With the camp closed to campers, the facilities at Carol Joy Holling Camp are not staying completely idle. Gerdes said they developed the CJH Family Getaway to provide an event for families who have had to forego summer vacations because of the pandemic. Guests stay at the Swanson Retreat Center and are provided meals. The visitors can hike the trails and fish or boat on the lake. There will be games and activities and self-guided devotion.

It is an opportunity for families to grow and reconnect, said Gerdes.

“Camp is the perfect place for that,” he added.

Throughout the shutdown, the camp grounds have been open to the local public for hiking and fishing.

“We’ve had lots and lots of people from the community do that,” Gerdes said.

Employees have been working from home and onsite during the pandemic, Gerdes said. The office is open three days a week and about a third of the staff work from there. NLOM participated in the Paycheck Protection Program, allowing them to keep the staff employed. But they shorten their days starting July 1, he added.

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