By Archbishop Vatché Hovsepian
A small portion – to be exact 160 acres – of land detached from heaven (paradise), the dwelling place of God, decorated and protected by mountain views of pine and redwood trees. As you enter the camp the silence and beauty captivate you, taking your cares away. Silence and the hush-hush sound of the trees simply captivates you: You have arrived at Camp Vatché Hovsepian, A Portion of Paradise.
The winding highway 180 has brought you up to the Sequoias with scary twists and turns of the road. But the road that leads to Camp, your final destination, has chipmunks and mountain quails cheering as you drive in. The Barsam and Ketchoyan Lakes dominate your first glance and your soul is humbled. Soon you realize that our camp will become a little Armenia and you are eager to pray on banded knee, thanking God for the beauty of this camp setting.
The beauty of the surrounding open space with two lakes, football field, camp fire at night, and the graceful mountain deer with their babies, excites your heart and opens your soul for the wonders that will happen throughout your stay. The immense cows with their milk-loaded udders and their king-sized droppings are there to remind you that you are sharing nature with them. By the time those imperial size buses enter the campgrounds you are eager with anticipation. The bus drivers masterfully navigate the narrow one-lane roads to get the excited campers safely to their destination. It is simply astonishing. Bravo to them!
The camp staff, counselors and clergy welcome you with big smiles and open arms. Campers immediately are assigned to their cabins. The children step out of the bus onto the ground with their huge bags, obviously loaded with the goodies and delicacies. No candy please! We need to keep the mountain bears away, because they can smell the candy from miles away. The excitement of camp is so great and the enjoyable activities that are in the plans overtake your emotions. You don’t even have time to call home informing of your arrival. Soon after evening prayers and dinner, you retire to your cabin. There the camaraderie of the new camp family begins with counselors and cabin mates.
The first day at the camp is always the most difficult. You separate a child from an adult. Obviously children, some of whom are away from home for the first time, have fears and they can destroy the tranquility of camp with their crying. Tears come down from their cheeks like the River Jordon. They scream: “I want my parents!” Then the committee makes adjustments if necessary. At one point, when a particular child created a commotion we called his father who gently, yet firmly, admonished the child to enjoy his time with the other campers and that there was no coming home! Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde this child changed his outlook and immediately began enjoying our Camp.
Soon after the wholesome breakfast with a variety of different foods was served and finished, the camp becomes alive and active with a wide variety of scheduled activity throughout the day. You may think it looks like a ghost-town at times because you don’t see anyone out in the open. However, when you move around, you start noticing a class under a tree, another by the mess hall, and yet another by the swimming pool or in the arts and crafts area. Everyone is actively engaged in the activities.
The Ketchoyan Lake provides all the swimming facilities, boating and rafting too. At the field children are playing baseball or football. Pingpong tables are always fun. The generosity of the local area farmers is evident with a constant supply of mouth-watering fruits. I watch as a young man hits the ball and I remember how the staff and campers roared every time I would hit a homerun, many times so-far and so-direct that I would break a window on one of the cabins. I acted as a camper participating in the educational, athletic and recreational and social programs. How can we forget Uncle Vahan with his delightful entertainment?
My first experience after I came from Canada… After a long day, I would retire into my room and enjoy the fellowship of a wonderful group of parents who made our camp a reality. Gratefully we remember Anita Kazandjian and Ruby Tateosian for their delicious cookies as a late-night snack. A few hours later all I could hear in the silence of the night: trombone-level snoring! God rest their souls – Santo Jandigian and Greg Mikaelian were the masters of the snore!
The dream of having our own church camp began decades ago when concerned and dedicated persons with vision and a sense of responsibility for the future of our people and children took the original first steps, initiated by the late Patriarch Archbishop Torkom Manoogian. The committee headed by John Ketchoyan, Greg Cherezian, Santo Jandigian, Bob Barsam, Vartkes Barsam, included Dr. Arthur Petoyan, Aram Boghosian and Haig Krikorian and many others who generously gave their time to find a suitable location for our camp. The Ketchoyan residents, for a long time, served as the Camp Headquarters. From Dinky Creek, Sugar Pine, Frazier Park, Camp Gains, Greek Camp, etc… through all of this, we kept our goal and vision ahead of us: A permanent camp for our children. Finally Fr. Kevork Arakelian and Eli Garbedian rang the bells of victory! There was an ideal campsite for purchase. We delegated John Toutelian, Vartkes Barsam and Fr. Kevork to the courthouse and hail to us! We purchased the present campsite which belonged to Olympian Bob Mathias.
Whether it’s fishing or singing around the campfire, the opportunities are unlike any other for the children who attend Camp. As I observe the children playing and filling the mountain air with their laughs and enjoyment, I am sure that others too understand the tremendous benefits that this Camp has provided and continues to provide to our diocese. Other groups have benefitted from our camp. As the Primate, it gave me tremendous pleasure and spiritual satisfaction to see campers from the Bay Area, the San Joaquim Valley, Southern California and as far away as Mexico City, Canada and Lyon France rejoicing and enjoying the camp facility. Since the beginning of the Camp 50 years over 30,000 people have enjoyed the camp. Campers have thanked God from their bottom of their hearts and they have become brothers and sisters until now.
Many children who were once campers have met and married their spouses at the camp. All have benefitted from the ethics and moral fiber that has been ingrained in every portion of the Camp program. Many of yesterday’s campers are the leaders of our camp and church communities today. Like ACYO members, they are serving at our altars or in administration of our church as delegates, parish council members, Ladies Society members.
Today the Primate, Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, with his frequent visits delivers his message to the campers. It is a message that resounds in their young hearts and becomes the seeds for their service to the church. We thank the clergy of the diocese, teachers, parishes, farmers for assistance and their participation by coming up to camp and establishing and nurturing the warm family relationship.
As we stand in worship at the camp, following a full-day’s activities, many times the gentle deer would be by us as a reminder that this is their own territory and in this “portion of paradise” the Armenian Church spirit is alive and will continue to stay alive for future generations to enjoy.
God bless our Armenian Church and this “portion of paradise” known as Camp Archbishop Vatché Hovsepian.