EXPERIENCING GOD’S PRESENCE IN NATURE
Memories of summer camp last a lifetime. Kids laugh, have fun and make new friends, all while enjoying God’s presence in nature. The Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in northern Wisconsin is home to CrossWoods Adventure Camp, a 220-acre spiritual camp that has been making memories since 1995.
Not only has the camp made a difference for thousands of teenagers throughout the years, but the impact it continues to make on Steve and Cheryl Kaufer and their family is life-changing.
When CrossWoods came up for sale in 2019, the connection the Kaufers’ four children had with the camp couldn’t be broken. Shelby, 25, Kayla, 23, Rachel, 19 and Bethany, 12, persuaded their parents to purchase the camp and continue spreading the spiritual experience that endures deep within them to others.
I thank God my mom made me go to camp starting in sixth grade. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have the relationship I have with God now.” -Kayla
“It was a family discussion when we were considering if we should purchase the property,” Cheryl recalls. “Either everyone is in, or we can’t do this. It was a family venture from the start and remains so today.”
The Kaufer family life adventure began more than 25 years ago, leading them to where they’re at today.
Both Cheryl and Steve were raised in Minnesota. Cheryl grew up in a very traditional Catholic family. With 42 first cousins, Faith was the center of family gatherings. Steve’s family was very strong in their Lutheran faith and attended services every Sunday. Married in the 1990s, the couple decided to begin their life together in a country setting near Ellsworth.
Their first child, Shelby, tested the couple’s Faith early on. At 2 months old, she underwent a heart transplant in St. Louis, Mo., living with the uncertainty of whether she will need another transplant as she gets older. Blessed with a cautious, but optimistic recovery, the Kaufers’ Faith continued to keep them strong throughout this anxious time.
“God is a planner. With Shelby’s heart condition, she was in His hands,” Cheryl recalls. “Then Kayla was born two years later and brought Shelby to life. She was so excited to have a sister.”
With a growing family and a stable career as a nurse practitioner, Cheryl was able to become more active in youth ministry and volunteering at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Ellsworth. “Steve and I wanted our children to attend the parish school. God led us and we followed.”
As patriarch of the family, Steve attended Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) and converted to Catholicism. “Since my family was worshipping at the Catholic church, I felt it important that their father be a role model. So, I made the leap.”
Eldest daughter Shelby started attending CrossWoods Adventure Camp in eighth grade and hasn’t stopped going since. She began as a camper, then served as a volunteer, then a Servant of God (SOG) and is now camp director. With a master’s degree in biological science, Shelby rearranged her graduate pursuits so she can be at the camp throughout the summer.
Rearranging her college schedule brought on other benefits. “A couple years ago, I met my husband, Juan, at camp when he arrived as a chaperone. He stayed and volunteered an extra two weeks and, at that time, I didn’t understand why.”
Campers consist of students in grades 6-12. Those who want to volunteer as a camp assistant can do so at age 16, while chaperones must be at least 21. Each camp experience is one week, Sunday through Friday, throughout the summer months. After a welcome session, the days are filled with different activities. Beginning with morning prayer, breakfast, praise and worship music, campers enjoy hiking, kayaking on the Brule River, rock climbing, water wars and many other outdoor activities. Evenings include forest adventures, praise and worship activities, inspirational staff and clergy talks, adoration and many other events.
Youth groups from throughout the Upper Midwest make CrossWoods Adventure Camp an annual event. Chris Rogers, director of the Office for Family Life for the Diocese of La Crosse, takes pride in assisting Catholic parishes in embracing this experience for their youth.
Kayla attended as a camper for five years. She then volunteered as a SOG for two years. A SOG helps with kitchen duties and cleaning and assists the staff as needed. Now a member of the staff for five summers, she is a registered nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit at a hospital in St. Paul, Minn., when camp isn’t in session.
“I thank God my mom made me go to camp starting in sixth grade. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have the relationship I have with God now,” Kayla exclaims. “I was overwhelmed the first year I went. I didn’t realize I could praise God in nature and among other people. CrossWoods Adventure Camp is where I fell in love with God.”
Rachel followed a similar path by attending camp for five years and volunteering to be a SOG. This summer, she will be working as the camp cook. “I love music. That’s my connection with God. I really enjoy the praise and worship part of camp.”
This will be the first year that their youngest daughter, Bethany, is officially of age to attend camp. When Bethany was only 3, the camp allowed Cheryl to bring her along when she chaperoned for Shelby. The camp didn’t want anything to get in the way of kids going to camp, so having Cheryl as a chaperone also assured that Shelby would receive her heart medication.
“It’s a lot of fun seeing everyone at camp,” Bethany remarks. “I look forward to going to camp this year and experiencing it with my friends.”
The family’s experience throughout the years called them to take notice when they got word of CrossWoods Adventure Camp closing after the 2018 season. The girls and Cheryl approached Steve about them purchasing the camp and keeping it open. As a floriculturist, summer is very busy for Steve, so he had never been up to the camp. “They pleaded with me to help save the camp,” Steve said. “I’m 52 years old and going into debt isn’t on my bucket list.
“We talked and prayed about it. It wasn’t easy. Then I thought about it some more. We had previously talked about doing mission work. Maybe this is my mission—to bring kids to the woods of northern Wisconsin.” Steve took a leap of faith and decided to embrace the idea. He agreed to sell some farmland as a down payment and the Kaufer family closed the deal in May 2019.
CrossWoods Adventure Camp gives teenagers an opportunity to meet God where they are at. “It gives them a place where they feel accepted,” Kayla remarks.
“It’s a place where no one else cares if you’re popular or not. No one cares about your social standing,” Rachel comments. “Kids are ripped away from reality, but in a really good way.”
The experience has brought the Kaufer family even closer. “Kids come up that have literally never been in the woods. It’s their first exposure to being outdoors,” Steve said. “Some kids have never rock climbed before or ridden a bike.”
Cheryl enjoys watching kids return each summer and seeing them change. “It’s amazing to watch the transformation and have a place for them to renew. The Holy Spirit keeps us going and it’s great to see the kids’ eyes and watch what happens when they’re engaged in their Faith.”
Steve is aware many churches don’t know the camp exists. “Donations are one thing. But that’s not the point. We want to get more parents and kids to attend and have them experience Christ.”
With the camp surrounded by 20,000 acres of national forest, the Kaufers are looking to eventually expand into a family camp and retreat center. Private rentals are also available.
For more information on CrossWoods Adventure Camp, visit crosswoods.camp or contact Chris Rogers at the Diocese of La Crosse at 608.791.2673 or Cheryl Kaufer at 651.308.8576.
Story by Sharon Sliwka
Published in the July/August 2021 Catholic Life Issue