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Swampy camp trains teens for missionary life abroad

Teen Missions International Boot Camp on Merritt Island prepares them for the real-life conditions they must endure spreading the Gospel and serving humanity in distant and desolate lands. Children as young as 4 come for the camp's programs.

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published August 6, 2006


MERRITT ISLAND - They come from places with names like Kalamazoo, Battersea and Satellite Beach, armed with boots, tools, Bibles and, most of all, faith.

They pay thousands of dollars each to endure two weeks of swampy conditions, demanding counselors, an energy-sapping obstacle course and mosquitoes that seem to bite even the best-hidden places.

And that's just the practice phase of their journeys to serve Christ.

When the 1,000 or so teenagers depart from Teen Missions International Boot Camp on Merritt Island this week, they will travel to some of the most distant and squalid places in the world, including parts of India, Cambodia and Ethiopia. There they will build orphanages, granaries and churches. They will dig wells, clothe the poor and bring comfort to the sick. And in the process, they will spread the Gospel.

"We have a sign right out front that says this is not pamper camp," Teen Missions director and founder Bob Bland said. "There's no concession stand here, no candy bars, no potato chips, and we don't have ice in the Kool-Aid. We're training people to go to remote places, to jungles where they are not going to have that. It is not a church camp. It is a missionary training camp," Bland said.

In 1970, Bland started the mission camp and program out of the garage of his Merritt Island home, shortly after the former union plumber moved south from Chillicothe, Ohio. He had served in the Christian Service Corps - a religious equivalent to the Peace Corps. And having served with Youth for Christ groups and as a youth leader at his church, Bland saw a glaring need for youths in the missionary field - an untapped resource.

"I noticed there weren't any teenagers at the mission conferences, and I thought someone was kind of missing the boat," he said.

Today, the boot camp covers 285 acres in northeast Merritt Island. The complex includes aging buildings, several large tents and countless trees.

The camp sits empty most of the year, but in May and June visiting team leaders arrive from their stations in various countries followed by the campers. The camp offers several programs, including one that serves children as young as 4 and a popular camp for preteens that leads to national trips to feed the poor, plant trees and paint buildings.

Ponds, creeks and swamps finger through the property, which also features several big-top style tents for rallies and concerts. A small store allows campers to mail post cards or buy T-shirts that say, "Get Dirty for God" or "My other shirt is dirty."

Over the years, nearly 40,000 teenage missionaries have come through Bland's training in Brevard County.

Emily Calvert of Satellite Beach traveled last summer to Zambia to care for children orphaned by Africa's AIDS epidemic. Almost as soon as she returned to Brevard, the 18-year-old knew she would go back to Africa.

"It's amazing to see how happy they really are. It was breathtaking. But coming home was challenging. I wanted to be back in Africa. That's where I belonged. ... I grew to love the way I lived there."

To teens, the Merritt Island camp feels harsh and regimented. Bland and other staffers say that's necessary to toughen them for the living conditions, hard work and possibly hostile environments overseas.

On a typical day at the camp, teens wake by 5:30 a.m. They eat breakfast by 6. Then they run a rugged obstacle course where spotters grade team performances and disqualify those who do not finish. After 30 minutes of devotionals, it's on to various classes until lunch. Some teams learn construction skills, others learn to ride motocross motorcycles while others hone their evangelical skills.

It's lights out by 9:30 p.m.

Joe Hurston, director of Airmobile Ministries in Titusville, said Bland's approach is valuable.

"He really familiarizes the kids with the true mission experience," Hurston said on the heels of his return from disaster relief in Indonesia, where thousands were killed by an earthquake in May. "And Merritt Island is perfect with its swampy conditions and mosquitoes that are big enough to land on aircraft carriers."