Neil LeBarge, who is the Operations Manager, has worked for The Salvation Army for 36 years. His father was a camp manager for The Salvation Army as well, so he’s the second generation in this capacity. Before moving to Heber, Neil managed The Salvation Army camp in Oracle on Mt. Lemmon Road called Camp O’Wood for 11 years. When The Salvation Army purchased the Kendall Ranch property, Neil and his wife Terry, moved to Heber. The first building at the camp was a home for Neil and Terry which they moved into in Sept. 1993. They still reside in the same house with their two macaws. “When I first came here in 1992,” remembered Neil, “There weren’t any homes for rent. We contacted a house seller and asked if they’d consider renting to us while we waited for our house to be built which, thankfully, they did.”
Neil is an accommodating host as he took me on a tour of the entire camp, explaining the Camp’s history and patiently answering all my questions. He’s an avid car buff and is the proud owner of a 1956 Hudson Super Wasp. It was a delightful side note that he shared his passion for this beauty. He has a similar passion for his work of caring for the Camp.
“This camp has been used as a Firefighters command post for three different fires,” said Neil. “The Rodeo-Chediski, Potato and Chevlon Complex. The camping season of 2002 was cancelled as it was used for the firefighters for the whole season. They remained through August.”
Besides campers, the camp has visitors in the form of elk, deer, wild turkey, javalina, bear and cattle. Neil said, “A few years ago there was a very large bull that was up by the Chapel. He saw his reflection in the glass and started licking it. I called Larry Gibson to see what I should do, and he came over and got it. The glass was one big smear by the time the bull left!” Last summer they were visited by two cinnamon colored bears which gave the kids a thrill.
Neil has one full time employee and six which are on call as needed. In the summer, camp staff swells to around 60-65, mostly college students from Christian colleges like Grand Canyon University but some come from overseas. All employees are screened and fingerprinted for the protection of the kids. Being the Operations Manager, Neil watches over 40 buildings situated on 153 acres of land. The annual Christmas Children’s party is held in the cafeteria, which along with the Health building, were built in 1997-1998. From the cafeteria, if you look east, you see quite a few buildings in the distance across the meadow – these all belong to Camp Ponderosa. Among the buildings is the Chapel, Craft House, Canteen outdoor snack center, a large maintenance yard and Loma Vista Village which has 11 cabins, two bathrooms/showers, 5 screened armadas, a meeting hall, outdoor amphitheater, and campfire pit. The Health building has housing for a camp nurse plus a room with two twin beds and a bathroom for campers in case of illness. Then there is Meadow Vista Village, which has its own meeting hall with four bunk houses that house 30 plus each. Behind the Chapel is Mogollon Village used mostly for staffing. This is the site of one of the winter projects where they’re currently replacing the old siding with a composite product that should last for many years.
Camp Ponderosa is accredited by the American Camp Association and is ranked in the upper top 2 percent of camps nationwide. When I mentioned how clean everything was, Neil said, “I believe if I respect and take great care of this camp, others will hopefully respect it, too.”
The pristine buildings, baths, etc., definitely doesn’t resemble the camp I attended as a child where fat mosquitoes loved to hang out in the showers for unsuspecting campers. Neil and his staff are diligent in their work and it is extremely evident.
The outdoor activities are a lot and varied. They have a basketball court, moveable bleachers, a volleyball court (donated in 2002 by the Rotaries club District 5510), a regulation soccer field, a softball field, horseshoe pits, climbing tower, zip line, archery, playground equipment and a splash pad where kids play in the water that squirts them out of crazy looking contraptions. Makes me want to be a kid again!
According to Captain Anthony Barnes, who serves along with his wife Captain Lisa Barnes, as Division Youth Secretary for the southwest region, “We strive to meet the needs of youth, to empower them to live courageously. We bring back the basics like having fun by playing games and enjoying the outdoors. We expose them to different ideas hoping they can take that peace with them when they leave here.”
The kids’ camp runs seven weeks in the summer plus one week of orientation for the camp counselors. One of the weeks is for children of military families. “We like to support military families as they do so much for us. We try to bring some joy to families where usually one parent is deployed,” said Cpt. Barnes.
Campers come from all over Arizona, New Mexico and Southern Nevada. Some of the children are from inner cities and haven’t experienced the outdoors or even seen a forest. The Salvation Army and their donors provide for the cost of camp. Some of the campers arrive with no extra clothes and even at times, no shoes. “We have extra clothes and provisions on hand to help out these kids,” said Neil. They don’t need money to buy snacks or crafts as it is all provided.
Ages for the main camp are 7 to 12. For teens ages 13 to 16, there’s a more intense wilderness camp where the kids learn survival skills, take an eight mile hike, pitch a tent, hang a hammock, spend a couple nights camping out, etc. “We work with them,” shared Cpt. Barnes, “Getting them to contemplate the trajectory of their life since this group are teenagers.” Wilderness camp is usually made up of six boys, six girls, counselors plus a director and assistant director.
I hope to do a follow up story of the camp this summer season so we can see the hustle and bustle with campers on site. During the off season, Camp Ponderosa facilities are available for rent to organized groups (such as churches) for retreats, seminars, etc. Under the watchful eyes of Neil, the camp amenities are awesome. Sign me up!