“Not just a place to be, but a people to be with….” –Leon Sharp, Former Director
In 1947, Robert and Fritz Goins of Ardmore, Oklahoma, decided there needed to be a youth camp to serve Church of Christ young people in southern Oklahoma. The initial planning session was held on their back patio, and the first two campers to register were their daughter LaVerne and her future husband Don Jackson. A group camp was rented, supplies were purchased, and that summer the first campers and staff gathered on the shores of beautiful Lake Murray to begin a long tradition of Christian camping. The purpose of Sooner Youth Camp, as stated in its by-laws, was to provide an environment where young people could study the Bible, discern “the whole counsel of God,” and learn the “principles and practices of Christian behavior in home, school and society.”
In the early years it was known simply as the Church of Christ Youth Camp, which was supported mainly by Churches of Christ in southern Oklahoma, and led by men and women such as Robert and Fritz Goins, Kenneth Hudelson, Bill and Martha Guymon, A. W. Shaver, and Neil and Lorene Coleman. Through most of its history SYC has been held at Group Camps #1 or #2 at Lake Murray State park, with the exception of 1952 when it was held at Camp Jack Little (now known as Texoma Christian Camp) located on Texoma Lake. It has always featured morning devotionals, structured Bible classes, “the singing of spiritual songs,” delicious meals, swimming, sports, and–for many, the highlight of each day–the “evening circle” and prayer.
The 1950s brought increased stability for the camp. The Church of Christ Youth Camp was incorporated in Oklahoma as a religious non-profit organization in 1952 and renamed Sooner Youth Camp. Much of this stability was the result of dedicated staff members who returned year-in and year-out to provide a positive camping experience for the teenagers. Former second-week director and board member Leon Sharp articulated well the views of many when he commented on why he thought Sooner was so special:
“There is nothing that could take the place of Sooner in my summer. … Those two weeks have spelled a lot of difference in the lives of so many young people for a mighty long time now. And I think one reason why the camp means so much to so many young people is that the staff is mature, dedicated to our Lord, dedicated to young people and remain on the job year after year and literally become a meaningful part of the lives of each other and the kids. SYC is never just a place to be, but always a people to be with.”
Another source of stability was the formation of lasting traditions, which were useful for promoting the spirit of love and cooperation upon which Sooner was built. Although some of the activities have changed over the years, what has remained constant throughout its history is the desire to glorify God, edify the Christian family, and create an atmosphere where young people can mature spiritually. No longer do we take horseback rides, nature hikes, or picnics; for some, the Friday afternoon camper/counselor softball game has been replaced with volleyball; and “Rise-n-Shine” has (fortunately) been moved from 6:30 to 7:30 a.m. On the other hand, the evening circle, cabin devotionals, and family-style meals–just to name a few of the lasting traditions–have served to draw both campers and staff closer to God and to each other.
By the mid-1950s Sooner’s one-week session at Lake Murray began filling to capacity. In 1956 the dates were moved from the month of August to July, where it has remained ever since, and in 1957 the Ideal Camper award was inaugurated to promote “cooperation, cleanliness, leadership, and participation” among the campers. In 1959 Kenneth Hudelson composed the camp song, “Dear Old Sooner Youth Camp,” which became an integral part of the Sooner experience in later years. Also in 1959 a second one-week session was added, and both weeks consistently had between 100 and 150 campers for the next several years. Roy Hannah, who directed the camp from 1958 through 1971, led Sooner through its growth during the 1960s and was supported by a host of committed staff members, including Brad and Betty Ward, Jim and Juanita Moore, and Emmitt and Mary Bridgwater.
Sooner’s staying power was proven during the 1970s and 1980s. Olden Cook, who had served the camp in various capacities since 1960, began directing both sessions in 1972. The 1970s were tough times for SYC. America’s social fabric was being rent asunder; traditional social institutions and notions of authority were challenged; and the nation’s struggling economy affected not only businesses but churches, schools, and other non-profit organization’s as well. Sooner had its share of discipline problems, but the love and commitment of the staff, as well as the structure that Sooner provided for the campers, allowed it to continue operating. Enrollment dropped, camp fees were raised, and spending cuts were made. But Sooner made it through the rough times to flourish in the 1980s. Despite the difficulties, SYC began reaching out to young people living in Church of Christ-sponsored children’s homes in Oklahoma and Texas. Teenagers from the Tipton Home, Boles Children’s Home, Christ’s Haven for Children, and Westview Boys’ Home were invited to share in the Sooner experience.
One important change occurred in the 1970s that affected the nature of the camp. Beginning in 1972, many staff members who had for years attended both sessions of camp started serving only one week each summer. A number of factors contributed to this–busy work schedules, family obligations, and the physical exhaustion associated with serving two weeks–and by the 1980s two separate one-week staffs had emerged. Olden continued to direct both weeks until 1980, when he decided to turn the reigns of second week over to someone else. Leon Sharp guided the second week through most of the 1980s before his son Bryan became director in 1991. Bryan Sharp, Sam Billingsley, and Grady King provided solid leadership from the 1990s onward. Both sessions entered the twenty-first century full of hope and confidence for SYC’s future.
Sooner Youth Camp continues to meet on the shores of beautiful Lake Murray, the staff continues to provide an environment where young people can learn about God and his will for their lives, and we still hold to the traditions–noble, pure, and fine–that Kenneth Hudelson wrote about in the first decade of Sooner’s existence. Although minor changes are sometimes made to the physcial setting and camp schedule, SYC is still a place where young people from Oklahoma, Texas, and other states gather to learn the “principles and practices of Christian behavior in home, school and society.”
By Scott Billingsley
Neil Ferguson is the director of first week since 2017. Neil joined the SYC staff fifteen years ago serving as boys counselor and waterfront director. Neil and his wife, Mary- SYC Registrar- are members of the Edmond Church of Christ where he serves as chairman of missions committee, taught in Financial Peace University and leads an annual mission trip to Nicaragua to conduct a church camp for teens. He is a graduate of Oklahoma Christian University and OU.
Kyle Wewe has been the second week director since 2012. Kyle has a long association with SYC from his camping years as a teen growing up in Duncanville, TX and being on staff as a counselor, and head counselor. He has served as youth minister for churches, is on the board of Leadership Training for Christ and now works for ConvergeONE Corporation in Austin. TX He is actively involved with the Westover Church of Christ
Former SYC Directors
- Flavil Yeakley
- George Carter
- A. W. Johnson
- Brad Ward
- Roy Hannah
- Olden Cook
- Don Taylor
- Sam Billingsley
- Leon Sharp
- Bryan Sharp
- Grady D. King