As we get ready to start our 30th year of mission trips for youth, I sat down with the guy who started it all in 1977, Group Publishing’s CEO, Thom Schultz.
In 1976, a flood ripped through the Big Thompson Canyon near my town of Loveland, CO. The flood claimed 145 lives and wreaked unbelievable damage to homes there. Thom Shultz was a news reporter for the Denver NBC affiliate at the time, and he was the first reporter on the scene. As he surveyed the damage, the 25-year-old — who also served as a part time youth minister — got an idea. Thom figured by using his upstart Group Magazine for youth ministers he could get the word out for youth groups to come clean up and bring relief to people who survived the storm. So, one year later, July 24-30, 1977 — while many teenagers were seeing Star Wars for the third or fourth time — nearly 400 youth and their adult chaperones came to Colorado to serve. It was our very first Group Workcamp. Now, thirty years later, we’re amazed at how God has continued to use teenagers — hundreds of thousands of them over the years — to serve others through Group Workcamps Foundation. In honor of our birthday, I asked Thom to share some thoughts about these past thirty years of service.
DOC: After the Big Thompson flood in 1976, you got the idea for the first Group Workcamp. How did you think of that? Put another way: What about the devastation made you think you should get a bunch of teenagers together to help?
THOM: Prior to 1976 I had been taking my youth group on mission trips. I discovered what a powerful experience they are, and I wondered if such a thing could be done on a bigger scale. But I didn’t know where we might do a large Workcamp experience. Then the flood occurred right here in our county. So, through Group magazine, we asked youth groups to come here to help families rebuild after the flood.
DOC: What memories about that flood stick in your mind?
THOM: While the flood was happening, I remember the hissing propane tanks that had been dislodged from homes and were then bobbing down the raging floodwaters. I remember the cars that had been swept by the flood and wadded into 4-foot balls of scrap metal. I remember the dead bodies that were strewn along the path of the flood.
DOC: You’ve said that when Group Publishing got started back in 1974 you never could have imagined it becoming what it is today. You’ve also said the same thing about the Workcamps. Of all the growth and development of Group’s ministries over the years, where does the Workcamps program fit in your heart?
THOM: I’ve always regarded the Workcamps as the most potent, concentrated, powerful, life-transforming week a youth ministry can provide. I still marvel at how, in a week’s time, God permanently transforms so many lives through Workcamps.
DOC: With all the cost and liability and hassle to manage youth mission trips year after year, why is it so important for you that we keep providing these camps?
THOM: God has been doing his miraculous thing through Workcamps for 30 years now. We’re simply following his lead and doing our part to transform lives for Christ.
DOC: You were a youth minister in your church at the time of the flood. What would you say to youth leaders about the importance of taking young people on mission trips?
THOM: There’s something uniquely powerful about traveling away from home to put your Christian faith into action. It’s a total immersion experience that has life-long — and eternal — impact. In addition to heeding Jesus’ second Great Commandment, mission trips change a person’s outlook on service — for life; they instill an "others" orientation; they put material things in healthier perspective; and they offer a unique opportunity to watch God work in very powerful ways.
DOC: How has your faith grown through mission trips?
THOM: I’ve seen so many miracles — large and small — that God has performed during these trips — among the participants and the recipients of the work. Now I enter each camp week with such anticipation. I can’t wait to see what God is going to do during the week.
DOC: What has been your best memory of Group Workcamps Foundation?
THOM: Oh, I think there have been too many to identify one memory. But now, after 30 years, I look back with awe at our first camp. I was 25 years old when we planned that first national camp. With no model to follow, I really had no idea what I was doing! But God was definitely in it. In fact, many of the elements we put in place in that first camp are still being used today.
DOC: What thoughts do you have about the future of Group Workcamps Foundation?
THOM: I expect God will continue to do incredible things through Group Workcamps. We will continue to explore new forms of service for servants in various age groups. And I believe our international work will continue to expand in the years to come. After 30 years, we’ve just begun!
Thom, I know you don’t take the credit for how Group Workcamps Foundation has been able to serve so many people and help so many youth and adult participants grow closer to God. I know you give God the credit. But the youth pastor in me would like to thank you, on behalf of all my teenagers over the years, for your vision and sensitivity to God’s leading in this area. We appreciate it. Thank you very much.
Doc Newcomb is a pastor, youth pastor, and Program Manager for Group Workcamps Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides a variety of short-term mission opportunities for church youth groups.