Big Lake Gets Blessed by U.S. Marines

October 29, 2018 | Dick Duerksen

One hot afternoon last summer a couple of U.S. Marines showed up at the front gate of Big Lake Youth Camp in Sisters, Ore., with a request: “Our platoon is working on a project over at Fish Lake this month. The team is hot and tired. Is there any chance we could come over and have a barbecue on your beach as a day off?”

“Our camp culture says that we try to find ways to say yes,” says Les Zollbrecht, Big Lake Youth Camp director. “That’s what we do — find a way to say yes so everyone can experience a love so compelling.”

Since the request came during the week of camp meeting for the Oregon Conference, no campers were scheduled for the lakefront on Sunday. On Sunday afternoon, the camp staff watched in awe as Marines climbed out of huge troop-haulers and helped set up a barbecue on Big Lake’s beach.

As the sun was setting a Marine captain came over and thanked Zollbrecht for the afternoon. “Thank you! We’ve had such a good time!" the captain said. "We noticed, though, that the steps and the ramp leading down to the dock could use a little repair. We have four welders that are free. Would you mind if we had them come over and do this project for you, as a way to give back for your kindness?”

After they had secured approval from the necessary authorities, the welders turned on the torches.

This year, before Big Lake’s camp season began, the Marines contacted Zollbrecht with a compelling offer: “Our experience at Big Lake was so awesome last year! We’d like to bring a whole platoon of Marine engineers to do more projects for Big Lake!”

The Marines came — 54 of them. They spread gravel on the main camp roads to reduce dust problems. They cut down dead trees, and they rebuilt the retaining wall by the lodge. They built new wooden lifeguard towers on the docks, a new blob tower and a new deck for a cabin. 

“They take full ownership of every task, and when they finish a project they ask for more. What they do is beyond excellence,” says camp ranger Paul.

One day the staff sergeant stopped to talk with Zollbrecht. “Sir,” the sergeant said, “there’s something about this place that is so amazing and different. I’ve never seen our troops happier. Your staff is so friendly and engaging. What is it?”

“Well, we believe in a culture of empowering and loving people,” answered Zollbrecht. “When we have love in our hearts we want to see others thrive and become the best version of themselves. That’s what God and His love is all about, and it’s what makes this a special place."

The next day the captain stopped by. “Sergeant said he had a great conversation with you yesterday," the captain said. "He’d like for you to come talk with the platoon about the empowering culture of Big Lake. Would you be willing to do that?”

Friday afternoon Big Lake staff invited the Marines to join them for Sabbath, if they’d like. Thirteen chose to worship with the Big Lake summer staff.

“Several of them came to us after of worship time and said they wanted what we had — the ability to be open and vulnerable on a genuine human level,” says Jonathan Thompson, RAD Camp director. “The ability to be open and vulnerable on a genuine human level. This week we all experienced that together.”

One of the Marines remembers Sabbath as a very special day. “I liked the activities,” he says. “Wasn’t really expecting that, but I think some of our Marines were having more fun than the campers. We’re definitely really happy to be here where you have relevant projects and friendly people.”

“God knew that we needed some improvements here,” says one of the Big Lake staff members. “Having the Marines come showed us that God’s really looking after us. When God moves, He moves,and we get a front row seat.”

Before leaving Big Lake, the Marine captain found Zollbrecht and asked him another question: “Would it be OK if we came back next year? We’ve still got a lot of work to do on the stables, and it looks like your lodge roof needs to be replaced. Each year we set two weeks aside to practice building things. Seems like this is the perfect place to do that.”