Imagine what it’s like to actually live at a camp 365 days a year with zip lines, paintball, swimming and a Ninja Warrior Barn at your disposal. That’s life for John Zeigenfuse, his wife Jolene, and their five children ages 9 to 18.
Zeigenfuse is the director of programs at River Valley Ranch, a Christian summer camp and outdoor education and retreat center in Manchester, Maryland. He and his family have lived on the rural campus for 16 years. In fact, Zeigenfuse spent the first seven years of his life at River Valley Ranch when his father was on staff there. We recently caught up with Zeigenfuse to find out how he ended up at River Valley Ranch, what he does, and the perks of living at camp year-round.
Q. Why River Valley Ranch? Why have you chosen to work/live there?
I was a math and science teacher in Baltimore County for 10 years. At one point, I was teaching 40 at-risk middle school boys who were struggling in the traditional school setting. … I had grant money to get them out of the classroom, and one of the places I took them was River Valley Ranch because I had a familiar background there. With the help of another teacher, we planned everything. Later, I took an entire group of 130-140 eighth graders there. At the time, RVR did not have an outdoor education program, and myself and the other teachers put the entire program together.
A year or two later RVR contacted me and asked if I would come on staff as the director of programs. My wife and I were living in historic Lutherville at the time and had one child and maybe one on the way. We weren’t thrilled about the idea, but decided to say “yes” and move up there, and it’s been a great experience.
River Valley Ranch is … a great community that allows our children to flourish. The mission and values of RVR resonate with me and have allowed me to use my talents and gifts to the fullest.
Q. How close to the actual “camp” do you live?
The camp is over 500 acres; a lot of it is woods and pasture. I live directly between the two main camp locations — Fort Roller and Frontier Town — which are just a half a mile apart through the fields.
Q. What’s the best part of living on a camp? What’s not so great about living on a camp?
The best part of living on the camp property is having my family participate with me. I can get them involved in my work; most fathers don’t have that ability. They help out a lot around the camp and learn valuable skills and a strong work ethic.
The “not so great” part is you are always on and don’t have the ability to “escape” at times. It’s also a little bit out there. If our kids want to do something — after we’ve been running around — we don’t always want to drive them to a friend’s home or take them anywhere.
Q. Do your kids like living there? What are the perks? Do they attend camp?
Our kids love living at camp. They get to meet a lot of great people and participate in camp activities. It’s a place that’s designed for kids to have fun and be challenged, and they get to see it and participate in it.
The younger three all go to camp for a week in the summer, and the rest of the time they are either at home or at the camp. There are certain activities they can just go and do. If the pool is open, they can ride their bikes there and swim. They might play in the creek and then in the evening go and watch the camp entertainment. But I usually put them to work setting up equipment. The two youngest boys think they are big stuff when they get to help out. At the Hawaiian-themed pool parties, they make the smoothies the whole time and they think it’s pretty great.
The older ones work. Once they turn 14, all my kids are made to volunteer for a month as Teens in Training. The oldest did it for three years and then became a counselor. He really enjoyed it. My daughter did it for a year and then had to stop because she was playing lacrosse and had tournaments. My middle son will be a Teen in Training for the first time this summer.
Some of the perks include using the campus and some of the activities for our kids’ birthdays and when their friends are over. We will ask what they want to do for a party — bowling, pizza — and they will be like, “No, let’s just use the zip line.” So I’ll pay one of the interns to help out. There are also always extra kids around the house. I’ll offer to take one of my kids to a friend’s house, but usually the friend will want to come here. We definitely have advantages.
They can’t just go and do anything they want anytime. They can’t do the zip line or ride horses whenever they want. They know we have guests, and the guests are the first priority. … But they all love the craziness; it’s what they know. And at the end of the summer, it’s a little depressing for them — the camp’s a ghost town.
Q. What’s it like in the winter?
During the year, our kids attend local public school. … Every day we are running and doing something with the kids — soccer, lacrosse practice, guitar lessons. When we come home, we are just on to the next thing.
We run 10 weeks of winter camp, from the first weekend in January until the middle of March. These camps run just on the weekends since school is in session. We started with just two weekends and 70 people a weekend but now we are up to 240 campers every weekend.
We’ve had to step up our game and winterize the property and come up with creative things to do. That’s how we ended up with the American Ninja Warrior barn, indoor riding barn and indoor paintball field.
Q. What are your kids’ favorite activities at the camp?
Whatever is new — that’s their favorite thing. It used to be the zip line but then we built the giant swing. They are not into horseback riding; we are more of a traditional sports family … anything competitive and challenging. The bubble balls were a big hit and now it’s the tree climb … that’s brand new. We just finished installing it. I was at lacrosse practice last night and my phone was blowing up (with) “Dad, Dad, can we go yet?’
My kids are always the beta testers for the new activities. … It’s a lot of fun for the kids.
Q. What do you think will be your kids’ best memories?
There are so many wonderful benefits, but the main thing is the independence they can have at camp. I see them making mature decisions because they have the freedom. I try to teach them independence, and I can because it’s a safe place. … And then there’s the overall feeling of being around people who love them. … This really is the perfect place.