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Diocesan Youth Programs Continue to Grow

Apr 23, 2024

Youth Ministry

The Episcopal Youth Community of the Diocese of Atlanta (EYCDIOATL) is on a sustained upward trajectory.

Since the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic disruption, retreats, summer camps, and other diocesan youth programs have grown each year, said Diocesan Youth Missioner Holle Tubbs.

“It’s always encouraging to see a climb in numbers, which is how we’ve been trending in our post-lockdown programming, but equally as important is who makes up those numbers. We’re grateful for a fairly broad representation of parishes in our student body.”

There are five youth retreats held at Camp Mikell during the school year: Happening (high school retreat) and New Beginnings (middle school retreat) take place at Camp Mikell every fall and spring, along with DYC Winter Camp (for middle and high school students) each January. This year (2023-2024) 336 students attended one or more of these retreats, up from 309 the prior year and 209 in 2022.

In 2022, the January DYC Winter Camp retreat for middle and high school students began featuring a visit from Bishop Rob Wright, who has invested time and resources in youth ministry throughout his tenure.

Anna Dinwiddie, Mikell’s Summer Camp Director, said camp numbers are also rising, with 584 campers in 2023 up from 406 in 2021. More than 423 campers had made reservations for this summer as of April 10, she said.

Dinwiddie works with college-aged summer staff who help create for every camper. In addition, about 120 counselors and super counselors, 46 deans, and 7 medical professionals volunteer each year to make the summer program a success.

“When most people think of summer camp they think of swimming in the pool, playing games in the field, doing art activities, or performing at Skit Night. While all of that — and more — happens at Camp Mikell, what brings campers back year after year is the community that is formed,” she said.

For some youth, Mikell is the first place that welcomes them exactly as they are and is a safe landing place after a year of challenges or uncertainty. The campers that come through the gates of Camp Mikell often leave with lifelong friends.

There are many ways to measure the success of Camp Mikell: the number of campers each year, how many projects get done at Work Camp, how many scholarships are given out, or even how many candy bars are eaten at the canteen.

But Dinwiddie said the true measure of success is the campers who go home more confident than before; the teenager who now goes out of their way at school to be kind to people; the people who find a calling of being a priest, teacher, or other leader serving in their community; and many, many more changes. See the Summer 2024 schedule.

Our students are not the church of tomorrow. they’re the church of today.

~ The Rt. Rev. Robert C. Wright, Bishop of Atlanta

The Mikell Camp and Conference Center, which is currently in the midst of a search process for its new Executive Director, was established in 1941 by the Right Reverend Henry Judah Mikell as part of his efforts to help young people affected by the Depression. Bishop Mikell believed the Diocese needed the camp as a place to work with youth and college students, as well as to continue its work among African Americans begun by his predecessor, Bishop Cleland Kinloch Nelson.

Today, the Mikell Camp and Conference Center supports meetings, classes, contemplative retreats, summer camps for kids, and recreational gatherings for Episcopalians of all ages.

The idyllic North Georgia retreat center has been a magnet for adults and youth over multiple generations. But normal wear and tear over the decades has required camp leaders to make a number of improvements. A $7 million capital campaign, Walking in Faith: The Campaign for Mikell, is now underway to lay the financial foundation to support Mikell for the next generations of campers and guests, said Mikell Board Chair Dan Murphy.

“This campaign is going to help sustain Mikell as a place for retreat for guests, young and old. Replacing aging accommodations and adding much needed communal space will further Mikell’s mission of hospitality for generations,” Murphy said.

I loved growing up at Mikell. I love that my teenage children are growing up at Mikell. And I look forward to perhaps one day watching their children grow up at Mikell.”

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Throughout the school year, youth interested in developing their leadership skills are good candidates for EYCDIOATL’s Diocesan Youth Commission, said Commission Chair Luke Netto. In addition to planning and hosting youth events like The Overnight @ Annual Council and an annual Graduation Celebration, Commission members are working to build relationships with parishes throughout Middle and North Georgia.

“Youth Commission members are visiting parishes, talking about EYC to youth, parents, and other members of local congregations,” the senior at Milton High School, said. Commission members also plan and conduct events throughout the year.

Netto, who plans to major in political science with minors in religious studies and music at The University of Georgia, first got involved in EYCDIOATL programs as a sophomore.

Students who lead EYCDIOATL programs also plan and lead spiritual retreats at Camp Mikell that draw middle school and high school students from around the Diocese. One of those retreats is DYC Winter Camp, hosted by the Diocesan Youth Commission. According to Netto, the January 2024 retreat was particularly memorable.

“This January’s retreat had the theme ‘And Yet.’ It led to discussions of how God is always there when it comes to, you know, negative things in our lives. There is darkness and yet God is light, there is sadness and yet God is joy, things like that.”

A high point of DYC Winter Camp is having Bishop Wright attend, Netto said.

“He comes up Saturday night and does a Q&A [after the] worship service. And the Q&A is typically a very special moment. I think that the Bishop enjoys it a lot. And one of the things that we found at this past retreat is we had this really open environment where, you know, there was a lot of spiritual connection.”

Another member of the Diocesan Youth Commission, begun by Wright in 2015, is Ella Hill. The Villa Rica High School junior said she began attending youth events in the sixth grade. She joined the Commission in 2022.

Hill, who is Student Director of Outreach for DYC, coordinates visits to parishes.

“I just try to spread the word about the youth programs the best I can. We had five to seven visits last semester. We got to talk to the youth of those churches and really spread the word and try to get more involvement from all different parts of the diocese.”

Hill said the Commission  is intentional about visiting parishes in middle Georgia “because we know to drive so far [to camp and Atlanta] can be really difficult.”

A trip to St. Stephen’s in Milledgeville was particularly helpful, she said.

“We got to go to EYC before service and there were only a couple of them, but it was so interesting to me how they had so many questions and were so interested in this thing they knew very little about. They just hadn’t been given the opportunity to know as much as they should about these kind of things, especially from someone they’re same age and someone like a youth just like them.

“We talked to a lot of parents to see what their perspective is on it because they’re the ones who have to make that 3-hour drive back and forth to Atlanta. And it was really interesting to hear from the older adults too about what they think of what’s going on in the Diocese,” Hill said.

“We just did our Hunger Walk, which was a big success, but we have our Graduation Celebration…which is where we celebrate all of our graduating seniors and stuff and we’re really excited for that. It’s at St. Simon’s in Conyers. We have a youth giving the sermon and we have a lot of ideas and things set up for that. So, we’re really excited about that.”

Hill said she hopes to attend either Sewanee – The University of the South or The University of Georgia to study environmental science, youth ministry, or both.

Youth Missioner Tubbs said having youth reach out to parishes has been remarkably effective.

“Any good ministry growth has to be attributed to the Holy Spirit. Practically, I see the fruit of this in the hard work of our students in leadership, in the partnerships with clergy and lay staff across the Diocese, and in a diocesan culture of belonging and Christ-centered leadership,” she said.

Netto said that exciting youth gatherings often spawn spiritual and emotional breakthroughs.

“One of the things we’ve been trying to do as a youth community is approach mental wellness in a very pastoral way, create conversations with each other where we can approach a difficult topic in a way that is spiritually healing. And we had some conversations in January where several youth opened up about their experiences with suicide, depression, things like that.”

According to Netto, the approach of incorporating mental health conversations into EYCDIOATL’s retreats has allowed students to talk to staff about struggling with depression, anxiety, and suicidality. (Some of these mental health ministry practices are outlined in Keep/Watch: Suicide, Christ & Community, a suicide prevention curriculum co-written by Holle Tubbs with Dr. Mary Chase Mize.)

Tubbs agreed that retreats are opportunities for transformation.

“Creating a culture of belonging is not just a fun growth strategy, it’s life-saving — research shows that when a student has nowhere to belong, they’re at a higher risk for things like suicide and self-harm,” she said. “We try to create this culture of belonging by centering on the Gospel.

“There’s a misconception out there that we scare kids away from religion by talking about Jesus too much. I’ve found the opposite to be true: we scare kids away from Jesus by talking too much about our religion.

“If we want to see young people light up in church, we have to stop coaching them towards the answers that we’re comfortable with and start inviting them to simply react to Jesus. The students and adults in our program come together to do just that. And while we’re grateful that the health of EYC in the Diocese of Atlanta seems to be expressed in our growing numbers, we’re happy to follow Jesus either way.”

For updates on the ministries mentioned in this article, follow @eycdioatl and @campmikell on social media or visit their websites: and

Don Plummer is the beat reporter for The Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. If you have story ideas, please reach out to Don.

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