When Cameron Newell joined the Ghost Ranch college staff for his second summer, he was eager to work with the children of the guests and staff of the busy national education and retreat center.
And he has—only in some completely unexpected and challenging ways.
When a sudden, severe storm passed through Abiquiu on Tuesday evening, July 7—causing extensive damage and destruction of facilities across Ghost Ranch’s vast campus—the entire staff, including the college students, immediately sprang into action.
“During the night of the flood, we moved kids up to the mesa or to the library so that they were away from the flood in case it came right over the bank, which it thankfully didn't,” said Newell, a 20-year-old native of Scotland and a rising third-year student at the University of St Andrews, its oldest university.
“The next day we had the chaplain here, Sharon [Edwards], come visit our kids,” he said. “She led us through an exercise of feeling and creatively playing with some of the clay that had been left from the flood to help us deal with some of the emotions we had. At the end of the exercise, we had a reflection and prayer, which was really nice.”
Newell is among 24 college summer staff and two coordinators, both recent seminary graduates, working at Ghost Ranch this summer from May 31 through August 10. The youngest of four children of Ali, a university chaplain, and John Philip Newell—a poet, peacemaker, author, and scholar, internationally acclaimed for his work in the field of Celtic spirituality—Cameron Newell has been coming to the Ranch since he was ten years old. His father, an ordained Church of Scotland minister, serves as the companion theologian for the American Spirituality Center of Casa del Sol, a separate retreat space at Ghost Ranch dedicated to deeper spiritual contemplation. His mother often joins her husband in leading retreats at the Ranch.
Cameron Newell said that while most young people are generally only able to visit the Ranch for a week, he was fortunate to have spent nearly a month there every summer attending the youth program.
“I always got to know the college staff really well during those years,” he said. “We’re like a big family.”
Of the 24 students in this summer’s college program, four, like Newell, are returning from 2014 college staff; six are returning January Term 2015 participants, a 3-week program for college credit. Two are former Duke TIP participants, a summer high school writing program, and seven had never visited the Ranch before. The students in the program represent 16 colleges and universities, including the PC(USA)-related College of Wooster, Eckerd College, and Presbyterian College. The college staff hail from 17 states; Newell is the sole international student.
“The college staff has officially been going on since 1957,” said Sarah Stringer, Ghost Ranch’s full-time, year-round education manager. “They help with running all aspects of our summer programming, which is the busiest time for programming at the Ranch. About half are involved in the youth programs, so they organize and run the activities for youth at the Ranch. The other half are involved in tours, marketing/program administration, library and museums, outdoor adventures, sustainability and lifeguarding. They also do a one-week rotation in the Dining Hall as support.”
Debra Hepler, executive director of Ghost Ranch—who couldn’t imagine operating the Ranch without its college staff under ordinary circumstances—had special words for their extraordinary efforts during the flood.
“Members of the college staff, like Cameron, were tremendous,” said Hepler. “They worked tirelessly to keep the children—from preschool to high school—calm, both in the beginning and all throughout the storm and flooding as they waited to be reunited with their parents or grandparents attending evening programs. They helped move campers to rooms; got dry towels, sheets, and other supplies to anyone who needed them; helped in the Dining Hall, which we kept open through the night for anyone who needed sandwiches, beverages, or just a place to be together in community; and knocked on every guest room door when everything was over to check on guests to see if they needed anything. I praise and thank God for them.”
And Newell is equally grateful for such a supportive community in which to work.
“The greatest thing about college staff is the genuine relationships you make here that are different from the ones back home,” he said. “Because it’s an intentional community, you have conversations that you wouldn’t normally have. It’s a safe space to open up to each other.”
Newell said that the people at Ghost Ranch on the whole, tend to be more culturally sensitive and have recently begun to speak more openly about privilege. "We have started a dialogue about how to more effectively build relationships with the community’s Native American and Spanish members,” he said. “That will be the focus of our annual college staff service project.”
As the Ranch continues its recovery from last week’s catastrophic weather event—which the National Weather Service said has not happened in the area on record before—Hepler and the staff are witnessing a continual outpouring of support.
“Updates are being posted daily on our website and Facebook page, and I’m giving regular reports at meal times to current guests,” she said. “We’re getting tens of thousands of hits on each update and donations are steadily coming in.”
She, Newell, and everyone at the Ranch are counting their many blessings.
“I think everyone here is starting to move on,” said Newell, “and we are all just so thankful that there was no loss of life!”
Ghost Ranch has a $100,000 deductible on its flood insurance policy and welcomes all gifts to aid in their recovery. Visit the Ghost Ranch website to make an online gift.