Tommy Thompson Bio 9 Children's Camps

CHAPTER 9

Children’s Camps

Sadie and I went down to some of the fish camps that the Natives set up near the rivers during the summer to catch fish for their families and dogs. This was a busy time for the villagers as they worked hard during the long summer days to provide subsistence for the winter. We got the idea that we could have meetings for the children during the day, and then gospel meetings at night for the adults. This worked out fine. From this the Lord exercised our hearts to have a camp for the children from all the villages. For $15, I purchased an acre of land with an old cabin on it in Lower Tonsina. We repaired the cabin, and we cleared the land of rubbish with help from some of the children from Chitina.

As I was digging a latrine, my shovel hit permafrost with such force that I fell over the hole. This accident resulted in a severe back strain that put me out of commission once again. (I had hurt my back in 1953 in Cape Town working for the oil company. It gave me lots of pain and trouble. It was also hurt in Belfast when we were on our way to Alaska.)

I was put in traction for two weeks. Two one-gallon cans filled with gravel were attached to my medical corset with ropes and thrown over the elevated foot of the bed. This all cost me valuable time.

When I felt better I went to the doctor in Glenallen, and he adjusted my back. “Don’t lift anything heavier than a pencil,” the doctor advised.

I, however, went down to Anchorage to buy supplies for the camp. The Army was revamping nearby Fort Richardson Army Post and was auctioning off surplus equipment. I made a bid on three tents: one 14 x l6ft, one 16 x 24 ft. and one 10 x 12 ft. My bid of $50 was accepted. Once again, God not only met our expectations, He exceeded them! What I did not know was that all the equipment under the tents went with the bid. There were steel beds and mattresses, metal tables, a steel sink, serving trays and many things that seemed custom-ordered for our new children’s camp.

Harold Richards loaned me his big truck. We transported the whole load back to the Lower Tonsina campground. Harold helped me set up tents. There were enough logs available to erect a dining room addition to the old cabin.

The territorial government authorities asked me whether they could use our facility in the event of an emergency. This was the middle of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. This kind of request was not unusual, given Alaska’s strategic global location. At a certain point, Alaska is only two miles from Siberia. We agreed to the government’s request. This enabled us to get food surpluses and a motor boat, too.

Children came to our camp from as far as 200 miles away. During my visits to villages, the children were given memory verses to learn. During subsequent visits, children who knew their memory verses were rewarded with free admission to the camp. I never knew of one child who could not repeat their memory verses with this incentive!

More than 80 children enrolled the first season. We transported many of them from their villages and returned them home again. At the camp, the children could earn tokens for doing various things, especially for giving correct answers after the Bible lessons. All these things won their cooperation and respect.

After lunch was a “compulsory rest period” (everything was a quiet as a mouse), and the children could spend their tokens at a little “store” we opened. The rest periods benefited everyone; the workers were glad of a wee rest, too. There was a “good sleeper” award, and some children even had to be wakened up!

We inspected the children’s hands and faces for cleanliness as they filed into the dining cabin. This exercise provided us with some hard-to-suppress chuckles. I pointed to one little boy’s dirty neck and instructed him to go clean it. He left. Soon he came through the line again. When I inspected his neck, that one little spot where my finger had touched gleamed like an island of cleanliness in a sea of dirt. I made my instructions much more specific the second time around.

We also provided the children with clean underwear donated by the Valley Christian Children’s Home. We handed out the underwear after administering baths. For this we used two big Army-issue bread-mixing bowls, each about 36 inches in diameter. We used one bowl for washing them, and the other to rinse them. I channeled a nearby creek to the camp, so there was plenty of water. Workers and children alike had many good laughs when our soapy charges slid out of the bowls.

Native children in those days mostly wore handmade moccasins: slipper-type footwear made from animal skins, lined inside with rabbit fur. Since each child’s moccasins were custommade just for them, each pair was unique and easily identified. One of the children’s favorite games was when we mixed up their moccasins in a pile. After we said “go” the children would race to the pile and scramble to find their own moccasins. The first ones back to the starting line with both of their own moccasins on would win tokens.

We taught Scripture lessons regularly. We also had gospel meetings for parents who came in from their fish camps. Quite a number of adults attended each evening. One boy wanted to be saved and actually Billy my son led him to the Lord. The next day the boy spoke to me and said, “Now I want to be a Christian!” He soon was instructed in the way of God more perfectly.

A crew of student surveyors was working nearby and we invited them to the meetings, too. They all came, probably motivated by curiosity. I visited the survey crew as they worked toward Chitina. Sadie and I invited them over to our home after Sunday evening gospel meetings. They gobbled up Sadie’s delicious homemade treats. They hadn’t had home cooking for months. We were able to speak to them about the things of God and they were receptive to our message.

Devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ is the secret of serving. As the hymn writer put it,

I would not work my soul to save,
For that my Lord has done;
But I would work like any slave
For love of God’s dear Son.

The Lord always met the need of the children’s camp work for all the years we did it. Even after we moved to Anchorage, we still carried on this work each summer.

After the survey crew had finished their projects and gone back to their homes in the Lower 48, we received a letter from one of them, Wayne Sparks. I still have a treasured copy of that letter in my study. He described how our ministry had led to his restoration to the Lord. He vowed to serve the Lord from then on. He had enclosed a gift of $20. Wayne wrote to us a few more times after that. Another young man named McMahon wrote and told us he got saved on the plane taking him home to Seattle.

Helpers in the children’s camp were a good team: Etta Bell, Mollie Billum, Paul and Edna Hammon, Ethel Zinn, Sadie and me. Over the following years, we had some others who came and helped. It was a big undertaking, but it was motivated by devoted love. We felt it was the same kind of love Mary Magdalene showed after Jesus Christ’s death when she went to the authorities and said, “Tell me where you have laid Him and I will take Him away”. Although a weak vessel, she was ready to carry the body of the Lord. 
Over the years I have met people from these places where we spent our early years. I had a Sunday Bible Class for children at the Alaska Native Hospital in Anchorage. One evening, I met a young man named Tom Titus. He was from Tetlin. He was dying with cancer, and he had already had one leg amputated. I talked to Tom about my ministry in his home village and about the camp we had.

“Tom,” I said to him, “When I leave you tonight I could die and would go to Heaven. But then we would never see each other again. If you died first where would you go?” “I would go to heaven, too,” he replied. “How can you be sure?” I pressed.

He then related that after one Bible Class he asked the Lord to “forgive me my sins and save me”. Tom will be united in heaven with his forbears from Tetlin who were saved by the grace of God.

Another time, years after leaving Chitina, I went into the restaurant at Summit Lodge, off the highway in Alaska. I recognized one man’s face and I went over to him.

“Did you ever go to a Sunday School in Anchorage?” I asked. The man turned to me and smiled with recognition. “Yes, Uncle Tommy,” he said. “I’m saved, and also my wife. We go to a church near our home.”