Written by Dawn Cobb
An outdoor oasis sits just off Copper Canyon Road near Lantana not far from the construction of new restaurants, a grocery store and other commercial businesses.
To the Rev. Phil Geleske, the oasis has become home where he and his wife operate the Briarwood Retreat Center – a place where all ages come together for everything from summer camps to leadership building seminars.
Life on the 70-acre sanctuary is more than a job for the couple, it’s a lifestyle of listening to both the chirps of a wide range of birds flocking to trees and the laughter of children romping through a nearby play area.
For the reverend, Briarwood is a passion – one he believes he has spent his entire life preparing for – from his background in the Lutheran ministry to several years helping his wife launch a business. Both skillsets have proven to be exactly what was needed for the job he now holds.
“I feel like this is where I am meant to be,” he said, walking along the trails meandering throughout the retreat.
For anyone who has been to a camp, the retreat includes all of what one expects and more – a dining hall, outdoor chapel, cabins, meeting hall, pool, archery range, arts and crafts area, outdoor picnic pavilion that seats more than 100 people, large fields for outdoor games, a volleyball court, outdoor ping pong tables, horseshoe pits, a challenge course and more.
On a recent Saturday, reverends and other officiants from Lutheran ministries across northern Texas and northern Louisiana gathered for a mission assembly and to commemorate the opening of a brand new building completed in January as well as updated camp facilities such as ADA compliant bathrooms, renovated cabins and more.
Housing offices for staff, a visitor’s center, space for Bishop Kevin Kanouse and his staff and more than 7,000 square feet of meeting area, the new building serves as the base of operations for a camp that is continuing to thrive and grow through offering more opportunities to serve the public. The building is also equipped with high speed internet – strong enough to handle more than 100 laptops during training sessions. The new building also has common areas and a combined chapel and library.
As the centerpiece visually noticeable as one drives into the camp, the building’s walkway features stones bearing names of donors as well as scriptures.
“The gift of this building is an enhancement,” he said.
The building is a result of a $3 million campaign launched by the Lutheran synod to create a lasting ministry. The camp was created by the Presbyterian congregation in the 1960s-1970s, Geleske said. The Lutheran ministry rented the facilities for outdoor summer camps. In the mid-1990s, the Lutheran ministry bought the camp when it became available, he said.
Raising more than the $3 million goal allowed the ministry to invest in more upgrades at the retreat, send an estimated $300,000 to Sierra Leone to assist with a similar camp in South Africa as well as set up a leadership development endowment.
“We needed to spend energy on developing leaders in these changing times,” he said. With the Leadership Formation Center, Geleske hopes to build on the leadership training he has created with the staff who intern at the retreat, learning how to set up and manage the camps. Staff from age 18 to 30 join the team during the summer. “They get the experience of leading and teaching,” Geleske said. “The heart and soul about Briarwood is leadership with children. We are increasing our focus and building on it.”
Opportunities for adults at Briarwood range from leadership academy to retreats for men and women to the Young at Heart Senior’s Retreat, to name a few.
Another goal is to continue providing a quality retreat experience at a price that many can afford, he said.
“Our mission is to provide a quality experience at an affordable cost,” Geleske said.
Campers range from all backgrounds – economically, socially and in religion. “Many other churches use our facilities,” he said.
This summer, campers will also get to experience fishing from a real pond created when dirt was relocated to support the new building, creating a sizable hole now filled with water. An aeration system will be added to ensure fish thrive in the pond, he said. Benches nearby offer a place for reflection, visiting and fishing.
Youngsters have long enjoyed the archery and bike courses as well as the pool. Summer camp opportunities range from youngn’s for 2, 3 or 5-night stays for first through third grade students to two-week leadership camps for high school students to horse camp for fourth through eighth grades. There’s art camp, mind scientist camp, explorers’ camp, mission camp, adventure camp – the list goes on. Summer camps are offered from June 21 through August 7.
The retreat also serves as the site for the Lewisville Independent School District’s fifth grade outdoor education program.
Briarwood is accredited by the American Camping Association – a rigorous process that reviews everything associated with the program.
“We are held to high standards,” he said.
Some of the upgrades at the retreat include new cabins, which look like hotel accommodations – much different than the bunkhouses of camp retreats many years ago. The retreat, which can house more than 160 guests, sports the Quail Run Lodge with 23 motel-style rooms and meeting space for up to 100 people, two cabin areas known as Oak Grove and Trail’s Bend. Oak Grove has four cabins – each with eight beds and two bathrooms with a larger cabin with 12 beds and two bathrooms, not to mention a lodge for group gatherings. Trail’s End features three cabins – two cabins with eight beds and one bathroom and the newest cabin with 18 beds and two bathrooms.
As part of his mission to make Briarwood a retreat for all, Geleske has focused on updating facilities to accommodate all needs even for senior retreats where campers may be using walkers or wheelchairs. The plan, he said, is to upgrade everything to be ADA compliant.
The Briarwood Retreat Center is available for church council retreats from all denominations, meetings, getaways, business conferences or training programs and more.
Geleske’s business background becomes evident as he explains how he has expanded fundraising efforts to ensure funding is available for the upgrades and other programs. Maintenance on the 70-acre retreat requires constant attention – from maintaining the trails to ensuring gravel roads and walkways are not filled with potholes regardless of the amount of rain to keeping more than a hundred restroom facilities in full operation.
The retreat receives funds from fees and contributions as well as fundraisers such as a fall golf outing and an annual gala.
“We do fundraisers to supplement the fees,” Geleske said, adding that the retreat philosophy is that no child is turned away, regardless of their family’s ability to pay the camp costs.
As he looks across the heavily-treed campgrounds busy with staff preparing not only for the mission assembly but also a full summer, Geleske beams with thanks for the support he continues to receive from so many through volunteers, sponsors, campaign contributors, the ministry and more.
“We’ve guaranteed the future of this place for years to come,” Geleske said, “and that’s exciting to me.”