SPRING VALLEY — There's a village tucked into the bluffs of Southeastern Minnesota where everybody is invited.
Good Earth Village in Spring Valley began with 500 acres of gifted land in 1969. Since then, Good Earth has been host of faith-based programs and camps for tens of thousands of kids of all ages. Good Earth is now accredited by the American Camp Association, and has 11 full-time employees.
Camps run for eight weeks straight during a typical summer at Good Earth. Things slow down in mid-August when retreat season begins and outside groups are able to book space.
This year, staff members are busy putting together the final pieces of Goodstock, a music festival this weekend to celebrate Good Earth's 50th year.
It's the first music festival the camp has ever hosted, said Dianna Parks, executive director at Good Earth since 2015. She said the last time music was played on the site was during a bluegrass festival in the early 1980s.
Six musical acts constitute the lineups for both Friday and Saturday evenings, along with separate shows for children on both days. An anniversary luncheon will be held on Saturday, with guests of honor that include the first executive director and first staff coordinator.
A primary goal of the festival is to celebrate what Good Earth has done in 50 years, said Parks, but it's also to spread the word even more. She said there's a good chunk of Spring Valley residents who've yet to visit the camp.
"We don't want to be the best kept secret anymore," she said. "But rather, a well-known gem."
Campers in the summer programs range from K-12 and are separated into three different categories. Younger campers learn how to be away from home and to be around others, while older kids get to experience cooking their own food and building campsites.
Bible study and worship are scheduled 2-3 times each day for campers, said Parks, but study slots are kept short and worship is mostly singing.
"They are engaged in their faith every step of the way," Parks said.
She said study and worship times are formatted in ways that get campers engaged with each other and starting their own dialogue.
"They are not just being talked to or preached at," she said. "It's very participatory."
Several former campers at Good Earth have gone on to be faith and community leaders, said Parks. And it's common for counselors from Good Earth to further their careers in faith afterwards.
The main theology behind Good Earth Village is Lutheran, said Parks, but there are also United Methodist, Presbyterian and Catholic member congregations. There are no prerequisites for the camp, she said.
"We have a pretty radical hospitality, all are welcome," said Parks. "We've hosted all kinds of groups from all kinds of faiths."
Parks said last fall when a group of Muslim campers were turned down by two Christian camps in the area, they came to Good Earth, where they were welcomed. She said menu accommodations were made for the group, which was large enough to fill every bunk in the Hilltop Home cabins, and the campers taught a class during the week.
This year's "Stories Woven" theme at Good Earth represents multigenerational family involvement. Steve Atwood, property manager, said it's been fun to watch those stories grow.
"We've had campers who've turned into counselors, and people who've met their spouses here and got married here," Atwood said.
The granddaughter of one of the founders of Good Earth Village was a camp counselor this summer for the first time, said Rita Howe, a longtime volunteer at Good Earth Village whose oldest son met his wife at Good Earth.
Atwood is the longest-working Good Earth employee, and has watched two of his children get married in weddings at the camp.
"This place is a blessing for so many, especially me," Atwood said.
Parks, who moved to Minnesota in 2006, also has an intimate connection with Good Earth.
"When I drove on that road (into Good Earth Village), and saw that view, it was the first time I felt like I was home in nine years," she said.
Elementary school teacher Jen Schimek was a junior in high school when she went through Good Earth's counselor training program. She went on to work all four summers of her college career, and said she was immediately affected by how "you could see God's creation" at the camp.
She convinced her husband, whom she'd met at a church retreat, to work with her, too. She still remembers those summers and said they mean a lot to her.
"We could be who we really wanted to be, and not pretend to be anything else," she said.
Schimek's oldest son, now entering his senior year of high school, worked as a counselor this summer at Good Earth. Her other two sons will likely follow in the same path.
"It was a wonderful experience to see (Ryan) doing the same thing as we did, and having those same important experiences," she said.