Proudly, Third-Generation Ondessonk: The (Smith) Stierwalt Family
By Sara (Bell) Clifford
Long before she could earn a paycheck, Betsy (Smith) Stierwalt was an Ondessonk ambassador. It started when she was 6, when she and her family moved from Evansville, Ind., to Ozark, Ill.
“My brothers (Jimmy and Jake) and I would ride our bikes up to the Camp Gate and we declared ourselves the welcoming committee. So, Sundays after we got home from church, we’d hurry up and change and ride over and sit up on top of the pillars, climb up there and wave at people as they would come in. There was a picture in The Messenger (Belleville Diocesan newspaper) at one point of us doing it.”
It would be several more years before Betsy could enter the Gate as a camper – before Mini Camp was a program, Ondessonk campers had to be 10 – but she already knew her way around.
Her earliest Camp memory was when she was 3 or 4, at a Labor Day Friends Weekend, “hanging out with old staff – who, of course, I thought were super, super old at that point – and getting to know their kids.”
Her parents, Cindy (Moehlenkamp) and Lee Smith, had met at Camp as summer staff in the ‘70s. The family moved to a house on Red Cedar Lane, less than a mile from the Camp Gate, in 1988 so that Cindy could work full-time as the Ondessonk program director and Lee could be the food service director.
Other Camp-staff-turned-parents from that era would have included Marti and Norb Garvey, whose oldest daughter, Amber, would work alongside Betsy in the late ‘90s, and Lucia Hodges (Cindy Smith’s former unit leader), whose youngest daughter, Gabi, would go as a camper with Betsy. (Gabi would grow up to marry her Camp sweetheart; she and Evan Coulson now live on Ondessonk property.)
Though Camp had been a family tradition, Betsy didn’t feel like she was obligated to go. She wanted to, badly. Her brothers, meanwhile, chose Boy Scout camp instead. “Just knowing how much it meant to my parents and what a big part of their lives it was, I wanted to have a similar experience,” she said.
It wasn’t all about having fun and learning new things, though. “When I was a camper, I actually had three goals in my camp career: I wanted to become a unit leader, I wanted to have the speaking part of Kateri Tekakwitha in the Lodge Ceremony, and I wanted to be Lodge Princess.”
In 1994, as a second-year camper, Betsy was voted into the Lodge of Tekakwitha. During her eight years on staff, she achieved all three of her goals. She even led the same unit her mother did: Lalemant.
For most of the ‘90s, Lee and Cindy worked outside of Camp: Cindy as a high school science teacher and Lee as a journalist. When Betsy was old enough to join the Ondessonk staff, they came back, too: Cindy working beachfront during summers as aquatics director, and Lee on administration as marketing and development director and then assistant director. Jimmy and Jake did not work summer staff, preferring to earn “real money instead of laundry money” lifeguarding at area pools.
Between 1998 and 2005, Betsy worked a wide variety of jobs: dishes, H&S (Health and Sanitation), and lifeguard as a 16-year-old rotator earning $40 a week; health center clerk; boating coordinator; canoe adventure; girls and coed season unit leader; and seasonal staff facilitating the ropes course and other activities as needed. As a seasonal staff member, she had “zero previous horse skill or knowledge” when then-Equestrian Director Keith Brennan “decided I could figure it out. I never would have picked it (working as a wrangler) for myself, but I really ended up enjoying it.” She ended up becoming CHA-certified and working as horse adventure unit leader the following summer.
Betsy was elected Tri-State Tribe Princess as a teenager in the late ‘90s. She put fellow Lodge members to work sewing a banner that still hangs in the dining hall. Seeing signs of service all over Camp makes her smile. This is how she’s shown her love for the place that shaped her.
“Be active with your tribe,” she tells fellow Lodge members. “Don’t just say you’re in Lodge. Be active, get involved, do the projects, and that way, you can show people why they should be involved as well.”
One recent week when she was volunteering, Betsy and other staff alumnae spent several hours with the adventure staff, talking to them about Camp’s traditions and values and the reasons she and her Camp friends are still coming back decades after they moved on. “We stayed up and talked to them until 12:30. They were worried they were going to miss curfew. Adventure and Group Services Director Evan Coulson was like, ‘I’m not even mad. That was the coolest thing you could have done, to share your personal history and Camp experience.’”
What Betsy wanted to get across was that “everybody can find somebody that they can relate to, and everybody can find a way to put their skills to use at whatever they’re good at, whether that’s singing, or art, or archery, or they’re really strong – whatever your skill is, you can find a way to use that while you’re at Camp.” In short, Camp can come to feel like home, and anytime you’re around Camp people, it’s like you’re among family.
After leaving the Ondessonk staff, Betsy moved to Champaign, Ill., got married, started a family, and moved to Georgia. Her mother died in 2011; the advanced swimming area at Lake St. Isaac is dedicated in her memory. Her dad moved away from Camp and Ozark and began traveling in an RV; he’s been giving tours at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. It was several years before Betsy returned to Camp as a summer volunteer in 2016. But Camp was never far away.
Earlier this year, Betsy, her husband Justin, and their five children moved to Homer, Ill., from Georgia. When she interviewed for her current job, teaching first grade at St. Thomas Catholic School in Philo, Ill., Betsy mentioned that she’d spent many summers working at a Catholic youth camp.
“Was it Camp Ondessonk?” the interviewer asked. Of course. And, in fact, she’d visited that very school before, about 20 years ago, as a college student doing promotions to tell Central Illinois kids about Camp.
Her oldest son, Joshua, now has a high school teacher who was a camper and worked on the Ondessonk staff. A coworker asked Betsy if she’d heard of Ondessonk because so many of her granddaughter’s horseman friends wanted to go. A student at her school did a report on Kateri Tekakwitha, the North American Martyr Betsy had portrayed in countless Lodge ceremonies.
This past year, four of the Stierwalt kids experienced Labor Day Friends Weekend and played with children of the people their mother worked with 20 years ago. As soon as they were old enough, they’ve become campers; four will go this summer. Joshua hopes to be inducted into the Lodge of Ondessonk this year as an OWL; he is already two-thirds done with his Lodge service packet.
Will there be a third generation of (Smith) Stierwalts on the Ondessonk staff one day? Maybe. “They’ve talked about it. They have really enjoyed their counselors, been inspired by their counselors, just as previous staff have been inspired by their counselors,” Betsy said.
Either way, they will know their family’s origin story. “I think it’s important for my kids to know. It’s such an important part of my life, my history; I want to be able to share that with them and hope that they can have similar experiences,” she said.