Words by Daniel Haase

Photography by LP Taylor Photography

Advance Camp Texas: Building a Foundation For Young Men

A local weekend camp is providing opportunities for fatherless young men ages twelve to eighteen to learn real-life skills under the watchful eye of adults, and is enriching lives in the process.

Today’s world can be a difficult one for a boy to navigate his way to manhood. Society sends mixed (and often inappropriate) messages. Boys learn to suppress their emotions and often have trouble figuring out who they are—and who they are not. It takes involved parents to help grow a son to be an adult.

A father spending time with his son is time well-spent.But what if there is no father figure in a boy’s life—no one to expose him to the kind of life experiences that only a father could teach a son? Opportunities for target practice, working with wood, fishing, or fixing a bicycle used to be commonplace for boys as they grew up, but for many those opportunities are rare now.

Advance Camp is a local program that works to change that. The program was founded by Chad Wallen and is intended to build a Christ-centered foundation for young men ages twelve to eighteen. Chad uses the term “young men” intentionally out of respect for the participants in the camps, who are in need of a mentor to teach them practical skills as they become adults. The camps teach skills a father would have, and should have, taught his son if he was involved in his life.

Chad’s desire is to change the life trajectory of these young men by strengthening their self-esteem and teaching them useful skills, some of which could eventually translate to a career in a trade. A mentor is paired with no more than two young men, and they are often as excited as the participants to work on the camp activities. A camp will generally have five to ten participants, so there is plenty of opportunity to develop relationships.

The responses from the mothers of young men who have attended clearly demonstrate that Advance Camp is making a difference. One mother said that her son wanted nothing to do with a bunch of men before going to the camp, but after learning appliance repair skills oneSaturday, he excitedly wanted to know if he could go to the next one. Another mother said her two sons could not stop talking about the camp they attended.

Advance Camp takes place one Saturday a month, concentrating on one set of skills each month. The young men in the program don’t know what the topic will be until the week of the event. There is no cost to the participants.To make the training as practical as possible, the camp stake place in real settings with professionals providing the instruction. For example, bicycle repair takes place in a bicycle shop. The participants bring their own bikes to work on, or if they don’t have one, they are given one to repair and keep, along with a set of tools.

One month’s activity featured blacksmithing. The young men were able to learn from an expert blacksmith who has been featured on a cable television program.They were able to create their own projects in metal in the blacksmith shop. Another time, they learned cooking—cowboy style. They each learned to cook a full meal in a cast iron skillet and got to take the skillet home.

Chad’s journey to Granbury began in Portland,Oregon, where he grew up. About four years ago, Chad connected with an Oregon camp operator who was primarily mentoring single mothers. There was a need to mentor the young men of the single moms as well. Chad mentored in the camp for several years when the camp operator asked him to take over the entire operation. He did so for some time, but he eventually felt a longing to leave Oregon.

Last summer, Chad and his family headed out in theirRV with no real plan but to eventually weave their way across the country to visit friends in Tampa. He hoped to maybe find a plot of land where they could start a lavender farm and longhorn ranch. They made it as far as Granbury when the RV developed mechanical problems that would take ten weeks to resolve. After a week or so in a hotel, they decided they should find a place to rent. It wasn’t long before Chad realized they would not be leaving Granbury.He truly felt it was God’s direction for him to establish a mentoring program in Granbury similar to the one inOregon, which led to the founding of Advance Camp.

Chad has a heart as big as Texas when it comes to demonstrating his Christian faith through action. His mission is to build a foundation of practical knowledge in the young men in the program, but it is also about taking those skills and using them to help others. He expresses that in the simple question “What are we doing to bless the community?” And he is doing plenty.

One camp day, the young men took the yard maintenance skills they had learned previously to help a single mom with no time to get her yard in place. The young men mowed, pruned shrubs, trimmed trees, mulched flower beds, and seeded her yard while she was at work. She arrived home in time to see the transformation and to express her gratitude for their hard work. This was an impactful moment for the young men, where they learned the importance and reward of helping others.

Chad has the curriculum for more than a year’s worth of camps already figured out. Upcoming camps will focus on boating, farming, leather working, rope making, survival training, vehicle maintenance, and even small business training.

Naturally, finding funds for a program like this isa challenge. Chad is connected with six or seven local churches and a number of businesses for financial support, but can always use more. His day job in outside sales equips him to know how to approach people he has never met. He describes himself as “annoyingly persistent”.

Some would say he has an infectious enthusiasm for what is obviously his passion. He often finds that people want to do more than what he is asking from them when they hear about his mission.

Finding mentors is another important aspect ofAdvance Camp. The mentors are carefully evaluated.Chad rarely works with referrals, preferring to observe and invite men to become mentors after he has gotten to know them well.

It’s a two-way street, too. Some of the churches Chad works with have asked for his assistance in helping them network with other churches in practical ways. They say he is the “glue” helping to connect them all. He is also growing connections to other local charities in the area.Sometimes a business owner he has approached will tell . his own backstory about growing up fatherless and will want to be involved.

Chad’s hope is to be able to grow Advance Camp into a full-time ministry, but he knows that takes time. His wife Kelsey has always encouraged him to follow his dreams, like the lavender farm, and supports him even when he questions his own abilities. Given his enthusiasm and passion to change lives, the sky is the limit.