FRANKLIN TWP. — A trail of wrong choices and bad decisions led Mike Wunner down a path to homelessness, but hope from Camp Orchard Hill’s Christmas at Camp helped him find his way.
About two years ago, Wunner was a guest at Camp Orchard Hill’s annual two-week retreat for homeless men.
“They (Jim Payne and Lisa Stull at Camp Orchard Hill) guided me along and helped me face my issues,” he said.
Today, Wunner maintains a residence in Glen Lyon and volunteers at the camp to help other men.
“They (the staff at Camp Orchard Hill) saved my life,” Wunner said.
Christmas at Camp began seven years ago, providing a haven from Dec. 14-28 for the homeless men of Mother Theresa’s Haven in Wilkes-Barre.
The program developed from a form letter sent in 2008 from Vision, a men’s shelter program formerly in Wilkes-Barre, said Lisa Stull, food service director at Camp Orchard Hill.
She remembered taking the letter to Jim Payne, executive director at Camp Orchard Hill, and asking what they could do to help homeless men.
With a staff of just five and hundreds of volunteers, Camp Orchard Hill opened the doors of its facility December 2008 to nearly 70 homeless men for a two-week period, Stull said.
“This is who we are,” she said. “We believe in our Catholic faith and will walk the walk. These men need to know they are valued and deserve respect as people.”
The men are bussed into the Back Mountain, sleep in the camp’s cabins, have access to clean clothing, showers, three meals a day and the ability to use the camp’s amenities, Payne said.
Camp guests can also get help to renew or obtain photo identification, a necessity to apply for employment, Payne added.
The number of homeless men staying at the camp fluctuates year by year, Stull said.
“This year (2015), we average about 22 to 34 men a day,” she said.
Hosting the homeless men has yielded unexpected benefits for the camp’s staff and the Back Mountain community, Stull said.
“I think it made the Back Mountain show its generosity,” she said.
Families and businesses throughout the Back Mountain and Wyoming Valley have donated clothing, personal care items and time to aid the men.
“We have over 500 volunteers that help,” Stull said.
Center Moreland, Lehman-Idetown and Trucksville United Methodist churches, the Harveys Lake Women’s Club, Gate of Haven and Our Lady of Victory Church have offered consistent support over the seven years Christmas at Camp was held, Stull said.
Every year, the men receive gifts ranging from socks, boots, hats, gloves, jackets and more.
“The Lehman-Idetown United Methodist Church donated cards and stamps,” Stull said. “One man sent out two cards to family. Just the other day, he received two cards back (from the family).”
The positive interaction helps form the first step in rebuilding the lives of the men who attend the camp.
Wunner and Dave Wayda, a former camp resident and current volunteer, know this value first hand. Both men were able to fight through their homeless status with support and guidance received at Christmas at Camp.
Wunner and Wayda return to Camp Orchard Hill annually to volunteer and help other men by washing guests’ laundry, serving meals or just talking with the other men. They hope to show them it is possible to get out of the homeless situation.
” I love being out here,” Wayda said.
Wayda’s best advice for the men, “You can’t get discouraged. Don’t give up.”
Reach Eileen Godin at 570-991-6387 or on Twitter @TLNews.