BROOKSVILLE — Local church groups, families and individuals seeking a natural setting for an outdoor getaway, with the availability of numerous activities and a variety of facilities, need not look far.
Lakewood Retreat is southeast of Brooksville, near the southern border of Hernando County.
According to its brochure, there is no better place to meditate on God's word or his works.
"The activities and busyness of life melt away into the shadows of the trees," says the booklet. "Here God speaks while you listen, refreshing your soul and renewing your spirit."
Although the 120-acre camp, opened in 1969 by the Mennonite Church, is easy to find (just off Spring Lake Highway), and while some guests have been using it for years (coming from as far away as the Panhandle and Miami), many local residents don't know it's there.
That's something the camp administrator, Bud Goodwin, and the new public relations representative, Anne Baker, hope to change.
"I just love the place so much," Baker said. "My heart and passion is that everyone comes to know this precious gem."
"Relax, refresh, renew" is the retreat's motto, and there is a variety of ways to make that happen. There are 10 cabins, private rooms and several lodges nestled among the trees on the hilly terrain, some with fireplaces, screened porches and stove-less kitchens.
Camp facilities include hiking trails, lighted fields for sports, a challenge course, an activity room with tables for games, a campfire area for large groups and an 8 ½-foot-deep swimming pool that is open all year.
There is a lake for boating that provides an inspirational setting at sunset and an animal farm that is especially fun for young children.
"The setting feels more Northern," Goodwin said. "The elevation is about 180 feet, and there are plants not seen in many parts of Florida, along with dozens of birds and animals."
Goodwin would like to see more local people take advantage of Lakewood's many offerings, even using it as a hub for community events.
"We would like to become a more significant place for strengthening families and building community in our area," he said.
One way is to provide a Sunday Cafe in the retreat's large cafeteria for people to come for a mid-afternoon dinner on Sundays and linger for a fun afternoon. The meal costs $10.50, which includes entrance to the park.
There are 250 beds in air-conditioned or heated facilities and 60 campsites featuring primitive tenting to full-size recreational vehicles.
The dining hall seats up to 180.
Lodging, meal and special activities rates are available on the retreat's recently updated website at lakewoodretreat.org. Discounts and specials may also be found online or by contacting the office.
Special activities include a group campfire, an open-fire popcorn event, an ice cream social, a hayride, an initiative task course, pool volleyball and archery — all available upon request.
A current offer is a Family Cabin Special for $52.50 per night, plus $5 for each adult over 18.
Retreat rules and policies ensure campers an adventurous time in a "Christ-honoring" environment. Those include no pets, no alcohol, no illegal drugs, no firearms or fireworks, quiet time from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. and no smoking in the buildings.
While the camp has a Christian foundation and is associated with the Mennonite Church, it is overseen by a board of directors not governed by the denomination. The camp ministry is mainly marketed to Christian churches of all denominations and is mostly used for conferences and retreats. But Lakewood has also been the setting for weddings and other special events, such as family reunions.
One way the community can be involved is through the retreat's Adopt-a-Building program.
"We need the churches, and we can help them build and refresh their flocks," Baker said. "Churches need to know that we are here to help them, but we can't do it unless they help us. If every church in Brooksville adopted a room or an area, or would include us in their missions giving, we would have everything we need to serve them back."
To acquaint those unfamiliar with the retreat and to raise money for its budget, plans are in the works for a series of special events. The first will be a concert with Christian gospel artist Archie Watkins on Feb. 1.
"We have some great ideas under our hats about events, and I believe we can not only have this place packed, but also have a vital impact on the community," Baker said. "Our goal is to have people asking, 'What's going on at Lakewood?' "
Other future plans include updating the facilities to accommodate additional activities and building a multipurpose gymnasium and a large picnic pavilion. Zip lines and a climbing wall are planned, as well as trails for biking and skating.
Lew Craven discovered the camp about 17 years ago and returns about once a month.
"I discovered this place when I worked with hospice in Hillsborough (County), and we did a bereavement camp," Craven said. "I fell in love with it."
The retreat gives him a chance to serve, he said.
"I think we all look for ways to give back," said the 60-something Brandon resident. "Whenever I go and serve as a weekend host, I'm there to try to enhance the experience of the campers and the different groups that come."
He also benefits personally from his visits.
Craven said he will continue both "giving and getting" from the retreat.
"As long as my health holds up, I expect I'll keep doing it," he said. "I get nurtured by it."