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St. Dorothy’s Rest in Camp Meeker, the oldest continuously operated camp in California, traces its history back 113 years yet has managed to remain one of the best-kept secrets of Sonoma County.

Perched high above Bohemian Highway, the historic camp and retreat center can only be accessed through a series of narrow lanes. They twist and turn for nearly a mile before arriving at a cluster of quaint, arts-and-crafts structures surrounded by swimming pool, basketball court and outdoor amphitheater ringed by redwoods.

“It’s tucked away,” said Executive Director Katie Evenbeck, who has overseen St. Dorothy’s for the past 10 years. “Once you enter through the gate, the air is different... There’s a timelessness about it.”

Under the auspices of the Episcopal Diocese of California since 1966, the intimate camp welcomes youth of all denominations through the Lychgate, a wooden gateway traditionally found at the entrance to an English churchyard. The campers, ages 5 to 18, enjoy hiking and swimming, community service and canoeing.

“We’re very welcoming,” Evenbeck said.

“The kids are Catholic, Episcopal, Muslim and Buddhist. I think that makes it a very rich experience.”

Founded in 1901 with a 1-acre gift from lumber baron Melvin Meeker, the camp was the brainchild of Nellie Lincoln and her husband, the Rev. James Lincoln.

The couple dedicated the camp to the memory of their 8-year-old daughter Dorothy, who died of meningitis in 1900.

At first, St. Dorothy’s Rest served as a summer home for chronically ill children who could benefit from the outdoor sleeping porches, healthy diet and the fresh air circulating in the rolling hills between Occidental and Monte Rio.

“The Lincolns were adamant about the healing that only occurs in nature,” Evenbeck said. “That’s what our guests experience... being in a loving, healing community.”

Two weeks of the summer are still devoted to “Hospital Camps,” where kids with cancer or organ transplants come to experience a week of normal childhood and bond with kids whose experiences are the same as their own.

“These campers have faced death and spent countless weeks in the hospital,” Evenbeck said. “Our young adult staff work 1,000 percent for those two weeks.”

During the first week in July, a group of teens attended the “Hang Out, Work & Stuff,” a community service session that required them to volunteer at the Redwood Empire Food Bank in Santa Rosa and water the redwood saplings planted at the camp in January.

“It’s been powerful for us and is our fastest growing camp,” Associate Director Malcolm McLaurin said.

“It’s also a leadership camp and staff training.”

Word about the summer camp is spread through the Episcopal Diocese of California as well as Youth Enrichment Strategies, a Richmond-based nonprofit.

“Kids come from as far away as Canada, but the majority are from the Bay Area and Sonoma County,” McLaurin said.

According to Evenbeck, the Lincolns moved to Northern California when James was invited to serve as a founding professor of the Episcopal seminary in San Francisco.

Nellie Lincoln first met Meeker in San Francisco at the turn of the century, and the mill owner invited the couple up to visit his rustic property.

He gave them the first acre for free and charged $1 for each subsequent acre.

Over its first quarter-century, the camp grew to 16 acres and nine buildings, including the 1902 Main House, where campers eat meals together and sleep.

At the request of Nellie, the Sisters of the Transfiguration (a religious order of women in the Episcopal Church) took over management of St. Dorothy’s Rest from 1943 until 1972.

From 1983 to 2003, former camper Mark Farmer served as camp director and expanded it into a year-round retreat center, which now welcomes groups of teachers and artists much like its sister property, Bishop’s Ranch in Healdsburg.

In July 2012, camp staff and patrons realized a long-term dream.

After receiving a $1 million gift from a camp alumni family, St. Dorothy’s acquired 550 additional acres of untamed forest stretching from its Camp Meeker hilltop to Willow Creek Road near the coast, a move that safeguarded the land from future commercial and residential development.

“The acreage includes three springs, a reservoir and lots of old fire roads,” Evenbeck said.

“We may add primitive camping in the future.”

Each week, the summer camp challenges its campers with a 10-mile hike to Pomo Canyon, then shuttles them to Goat Rock Beach and back.

The daunting hike leaves the young campers full of confidence and pride.

“We have a very simple, basic program,” Evenbeck said. “But the pilgrimage from here to the ocean is as beneficial as a ropes course.”

The symbol of the camp is equally simple: a four-leaf clover, representing faith, hope, love and luck. Those values are still very much a part of the historic camp, which encourages youth to branch out in new directions.

“At camp, kids can try on new parts of themselves,” Evenbeck said.

“Camp can change lives.”

Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com

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