History Spotlight: Bob Hughes, GENEVA’s First Year-Round Executive Director

February17, 2016

Photo: GENEVA's Executive Directors: Bob Hughes (1974-1987) and Kevin VanderKlok (present).

Good natured, quick witted, grace-filled, energetic, relaxed, entrepreneurial — in meeting Bob Hughes, GENEVA’s first full-time managing (Executive) Director, it becomes quite evident how the spirit and culture of GENEVA was shaped under his leadership. 

Investing in children and youth has been foundational in the story of Bob and his wife Eleanor's lives. Together they served as youth group sponsors at Remembrance Reformed Church and were active with YMCA groups in Grand Rapids as well as Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Eleanor taught elementary school in Grand Rapids and Holland;  Bob, a design engineer at Bissell, was elected to the Kenowa Hills School Board and in 1969, he served as the Reformed Church in America (RCA) Synod’s Summer Youth Director for both GENEVA and Cran-Hill Ranch. He joined GENEVA’s board of directors in 1970.

Building on the tremendous work of previous managers (Lon Wierenga, Don VanArk, and Al Kapenga), and eager to expand year-round programming, GENEVA’s Board hired Bob in 1973, making him the first full-time, year-round director. By adding heat to five cabins and building the camp’s large adult Retreat Center in 1985, Bob helped transform and steward GENEVA’s facility into a 365 day/year-round ministry. 

Bob’s leadership was marked by creativity and capacity building. Tapping into local talent as well as drawing in nationally-known athletes, GENEVA started athletic camps for junior and senior high students. Names like Emilie (Prince) Wierda and Paul Boersma (tennis), Tom Grabill (swimming), Bill Vanderbilt (golf), Glenn  Van Wieren (basketball), Ed Mooney and Joel Reed (Detroit Lions, football), and Olympic athletes Larry Amundson (wrestling), and Jim Ryun (runner) helped students develop their athletic abilities while leading them in their spiritual growth. 

It’s also under Bob’s leadership that GENEVA began the legacy of making camp more inclusive and accessible to those with special needs. He launched a Muscular Dystrophy Camp and Camp Sunshine for persons with developmental disabilities, and helped make the facilities more accessible to people with special needs. 

Bob is quick to share stories about the talents of others who helped build and grow GENEVA into the amazing ministry it is today. He relied heavily on the hard work of the summer program directors Ken and Dorothy Bowman, and then Rich and Sue Kuipers. And he remembers fondly the different businesses (such as Herman Miller) and organizations (RCA General Synod, Holland Tulip Time Committee and Holland City Council) and countless choirs, consistories, classes, and women’s groups who took advantage of GENEVA’s new retreat facilities. He recalls working with others to share the year-round mission of GENEVA at churches, weekly presenting to Sunday school classes around West Michigan. With Bob’s urging, churches funded the summer counselors as missionaries, providing critical financial and prayer support. It’s clear in talking with Bob that he had an enormous capacity to encourage and capitalize on the God-given gifts of others as he was quick to speak to the collective hard work of the many people who helped make the ministry of GENEVA possible.  

It’s interesting to note that as we enter this fall season, many of Bob’s passions are in the forefront of our current story. Like Bob, we continue to look for new and innovative ways to keep the camp experience fresh and responsive to the needs of campers. And with a renewed investment in our retreat ministries, we continue to look at how we can steward our mission year-round and develop new partnerships. 

In many ways the GENEVA 365 Campaign is a continuation of Bob’s vision, as the renovations of the Retreat Center will provide additional barrier-free accessibility. And Bob’s passion for making camp available for those youth with special needs continues to drive how we extend hospitality to all campers, including youth with cognitive, physical, or health limitations. Bob advocated that the love of Jesus was for all youth, something we are thrilled to continue to champion today. As we look around GENEVA today, we see some things change, and some stay the same—thank you Bob for all the ways you led and stewarded GENEVA’s mission!