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For This Explorer, Widji Led to ‘The Most Interesting Places’

Russel Balenger
Russel Balenger
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Russel was eight years old when his mother told him he needed to stay in their yard while she was at work. But Russ was a curious kid, and he wanted to explore. He strayed from the yard, making it further and further away, each day embarking on a new adventure. He was a Boy Scout, a quick learner, confident, and resourceful. At 12 years old, when he saw someone on TV stick their hand out the window, thumb up, and get picked up by a car, he thought, “I have to do that!”

And so he did.

The intrepid hitchhiker was picked up by a passing trucker who drove Russel from his home in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood all the way to Winona, where he was dropped off on the side of the road. The year was 1962, and it was dusk. Luckily, as he walked along trying to figure out what to do, he was picked up by a family who took him to their home, called his mom, let him stay with them overnight, and drove him home the next day.

Shortly after that adventure, Russel’s mom signed him up for summer camp.

This is the story of Russel Balenger, a leader and a man of many adventures. Founder and director of the Circle of Peace Movement, Russel is a former city council member in St. Paul and a highly regarded community leader. Husband to Sarah, father, grandfather, and one of six siblings, Russel also was quite probably YMCA Camp Widjiwagan’s first Black campers.

Amidst a time of change

Around the time of Russel’s hitchhiking adventure, the civil rights movement was in full swing. In late August 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would give his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. The following summer of ’64, President Lyndon B. Johnson would sign the Civil Rights Act into law.

Camp Widjiwagan’s leaders sought to reinterpret camp’s mission in light of the civil rights movement. In 1963, the Committee of Management created a formal statement of purpose for camp:

“The purpose of Camp Widjiwagan is to help young people of all backgrounds to grow into responsible maturity by affording each camper the opportunity, in a setting of wilderness adventure, to gain a deeper understanding of himself and his relationship to God and his fellow man. And to have fun.”

This excerpt from “Widjiwagan, a History, From 1929 to 1989,” further describes the moment:

“During the more than 30 years of camp history which preceded [then-Camp Executive Director Armand Ball], there had never been an African American camper, staff member, or committee member. There had been no policy, formal or informal, which excluded African Americans, but neither had there been any effort to draw them into the Widji family. In the sixties, passivity was no longer an acceptable policy, and it fell to Armand to integrate Camp Widjiwagan.”

Leading the way

It was that same summer of 1963 when Russel Balenger boarded the bus for Widjiwagan, and while Armand Ball may have opened the door, it fell to Russel to blaze the trail. Years later, Ball (who served as camp director from 1962-74) would tell him that he had been the first Black camper to attend Widjiwagan, though this fact isn’t officially documented anywhere in the Widjiwagan history books. Russel was an outgoing kid who, despite being the only person of color at Widji, made friends easily. The other campers were interested in getting to know him and they quickly realized that he had a lot of skills as he established himself as a leader.

Russel shared a story from his second year at camp when he was 14 years old. Out somewhere in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area wilderness, one of the other campers in his group fell and hurt his back. The counselor had to evacuate that camper, and instead of canceling the whole group’s trip to return to camp, Russ convinced the counselor that he — Russel — would lead the group. He remembers the conversation going something like this: Russel: “Why don’t you meet us at this other spot on the map after you drop him off? It will take you two days to get to a phone, two days to drop him, and two days to paddle out here.”

Counselor: “Okay!”

Russel laughed as he recounted the story, “it’s amazing they let me do that, but I was confident even at that age.”

With the counselor gone, Russel and the others continued on the trail.

Russ recalls Wes, a smaller camper who stuck close to him, had devised a plan that if a bear were to come into camp, he would grab the hatchet and Russ was supposed to grab the knife — and then they would fight the bear.

But when a bear actually did come into camp after dark, with Wes yelling “The bear is here!” rather than fighting, Russ had the good sense to stay calm, grab the pots and pans and make a lot of noise to scare off the bear instead.

It goes without saying that Russel kept the group together, reuniting with the counselor on time on the sixth day and at exactly the spot they had planned.

One of his favorite memories was from that same trip when he had gotten ahead of everyone else in his group. “I stopped and laid down. It was calm and quiet. I looked up to see a Canada Jay on a branch overhead. I was watching it and thinking how beautiful it was when suddenly, an eagle swooped in and snatched it. It was shocking, and my heart was in my throat realizing how big and powerful the eagle was. A feather came down and landed on me — it was a magical moment in nature.”

From Widji to Russia and beyond

A few years later, while on another Widjiwagan trip, he learned about an exchange program with Russians from the United Socialist Soviet Republic. Russel came home from camp determined to go on that trip. He attended the information meetings, traveling around the city on his own to get to them wherever they were. He applied and was chosen, and then spent months raising money. The trip was over $4,000.

One day, seemingly out of the blue, his mom answered a phone call, turned to Russel, and told him: “You’ve got enough to go!” At the time, he didn’t know where it had come from, and he didn’t ask. Years later, he would hear the name of his mysterious benefactor — Judge Archie Gingold — and knew he had something to do with getting Russel both to Camp Widjiwagan and to the Russia trip.

During summer 1968, Russ and five other campers spent eight weeks traveling around Russia and Europe. It was a life-changing trip that, like the Widji trips before, gave him new perspectives, increased his confidence, and gave him the opportunity to develop into a leader.

He went on to be one of the first 50 students of color at Moorehead State. By the end of the first quarter of school, he was one of only 12 left. But after his experiences at Widjiwagan, he’d already experienced something similar and it helped him make friends and succeed, despite being in the minority.

Since college, Russel has continued to travel, continued to be curious, and has had a wide and meaningful career.

“I’ve had amazing experiences in my life. Widjiwagan changed everything. It put me into places all over the world.”

All points return to Widji

And as it has for so many alums, Widji has drawn him back to camp through relationships, sometimes in the most surprising ways.

In 1998, Russel’s daughter was eight years old and broke her leg. While in the hospital, Russel overheard a conversation with a patient in the next room who turned out to be none other than his mysterious benefactor from all those years before: Judge Archie Gingold.

Russel introduced himself and thanked the judge for making Camp Widjiwagan and the Russia trip possible. It turns out, many years earlier, Russel’s mother, was involved with the North Central Voters League and made calls that contributed to Gingold’s election as a judge. He was happy to meet Russel and happy he’d been so positively affected by his experiences.

Current YMCA Camp Widjiwagan Executive Director Matt Poppleton met Russel several years ago, when a mutual connection put the two of them in touch. When Matt and Russel spoke for the first time, Russel told him his Widjiwagan story, describing a lawyer from the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center, who went on to be a judge, had helped fund his way to camp.

Matt said, “I got chills, I about fell out of my chair. What a small world. He was describing my wife Kristen’s grandfather — Judge Archie Gingold. No one in the family was surprised when I shared that story. That’s how Archie was.”

“It was a special connection to make. What brought Russel and I together was his effort to find hiking boots for young boys in the Circle of Peace program. Russel had committed to leading hiking trips across the Twin Cities. I was inspired by his work of connecting youth of color to the outdoors. He then credited Widjiwagan as the source of his inspiration. It was a meeting of mutual admiration.”

Russel said, “Camp Widjiwagan impacted my life in so many ways. It made me more of an explorer” and even now, so many years later, “I still wander, and I find the most interesting places.” Reflecting on his time at Widjiwagan, Russel remembered initially being shocked by the lack of diversity. His neighborhood, his school, and the people his parents socialized with were from different backgrounds and races. So, to be in an environment where he was the only person who wasn’t white was a new experience at that stage in his life.

Progress in diversity, equity, and inclusion at Widjiwagan has been made since Russel’s first trip to camp, but there is still much work to be done. Students from a variety of backgrounds and schools regularly attend Widjiwagan’s Outdoor Learning Program throughout the fall, winter and spring. The Bridge Program partners with those schools to connect youth to the Summer Tripping Program. Widjiwagan is also one of several camps that offer the BOLD & GOLD program that is an outdoor leadership development program that provides young people with a wilderness experience, partnered with an intentional curriculum on leadership development, cultural competency, and community building.