St. Thomas More Raising Funds for Upgrades
By Susan Thompson
The St. Thomas More Center, located on the west side of Lake Panorama at 6177 Panorama Road, is a year-round facility that is the home of Catholic Youth Camp, better known as CYC. Last fall, a capital campaign was launched to raise funds for amenity upgrades and an endowment.
The $5.5 million campaign will provide new cabins, renovations to Dingman Hall, significant improvements to the swimming pool, and an endowment. The Diocese of Des Moines provided a $1.1 million gift to jumpstart the campaign. As of January 5, 2020, a total of $2,646,556 had been raised.
Alex Kautzky has been the center’s executive director since the fall of 2018. She grew up in Helena, Montana, and attended Benedictine College near Kansas City. It was there she met her future husband, Aaron. After graduation, the couple moved to Aaron’s family farm near Perry.
Kautzky had spent two summers on the staff of a Catholic camp in Montana. When she moved to Iowa, she began an internship at St. Thomas More Center in 2014, and never left. “We had been flirting with the idea of a capital campaign since 2014,” Kautzky says. “We knew we had an extraordinary ministry here, but our facilities didn’t match.”
A comprehensive facility assessment was conducted. The center’s leadership decided replacing the cabins built in 1983 was the top priority, at an estimated cost of $2 million. Last September, those eight cabins, built as two four-plexes, were demolished and the rubble hauled away in trucks. Construction to build eight new cabins began as soon as the dust settled.
The cabins will house the same number of campers and counselors, but feature a host of improvements. Vaulted ceilings will make the cabins quieter and provide an open and airy atmosphere. High quality heating and cooling systems will provide year-round comfort. Larger and more functional bathrooms, including handicapped accessible spaces, will provide more privacy. Entrances will face the camp, rather than the road, as was the case with the old cabins.
Both sets of cabins were fully enclosed by Christmas, and plans are to have the cabins complete by mid-May. That’s a good thing, because on June 3, the first group of campers will arrive at CYC.
Parents bring their children to the center on Sunday afternoons and pick them up the following Friday. By mid-August, 1,500 campers and 150 high school volunteers will have attended CYC at the St. Thomas More Center.
CYC was established in 1960 by Father Nelo Leto in a facility near Madrid rented from the Iowa 4-H Foundation. Over the next 23 years, the number of campers, weeks and camp offerings expanded. While the 4-H camp worked for CYC, there was a desire within the Des Moines Diocese to expand camp and retreat offerings, and to invest in a location it owned. Attention turned to Lake Panorama.
Mid-Iowa Lakes built the West Lodge in 1968, and the Lake Panorama Association operated a restaurant and swimming pool there. But it was losing money each year, and in 1983 the LPA board decided to sell the property. CYC purchased nearly 18 acres of land. The site with lake access included the two-story lodge with kitchen facilities, the swimming pool, two tennis courts and a sales office. The facility was named the St. Thomas More Center for All Seasons.
Two additions were made to the lodge, cabins were built, the pool was upgraded, an outdoor chapel was created, and various athletic facilities were added. CYC camps were held for the first time at St. Thomas More in 1984.
In the years since, some buildings have been expanded and new ones built, recreational amenities have been added, and CYC offerings have increased. Besides CYC, more than 30 retreats and special events are held throughout the year.
The second priority for the capital campaign is a $1.5 million renovation of Dingman Hall, which was the original West Lodge. This work will mean a new kitchen, refurbished restrooms and second floor apartments, new lighting, flooring and ceilings, new dining room tables and chairs, a new roof, new siding, and a new deck, patios and sidewalks.
The third priority is $1.5 million in upgrades to the swimming pool, which is used daily all summer. “The current pool is too small for our needs and lacks shade,” Kautzky says. “Many campers are younger children who can’t use the deep end.”
The pool improvement plans call for constructing a second pool with a zero-depth entry adjacent to the existing pool, plus improving the current pool. The pool deck will be expanded, creating shaded areas and adding water features such as a climbing wall.
The fourth priority is to raise $500,000 for an endowment. Once that is done, revenue from the endowment can be used to maintain the new and renovated facilities. Naming opportunities exist for such things as the cabins, kitchen, pool, patios and apartments.
The center offers about 15 outdoor activities. In 2016, a high ropes course was built with eight elements, and opened in 2017. “It has been transformative in terms of team building activities,” Kautzky says. “The kids love it.”
A rock-climbing tower was built in 2000, and a zip line from the tower to the ground added in 2007. There are miniature golf and disc golf courses, an obstacle course, archery and BB gun shooting ranges, hiking, and a variety of field games. In 2018, a foam slip-and-slide was added.
Each week, Monday through Wednesday, campers have the chance to participate in a canoe and kayak trip from the St. Thomas More dock to Lake Panorama’s Sunset Beach. The campers swim, play beach volleyball, and enjoy the playground installed in 2016. “We limit these trips to the first three days of each week when the lake isn’t as busy. And we always stress to the campers we want to leave the beach cleaner than when we got there,” Kautzky says. “On our surveys, this excursion day to Sunset Beach always is one of the top things campers say they enjoyed.”
Kautzky knows it’s important for St. Thomas More to be a good neighbor within the Lake Panorama Association. “We pay about $10,000 in yearly dues, and purchase our water from the LPA,” she says. “We worked closely with the staff as we made plans for the cabins project. It’s clear they are supportive, and want us to be successful.”
“We feel welcome here as part of the Lake Panorama community,” Kautzky says. “And we want Lake Panorama residents to feel welcome to visit us, tour our facilities, and see the progress we’re making on our renovations. “
Kautzky says plans are in the works for a St. Thomas More spring open house on May 9. This will be an opportunity for visitors to become more familiar with the center. There also will be food and field games. In the meantime, anyone who wants a tour can call the center office at 515-309-1936.
During the summer, Kautzky, her husband Aaron, and their two daughters stay in a house on the center grounds. “As I watch our daughters grow, I look forward to the day they will sit under the Lake Panorama stars at night chapel as campers for the very first time,” she says.
More information about the St. Thomas More Center and its current capital campaign is available online at www.stmcenter.com.