March 6, 2019 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke

toy chest with a gruesome clown face on the front creaks open. A collective gasp escapes the crowd of onlookers. A single red helium balloon drifts out. Children scream as two luminescent hands appear over the edge of the chest. A clown rises with an evil chuckle. His face is bright white, his nose red, and his orange hair juts out like a devil’s horns. The clown clinches one gloved hand…and, pop! The balloon explodes over his head and he dives back down into the chest.

So began the 2017 YMCA Camp Kitaki Blacklight Show.

John Senser put some leftover blacklight paint to good use, adding an extra scare factor at Halloween Camp. His main goal, though, was to spend more time with his three children. The show is one way John, along with his family, has revolutionized Camp Kitaki.

As the facility manager, John is responsible for maintenance at YMCA Camp Kitaki near Louisville, Nebraska. His job includes everything from plunging a toilet to moving dead deer off the property to fixing the doorknobs.

John previously worked in facilities at Union Bank Trust in Lincoln. He always dreamed of living on a big acreage, but could never afford it. But when YMCA was looking for a new manager to live on the property, John took the chance. The interview process took eight hours, but John was offered the job.

The Senser family, which includes John’s wife, Angie, soon found themselves on 200 acres of lush forest, sandbars, and cool ponds. The Sensers’ children roamed, becoming obsessed with the resident wildlife.

“Our house became a bed and breakfast for local reptiles,” Angie recalls.

A snake might come home in a box. Angie believes nine snakes have been lost in the house at one point or another (all were found and released back into the wild). Turtles often stopped in for a visit.

Angie worked in the kitchen, cooking and cleaning for the campers with her sidekick, George, nearby. The 10-year-old coon-hound mix has been known to sneak food away from an unsuspecting guest. George sometimes also hangs out with John during the work day, ensuring everything is running smoothly.

On what appears to be a lazy, snowy December night, George is curled up on the sofa, snoring contently. He is a little annoyed by a new addition to the Senser family, Maya, a tan-and-white Husky puppy with mischievous blue eyes. Angie bakes homemade oatmeal-chocolate-chip cookies and brews a pot of coffee. John reclines in his chair, yawning after a long day. From the living room window, the Platte River stretches out like a frozen mirage. Three of the horses (at least 30 horses reside at the camp during summer) huddle in the red barn.

It wasn’t always easy for the now-adult Senser children to grow up under the watchful eyes of so many adults. If they headed into parts of camp restricted from campers, counselors would yell at them, not realizing they lived on the property. Although the trio (Sam 22; Wrenn, 20; and Lia, 18) tried Camp Kitaki for a week, it was too easy to walk home to retrieve an extra pillow, see their parents, or sleep in their own beds. Therefore, John and Angie sent the kids to camp in Colorado.

Lia is still counseling at the same camp she first attended 10 years ago. She is now completing her senior year at The Link School in Colorado. The alternative school’s curriculum includes yearly expeditions such as rock climbing in Peru.

“[Kitaki] gave me a sense of adventure,” Lia explains.

She had no qualms showing off her bravery even when little, along with her brothers, if a shrieking camper found a snake in their rooms. The crew felt a bit like the Crocodile Hunter, using a paint roller rod to pick-up and remove any slithering visitors.

Sam plays a huge part in promoting Camp Kitaki. The videographer shoots the ending shows. He uses a mixture of creativity, angles, and footage. A summertime staffer video begins with an artsy black-and-white shot of the audience clapping, then zooms in on a needle hitting the record player, and follows with clips of a deserted wintry Kitaki. Later, the sun rises in full color on a summer day. A boombox next to the lake flips on to the song “I’ll Be There For You” by the Rembrandts. The highlights of 2017 begin.

Sam hopes to one day become a well-known director. He created the anti-texting and driving video, “It’s Not Safe for Anyone,” which earned him national acclaim. Sam won the Project Yellow Light contest twice. He credits his home with assisting in his award-winning videos. Sam shot a film in the Western town on Camp Kitaki, “The Legend of Wolfe Canyon.”

Sam also runs the music at the blacklight shows. It takes about five days to set up the stage, and keeps getting more elaborate. The family has now added a hand-carved, neon Styrofoam T-rex that bursts through a purple brick wall made from leftover foam mattresses.

Each of John’s children has made an appearance in the shows. Lia has been a glowing skeleton. Wrenn has played many roles, including the dinosaur hunter and storyteller for nursery rhymes. (He  left the camp for the Navy as an aviation rescuer.) Sam jams as the guitarist Slash and battles Darth Vader.  Angie fills in when needed. John, at one point, created Yeti costumes for both of them from white feather boas. The couple danced on stage until dizzy.

Performing comes naturally to John, who was once in a circus at Triton Junior College. He has been known to don an Uncle Sam outfit and stilts for a tall-man act during the Fourth of July. And he puts on a Weird Science presentation.

“Most maintenance guys are not doing all that at other camps,” executive director Jason Smith says. “He is building memories kids can take with them.”

This will be John’s 17th summer at Camp Kitaki. Although he might be busy maintaining the property, he takes the time to create rainy-day accessible trails, sledding hills, and sandy slip-and-slides.

“I see it through their eyes,” John says. “What can be a better job than helping make things fun for kids? This has been an amazing experience. Being able to come home every day at the end of the day and see my family, to sleep in my own bed, to have dinner with my wife and son every night…that wasn’t possible in my old career.”


Visit ymcacampkitaki.org for more information on Camp Kitaki.

This article was printed in the 2019 Summer Camp Edition of Family Guide.

Senser family w/ dogs, vertical