Tag Archives: Camp Kitaki

Natural Theatrics

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

A Portrait of the Filmmaker as a Young Man

March 14, 2017 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Knights in shining armor go searching for a legendary spoon. That was the concept of Sam Senser’s entry to the Canadian-based 50-Hour Film Competition. The contest’s theme was “twisted fairytale,” and all entries had to use a wooden spoon prop and include the phrase “you fool!”

His short film, “The Quest for Excalispoon,” won for best costume. A re-edited version is the 20-year-old Senser’s third short film to be accepted and screened at the Omaha Film Festival. The 2017 festival takes place March 7-12.

In 2016, Senser received honorable mention in the festival’s “Best Nebraska Short Film” category—a juried prize—for his comedic heist film “Van Man and Truck Boy 2” (also known as “The Adventures of Van Man and Truck Boy”). Senser’s younger brother Wrenn, the sidekick in “The Quest for Excalispoon,” also plays Truck Boy.

The up-and-coming filmmaker is accumulating an impressive collection of awards. In 2015, Senser won a national anti-texting-and-driving competition—Project Yellow Light—with his short video, “It’s Not Safe for Anyone.”

His advertisement, set in the dark of night, featured a distracted youth crossing a remote country road while looking down and texting on his phone. An oncoming car screeches to a halt. The kid looks up, caught in the headlights. The camera cuts to the vehicle. A deer sits behind the steering wheel, driving the car. Then the kid bolts, running into the darkness.

Surely, the deer-caught-in-the-headlights scenario is a familiar nighttime danger for drivers in Senser’s neighborhood, on the rural fringe of the Omaha metro. The simple danger captures his aesthetic.

“It’s a simpler life in a small town, and I like simple films,” says Senser, who is taking a class at Metropolitan Community College and keeps busy year-round with commissioned video work.

He hasn’t gone to film school (and probably doesn’t need to). He actually paid for his first camera with money from a freelance project for his grandfather’s insurance company. Then, during his senior year of high school, instead of seeking parental help with college tuition, Senser emptied his college fund to upgrade his camera to a $5,500 Canon C-100.

“It was a little bit of a risk, but that’s what he was passionate about,” says his father, John Senser. “He immediately went and bought the camera, and it paid off.”

The first thing he shot was the PSA with the driving deer. An early edit won a contest hosted by WOWT Channel 6 News for Omaha-area schools; the finished version earned $5,000 in prize money from Project Yellow Light.

When he won, Senser and his parents received free airfare to New York City. He stayed for free at the Waldorf Astoria. They had to scramble to find tuxedos and formal attire for the black-tie Ad Council Public Service Award Dinner (which normally costs $3,000 per seat to attend).

Then in 2016, Senser entered the contest again. He also helped his brother enter a video. Coincidentally, the Senser brothers were arriving in Boston for a family vacation with their uncle the night before Project Yellow Light announced the 2016 winners at Times Square in New York City.

After flying from Omaha to Boston, their uncle drove them four hours to the outskirts of the Big Apple. They learned the good news in-person when their videos played on the Times Square Jumbotron on the morning of Friday, July 8.

Senser won the college division for the second year in a row with his next entry, “The Cost of Distracted Driving.” Wrenn also won in the high school division. So, they swept the contest and each took home another $5,000.

The expensive camera had proven itself a wise investment for the family.

Senser says he has been making movies constantly since he was a little kid—maybe third grade, maybe fifth grade. He can’t remember exactly when he started in earnest. “They used to be stupid little short films that we’d do for fun on our family’s camcorders,” he recalls. “We wouldn’t do any editing. I’d hit record, stop it, put it up on the TV, and we’d watch it.”

The young filmmaker lives with his parents at the YMCA’s Camp Kitaki (his dad is a property manager on the grounds, and they are the only folks living year-round at the camp), which is located between Platte River State Park and South Bend.

He still documents his surroundings. In fact, he has made several promotional videos for Camp Kitaki (where he works in the summer, making slideshows for campers).

To make a big deal of Senser’s relative youth would seem patronizing. When it comes to filmmaking, Senser isn’t so much “on his way” as “already there” in terms of skill. His films would prove notable for an auteur of any vintage.

Audiences feel likewise. “His crowd reaction has been fantastic over the last several years,” says Marc Longbrake, program director of the Omaha Film Festival.

The Omaha Film Festival exhibits new independent films and lauded cinematic masterpieces alike. The event organizers also offer educational programming related to film (including a two-day academy geared toward high school students and open to the public); though Senser was never a participant.

Senser’s age did not factor into the festival’s decision to exhibit his work, Longbrake says.

“Based on its own merits early on, Sam’s films were doing well competition-wise compared to the other Nebraska filmmakers,” Longbrake says. “The fact that he was young and in college at the time that he submitted his first film doesn’t play into it. The fact that he was making quality films was the thing that we dug.”

Perfectly executed farce drew Omaha Film Festival jury members to his winning submission last year. “His movies are kind of ridiculous, but in a hilarious way,” Longbrake explains. “And you can screw that up. If you go to a comedy that’s sort of a farce, if it’s done poorly, it’s a struggle. For some reason, he hit the right beats and the right notes with the first couple films that we saw of his.”

“Van Man and Truckboy 2,” focuses on a small-town crime-fighting duo working to apprehend a villain who robbed the local bank with a drone. The film features gorgeous aerial and long shots of southeastern Nebraska countryside. To capture such breathtaking views, Senser worked with Wrenn (who recently completed Navy bootcamp), to operate a camera mounted on a drone.

Along with Wrenn as Truck Boy, Senser’s friend Jake Bruce was Van Man, and Senser’s father was the villain. All of Senser’s films so far have been collaborations with friends and family.

His editing is crisp, coherent, and expertly timed. The acting is understated and natural, sure to keep audiences laughing with wonderfully absurd exchanges like:

“The bank’s been robbed … by a drone … there were explosives, probably two pounds of C-185 trinitrotoluene wrapped in a flaked hydro-combustion chamber with a powder organic nitrate packed inside.”

“The red kind?”

“Yes.”

“Oh no. That’s the worst kind.”

Devoid of condescending parody, both of Senser’s “Van Man and Truck Boy” films offer up a recognizable, slyly humorous small-town Midwestern sensibility, where someone could earn a lasting nickname for the flimsiest of reasons, like having a truck. They’re worth a watch (and are available on his personal website).

Where is Senser headed? He says he plans to make a larger-scale short film this spring and summer to submit to festivals around the country. But he’d really like to direct a feature-length film—hopefully around here.

“I don’t know if California would be my thing,” Senser says. “But if they called—if I needed to—I would do it. Although, I’d rather make movies with this kind of setting. I just like the whole small-town feel, forests, open space, ranches, farms. It’s just simpler. Plus I know it. I grew up here. So I kind of know how things work.”

Visit senserfilms.com for more information.

Sam Senser at Camp Kitaki

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Alone, Together

October 22, 2014 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke and Elizabeth Tape

Insect repellant? Check. Sleeping bag? Check. Top hat and cane? Check and check.

The packing list for youth groups attending retreats at Camp Kitaki near Louisville can get a little odd—especially if the group in question is Westside High School’s Amazing Technicolor Show Choir.

That’s where HerFamily found senior Patrick Sawyer, the son of Sandi and Adam Sawyer, on a recent Saturday morning.

Sawyer was part of a select group of choir members who recently returned from a European tour that included a gig at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and a performance of “God Bless America” at the Normandy American Cemetery overlooking the acres of white crosses that dot the scene of the D-Day invasion in 1944.

Sure, those performances and more in Europe sent a chill down the spine of the student who will study architecture next year in college, but his most memorable moment was a free-spirited, slice-of-life scene found where he least expected it.

“We were eating ice cream cones wandering through the town square in Nice (France),” Sawyer explains, when he and a friend stumbled upon a particularly entertaining street performer. Soon the choir members were dancing away in the street, egged on by the busker and the gathering crowd. And the dance they chose that day? “It was one of our ATSC bits of choreography, naturally!”

Sawyer’s favorite number this year is shaping up to be a jazzed-up version of “Ive Gotta Be Me” from the 1968 Broadway musical Golden Rainbow. That’s the tune that had the 50 members of the choir decked out in top hats and canes at Camp Kataki. The group is also supported by a 14-member band.

The vaunted choir competes locally, regionally, and nationally. They’ve won three national championships from various sanctioning organizations. Notable alums include Tim Halperin, the Omaha native who found fame on American Idol in 2011.

But show choir hasn’t always been this way.

“Picture 16 kids in matching dresses from J.C. Penney,” says vocal director Doran Johnson in describing the formula of days gone. The world of show choir was once a decidedly static affair involving all but motionless kids on risers trying to get a rise out an audience. “Today it’s grown to include choreography, sets, props, multiple costume changes…What we do is the equivalent of performing mini Broadway musicals.”

All the razzmatazz aside, Sawyer finds the same kind of camaraderie in show choir that his other friends find in sports.

“When I’m out there performing with the people I love…well, it’s a pretty special feeling,” Sawyer says. “We’re all together—succeeding together—but it’s also very personal. I’m just in my own little world when I’m singing. When I’m on stage, nothing else matters.”

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