Mel and Helen Friesen

The Founding of Campus by the Sea

In 1947 InterVarsity Christian Fellowship established itself on the West Coast with Mel Friesen and Carl Thomas as its first staff members. InterVarsity at this time was more established in eastern Canada where it had its own student training facility, Campus in the Woods, located 150 miles north of Toronto. The Canadian camp had proved to be an effective tool in building up college students in their Christian life and their witness for Jesus on the secular campuses along the East Coast. In 1950 the board of InterVarsity commissioned Mel Friesen to find a two-week rental location on the West Coast where a similar program of Bible studies, lectures, and discussion groups could be developed. Mel contacted and visited camps in Washington, Oregon and Northern California, but none of these locations were suitable for the West Coast program.

Santa Catalina Island

Mel’s research brought to his attention the YMCA facility located at Camp Fox on Catalina Island. Mel and his wife Helen traveled to the island and rented a shore boat to take them out to Camp Fox in order to look it over and negotiate a two week rental. On the way back from their visit to Camp Fox Mel noticed the abandoned buildings in Gallagher’s Cove and asked the boat driver to swing in for a closer look. He was inspired by the potential he saw in the rugged canyon and upon arriving in Avalon he immediately met with Malcom Renton, vice president of the Island Company, to ask about the possibilities of renting the cove. Mel laid out his newly formed vision and asked, “Is it possible?”, to which Mr. Renton replied, “It is not impossible.” A one dollar annual lease was agreed upon and then the hard work began. Mel had to procure the funding, materials, workers and transportation needed to build the student cabins and renovate the deteriorating buildings in order to create a functioning camp. Mel’s unique gifts of vision, leadership, physical stamina and money management combined to take an almost impossible vision and bring it to functioning reality.  The first summer of 1951 began with a one week program for students followed by another program of two weeks. Mel directed the camp with his wife Helen and their three children Sandra, Joyce, and Paul who was  just nine months old.

Faithful through the Years

Mel Friesen served as the director of Campus by the Sea for the first years of its operation before eventually handing that responsibility over to others, but he and his growing family kept their connection with camp often visiting in the summers. In 1968 when InterVarsity made the decision to end the lease on the cove and shut down Campus by the Sea because of rising operational cost and dropping enrollment, it was Mel Friesen who organized an independent Campus by the Sea Committee to take over the financial and operating responsibilities of running the camp under InterVarsity’s name. The men and women of that first committee were convinced that God had future plans for Campus by the Sea and that InterVarsity would eventually want to reinstate their student training programs there. So once again Mel Friesen and his family began spending their summers on Catalina, his wife and children along with their spouses playing increasingly important roles in the daily operations and programing of the camp. Until the early 1980’s Mel continued to be actively involved with the committee and served as director of the family camps.


After his death in 1983 Mel’s wife Helen continued to serve at Campus by the Sea each summer in the role of camp grandmother, counselor, and prayer warrior, as well as filling in wherever needed in camp operations. Helen’s tent by the beach was a place of comfort and friendship for many until her passing in 1995. The goal of the original committee was realized in the mid-1990’s as InterVarsity renewed its commitment to student training at Campus by the Sea and once again took over operations. It was through Mel and Helen Friesen’s original efforts that Campus by the Sea was begun and it was because of their continued passionate involvement that the cove has served as a place of relaxation, restoration and inspiration for InterVarsity students, families and all who attend camps there.