Happy Campers

Catholic summer camps feed kids' faith


Any day now, my girls will start hounding the mailman. They’re all waiting for that one piece of mail that holds the key to summer bliss — the camp application. Who will be the first to grab it and run to tell the others?

What was it, seven years ago that my good friend Barb told me about Morning Star Camp run by the Massachusetts Slaves of the Immaculate Heart? Since then, my husband and I have sent five out of six of our girls to their beautiful camp in New Hampshire (SaintBenedict.com). The sixth is counting down the years until she turns 10. If you think “nun camp” sounds boring and frumpy, you haven’t met the hundreds of girls who rush to fill out their applications each year before the weeks fill up. Which they do — fast.

There is something about the combination of swimming, sailing, skits, and silly hair with Mass, and catechism taught by lively young nuns in full habit. It’s irresistible. After a hefty school year and various part-time jobs it’s like a vacation, a whole week to do nothing but have a great time with your friends. That’s how the girls see it, anyway.

For seven years now, Greg and I have been sending them to live, learn, play, and pray among the inspiring Sisters, and reconnect with their Catholic friends. Young people of faith need support now more than ever. At camp they grow and learn in ways that reach beyond what we can provide at home.

Life Lessons
Theresa Sheehan was also looking for opportunities for her children to learn and grow when she first heard about Catholic HEART Workcamp (CHWC). Since she’s a physician with a banker husband, her four kids seem to have everything. “I wanted them to appreciate how difficult life could be for those less fortunate,” she says.

At CHWC, the teens grow spiritually by working to alleviate poverty. They clean yards, paint, even do plumbing and electrical work for people who can’t afford it. At the base of these works of mercy are daily Masses, frequent Rosaries, and evenings of recollection.

The hands-down favorite is the Four Corners offered midweek. The four corners of the gym are used for meditation, personal discussion with an adult counselor, creative prayer (write a note to God and nail it to the cross), and Reconciliation. “Imagine six to eight priests and a line of 100 waiting to confess their sins!” says Theresa. “At first the kids are wary of the whole idea, but by the end of the week a majority will say that Four Corners was a turning point for them.” Theresa’s kids say they feel like they get at least as much out of the experience than the people they help. That’s what keeps them and thousands of teens coming back year after year to over 47 locations around the country and in Jamaica (HeartWorkcamp.com).

Spiritual “Detox”
Ryan Young, director of Camp Veritas in the Catskills of New York (CampVeritas.com), knows the spiritual value of a week away. He describes the program offered by diocesan priests and the Franciscan Friars and Sisters for the Renewal and the Sisters of Life as a spiritual “detox.”

Teens are immersed in a frenetic, noisy, world that exerts constant pressure to live completely for themselves in the moment. Shutting that off for a week allows their heads to clear. They play baseball or kayak with the Friars and later attend Eucharistic Adoration, Mass, and retreat conferences on the Blessed Mother or sin. Add the key ingredient of time and the lessons “marinate.” Teens find themselves confronting the eternal questions: Is the objective of my life heaven? Do I understand that there is a God and it is not me?

Young tells of one young man whose mother warned him that her son didn’t want to be there. Young assured her that this was, after all, a leadership camp, and that God often made the best leaders from rebellious types. At the end of the camp the young man came to Young and said, “This camp saved many souls this week, including my own.” Later, when Cardinal Timothy Dolan paid the camp a visit and brought along several seminarians, that young man was among them.

In just four years, the camp has grown from 50 campers to 260, just by word of mouth. The kids are so devoted to the experience that they want to share it with others. One girl donated all her babysitting money to the camp so a teen who couldn’t afford it would have the same opportunity.


Vibrant Faith Setting
Joanne Blackerby likewise appreciates the retreat aspect of her kids’ favorite camp, The Pines, in Southwest Texas (ThePines.org). “All of us need a retreat of some sort — a break from the pace of everyday life,” she says. “This is the opportunity for my children to experience the faith in an energetic and vibrant setting.”

Last year The Pines offered nine one week camp sessions to 1,500 young people from grade two and up. Kids choose from a wide range of activities including dance and drama, fishing and swimming, horseback riding, and rope climbing. “My kids are overjoyed to go to The Pines and joyful when they return home,” says Blackerby.

Camp counselors often stay in touch and send birthday cards throughout the year. A special feature during camp that really pleases parents is the video that is sent home daily so they can see their kids having a great time in a loving and safe environment.

When to Worry
What are the issues of concern that crop up at an overnight camp? Promiscuity? Meanness? How about everyday homesickness? I don’t have much worry about my own kids because they go to an all-female camp and are surrounded by their best friends, as well as their own sisters.

Besides, when my oldest “I’ll never be a nun” daughter came home after her first time and said, “If I ever join a convent, it will be theirs,” I realized the nuns made her feel perfectly at home.

But how do other people handle these issues?

Handling Homesickness
The Pines aims to prevent homesickness before it happens with a handy list of ways parents can get their kids ready, like having them sleep over at a friend’s house first, or reassuring them that they’ll be back for them at the end of the week. If those don’t take, camp counselors are well trained to deal with homesickness. In extreme cases, if a camper really can’t shake the misery, Mom and Dad are called.


Eyes On Safety
Ryan Young of Camp Veritas says that camp safety is all about caution and common sense. First, the kids are grouped by age and gender. “Each group is then supervised by two adults that have undergone background checks by the diocese,” Young explains. “There is never a time when an adult is alone in a closed space with a teen. There is never a moment when a teen is not within ‘eyeshot’ of their adult leaders.” They’ve never had a serious incident and they plan to keep it that way.


Parental Participation
Parents who still have doubts can always do what Theresa Sheehan did — volunteer as a chaperone to see firsthand what goes on. Theresa volunteered some time as camp doctor as well, which I imagine there must be a great need of after a hard day’s work and play. In addition to making her comfortable as a mom, it was a way to give back to the camp that gave kids who seemed to have everything the thing that mattered most.

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