Just add water: youths soak up the Summer Camp experience

By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

KEOKUK — Last summer, All Saints Parish in Keokuk literally looked outside the box to take a new approach to Vacation Bible School.
“We used to use the Vacation Bible School box kits and they were great, but we wanted to do something that was more of a (custom) fit for the parish,” said Trevor Pullinger, the parish’s director of Faith Formation and Youth Ministry. The parish’s summer religious program takes place at St. Vincent School each year.

Pullinger decided to mesh elements of traditional Vacation Bible School (VBS) with summer camp; he’d worked at summer camps in high school and college, so he was familiar with the format and how certain aspects of it could enhance the VBS experience.

Trevor Pullinger
Keokuk All Saints Parish Summer Camp counselor Jackie Ebling and co-director Jescie Pullinger supervise campers during pool time earlier this month. All Saints Parish has taken a new approach to Vacation Bible School by mixing religious education with outdoor fun and fellowship.

While still using the VBS banner, he and adult volunteers gave the new format a test run. Instead of the standard half-day format, the camp lasted a full day with Bible study, prayer, crafts and other faith-building activities in the morning and a pool party in the afternoon. “The (community) pool is right across the street from St. Vincent’s,” Pullinger said. So why not add this traditional summer camp activity to the roster?

The experiment was a rousing success. The youths had fun; VBS brought some families back to the church and enrollment increased at St. Vincent School, Pullinger said. He attributed this success to youths and adult volunteers having more time to build relationships with each other and engage in positive experiences.

Pullinger recalled a young boy’s experience participating last year. The boy had difficulties early in the week but was noticeably more joyful as the week progressed. “He had a lot of fun, made a lot of friends. At the end of week, we all made a rosary out of pool noodles and, because he had really tried hard during the week, we let him take it home. Ever since then he’s been coming to St. Vincent School. The family started coming to church more. It was interesting to see that happen.”

The parish decided to keep the good vibes going by rebranding its summer program as “Summer Camp” for 2015 and beyond. This year’s Summer Camp took place the week of July 13. About 60 youths, ages 4 through 12, participated.

Tanner and Brayden Barnett, ages 10 and 9, have attended the summer program for the past two years. Both enjoy the swimming but find they get a lot out of the faith lessons, too. Tanner said, “We learned about things like how to celebrate God and live in Catholic ways. I liked that. We also learned about how we can pray, like through adoration and thanksgiving. I’ve been working on my praying ever since. I pray every night; I’m just trying to get better with my prayers.” Brayden, too, said he enjoyed the lessons on prayer.

While the program is based in Catholicism, Pullinger said the camp is open to anyone. “They come with the understanding it is a Catholic event. They see not only what we believe, but that we can have fun, too.”

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