Building a community of faith: St. John's Summer program ignites love of Christ in youth
Aug 1, 2019
Each morning at St. John’s Summer Program, hundreds of children pile into the gym at St. John Francis Regis Parish in Hollywood, Maryland for the day’s “morning show” as they start off the day with prayer, skits and songs. No one leaves the room without a smile after singing at the top of their lungs, “We want to party to celebrate Jesus and everything He’s done for me.”
While for the kids their day at camp is just beginning, the counselors and high school volunteers began their day with Mass before the campers arrive.
St. John’s Summer Program offers more than 80 day camps to nearly 400 children in Southern Maryland for eight weeks in the summer. At the heart of it all isn’t just the campers or the crafts and activities, it’s the 85 high school and college-aged counselors and 50 other high school volunteers who serve the kids, while also engaging in a summer of spiritual formation with daily Mass and Adoration, and building up a Christ-centered community.
“The camp is more for the instructors than the children,” Rich Olon, youth minister at St. John's, said.
The counselors and volunteers run the camp themselves, taking minimal instruction from Olon to create lesson plans for the campers, which range from soccer to LegoMotion, sewing and baking to duct tape fabrication.
“Turning over everything to them (counselors), they had the wherewithal to do it,” Olon said. “They’ve done this in such a wonderful way.”
Camps are available for kids ranging from ages 4-14, with volunteers and counselors in both late middle school and high school and even college. The age differences allow the staff of counselors and volunteers to serve as examples for the younger kids, Father Raymond Schmidt, pastor at St. John’s, said.
“The kids really look up to those just a little bit older,” Father Schmidt said. “They might tune out an older priest. The tier approach is so intriguing.”
The camps vary from week to week, giving counselors the chance to plan for a variety of camps throughout the summer. Two special camps, Exploring Religious Life and Exploring Seminary/Priesthood, help foster vocations in girls and boys. The boys wear black cassocks and the girls sew their own habits of religious orders represented in the Washington, D.C. area. They end the week with a Eucharistic procession.
“It just plants something deep in their brain,” Father Schmidt said.
And vocations have flourished from St. John’s Summer Program. At least four women have entered religious life, and the community has 10 seminarians for the archdiocese or discerning a religious order.
The camp has also played a part in guiding campers, counselors and staff to the Catholic Church. Four years ago, 17 people who participated in the camp later entered the Church at Easter.
“It’s beautiful to offer that, and have some kids open them to the faith,” Olon said. “Summer camp fans that spark into a fire.”
Holly Kaufmann, a senior at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, Florida, started at St. John’s Summer Program at the recommendation of a high school teacher.
“I wasn’t Catholic at the time, and somehow I ended up here,” she said. “We had daily Mass and Adoration, which was very impactful.”
Having many questions about the Catholic Church, Kaufmann said she found at St. John’s “young people living their faith for Christ.”
“We still have that joyful spirit,” she said.
That joyful spirit extends into the community that the counselors build among one another outside of camp. Olon said they plan evening activities for the counselors: movie and game nights, girls and guys nights and other outings.
Erin Vance, a freshman at the University of Dallas who has been working at camp for three years, said she met her best friends through the summer program, and that those same friendships are “rooted in the faith.”
“I just find a lot more joy working here,” Vance said. “The children helped me rediscover my childhood joy.”
The way Olon sees it, youth ministry is an extension of the summer camp.
“We had community built over the summer, so youth ministry throughout the year is a way for them to come back together,” he said.
Two big programs youth ministry at St. John’s organizes for the youth are pilgrimages and college visits. Pilgrimages to holy sites bring young people to visit where the saints have lived.
“It’s radically unlike any other tour group,” Father Schmidt said. “We’re here to visit our good friends, the saints.”
Olon also takes the youth on college visits to Catholic colleges around the country: Ave Maria University, University of Dallas and Franciscan University, to name a few. The visits bring the young people to campuses where the faith life is strong, in hopes that they can remain in a strong community of young people as they go off to college.
Vance said that visiting University of Dallas with the youth ministry helped her to pick that college to attend in the fall.
“I want this community wherever I go,” she said.
After the campers leave for the day around noon, the counselors gather for lunch, a theology class, Adoration, Confession, daily prayer and a daily wrap-up session.
Olon said it makes all the difference to “see the instructors flourish, to see friendships expand, friendships rooted in Christ.”
For Sarah Forte, St. John’s Summer Program “influenced my decision to stay in this community,” she said.
Forte met her husband, Lawrence, at the St. John’s Summer Program, which also helped her create a network of young Catholics, making it easier to move back to the area after graduating from Franciscan University in 2018. She is now a teacher at St. Mary’s Ryken High School in Leonardtown.
Donald Litteral, a student at Chopticon High School in Morganza, Maryland, who is working at the summer program this summer, said that hanging out with the kids is “life changing.”
“They learn from me, and I learn from them,” he said.
Litteral said he was so impacted by the camp that he quit his other summer jobs to spend most of his time with the summer program.
“It’s made me better as a person, my relationship with life and my relationship with God,” he said.
Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory visited the camp July 26 for a Mass with the campers and staff. He then attended the daily “morning show,” followed by a question and answer session with the campers.
Archbishop Gregory shared that when he was younger, he was a counselor at a summer Bible camp.
Part of the summer program’s goal is to help other parish communities establish their own summer programs.
“There are something like 5,000 K-8 Catholic schools sitting empty over the summer,” Olon said. “We should dominate the summer camp market in the summer.”
At least two summer camps modeled after St. John’s Summer Program have been launched, three started this summer and one is scheduled to start next summer.
“The way we grow the program is by helping other parishes,” Olon said. He said they want to do everything they can to help others start similar programs.
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