Senior citizens find rest, comfort at SOME summer camp
Jul 25, 2019
US & World
“G-60, O-78, O-74…” The voice of the caller echos through the bingo room at Priest Field Pastoral Center in Kearneysville, West Virginia. About 60 campers lean over two bingo boards that sit in front of each of them. Prizes are on the line — water bottles, tote bags, little holiday figurines. “BINGO!” somebody shouts, and the room breaks into a round of applause.
The campers are all senior citizens from the Washington, D.C., area who can’t afford to go on vacation, and for many of the campers and counselors, they said this week is “the best week of the year.”
So Others Might Eat, a local non-profit committed to serving the poor and homeless in Washington, hosts a summer camp each year for senior citizens to take a break from city life and find rest and relaxation in the hills of West Virginia.
“I wanted to have something for seniors who couldn’t afford a vacation,” said Father John Adams, the president and CEO of SOME who is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington. “It’s giving seniors a chance to be out of town and in a nice place. It is noisy in Washington, so it’s great to get away.”
While rest is an important part of the campers’ week at Priest Field, the days can be packed with activities, which are all optional for the campers: hikes throughout the surrounding woods in a golf cart driven by Father Adams, arts and crafts afternoons where campers can make anything from candy jars to earrings, exercise in the mornings, Wii Bowling, manicures, “Family Feud” games, movie nights, a talent show and, of course, daily bingo.
Volunteer counselors laughed as they remembered a few years ago, when a fire alarm was set off and some of the campers refused to leave the bingo game despite the piercing sounds and flashing lights of the alarms, demonstrating that nothing gets between them and bingo hour.
The campers spend time with one another, playing games, eating meals and relaxing. And many campers said they enjoyed just being in one another’s company.
One camper, Marian Williams from Washington, said that because of the meals, sleep and relaxation, she experienced healing.
“I was hospitalized earlier this July...and I was scared I wasn’t going to be able to come,” she said. “But when I got here, I ate, slept, took my medicine, and I ate good food too...I feel that I am healed.”
Beyond just the rest, in a place where she doesn’t have to cook or clean, Williams said she is wrapped in a community of love and friendship that she appreciates beyond words.
“I just love the camaraderie of the seniors,” she added. “The love and the humor.”
Carol Powers, another camper from Washington, said she was truly touched to be at camp for the week.
“I needed this whole week just to get away and not be involved in everything I do,” she said.
Powers’ favorite part of each day was morning Mass during quiet hour, when campers are encouraged to relax after breakfast. A member of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Parish in Washington, Powers said that daily Mass this week was “the most important.”
“This morning at Mass I thanked God for my new friends and family that I’m making here,” she said.
Her friends stood not too far away, and as she looked over at them, she said, “I haven’t had a sister, but I’d take these girls as my sisters.”
SOME was founded as a soup kitchen in 1970 by Jesuit Father Horace McKenna and other ministers and lay people from different faiths. That priest invited Father Adams to become the program’s director eight years later. SOME now provides more than 1,000 meals daily to the homeless and others experiencing poverty in Washington, and its outreach has expanded to include emergency housing, addiction recovery, job training and affordable housing programs for those in need.
Summer camp for seniors began in 1980, and since then moved around the area from Potomac, Maryland to the campuses of Trinity University and The Catholic University of America in Washington, until it settled at the Priest Field Pastoral Center. Located in the hills of West Virginia, Priest Field offers an escape from the bustling city life where most of the campers reside. The retreat center has space for indoor activities and rooms for the campers, as well as places to rest outside along the beautiful landscaping.
For Joyce Lee, a returning camper, SOME has made an impact on her life, she said. Lee lives in SOME housing in Washington and said that it is a great program. She loves the opportunity for rest at camp, and laughed as she mentioned that bingo is one of her favorite parts.
“I come back for the serenity, though,” she said.
About one-half of the participants are returning campers, and the rest are brand new to summer camp, which runs the last two weeks of July. Sixty campers arrive each week in a bus that comes from Washington, and each camp session lasts from Monday through Friday.
It isn’t just the campers who said their week at camp is the best week of the year, but the counselors also said the same thing. For many of the counselors, going to camp has become an annual tradition, lasting many years for some.
“This is the thing I look forward to every year,” Rae Morrow, a six-year volunteer said. “Everyone is so wonderful.”
Morrow came all the way from Philadelphia, where she teaches science to children in kindergarten through eighth grade. The summers off make it easier for her to take the last two weeks of July for camp, which she said she always does.
Throughout the years, she said she has observed genuine care between the campers, noting how they check up on one another and notice when someone is missing, or doesn’t come back one year.
Sister Joan Sullivan, a Sister of St. Joseph from Philadelphia who is an eight-year returning counselor, said the spirit of joyfulness keeps bringing her back to camp.
The week is filled with grace, she said, adding, “I get so much more out of it than I put in. People are happy to be here.”
The woman religious said many campers tell her that they can’t believe how quiet and peaceful the camp is — no fire engine sirens in the background or gunshots.
Another member of the Sisters of St. Joseph said volunteering there allows her to continue carrying out her vocation.
“It is an extension of my ministry, in that love is at the crux of them both,” Sister Gert Melus said.
Father Adams has a long history of serving the poor. He helped establish Christ House in Alexandria, Virginia, in the 1970s, before he started helping Father McKenna with SOME. This year marks Father Adams’ 50th anniversary as a priest. While at camp, he’s running around constantly, helping the seniors, telling jokes, and driving them around the retreat center’s grounds in his golf cart.
For Father Adams, spending time at summer camp became a family affair when his mother, who had volunteered her time for years, passed away and his sisters began to help him. Mary Adams, Father Adams’ sister, said she wouldn’t go anywhere else on vacation.
“You get attached,” Mary Adams said. “There is no place like this. This is heaven to me. It’s the one place you can go where everybody loves you.”
She sat next to her sister, Benedictine Sister Beth Adams from Erie, Pennsylvania, who chimed in, adding how camp had impacted their family.
Camp counselors help with every activity at camp. They’re assigned different tasks throughout the day, and spend their time guiding the seniors through various activities. The relationships between the counselors and campers are infectious — inside jokes and laughs continue throughout the week and both parties speak highly of one another.
Jack Finnerty, from Fairfax, Virginia, has volunteered with his wife, Caryl, for the past five years. He said socializing with the campers is one of his favorite parts.
“I love it, I feed off of it,” he said. “I get to hear their stories, and they get to hear some of mine.”
Maurice Word from Fort Washington, Maryland, returned to camp this year as a counselor after he was a camper for the past two years. He said returning as a counselor was a boost to his ego, as counselors from the past had recommended him for the position.
As a former camper, Word saw camp through different eyes, and understood the situations where many of the campers were coming from.
“For many of them, it’s a stress reducer,” he said. “It takes them out of isolation and it’s a place of memories.”
The scenery, he said, allows him to “see the handiwork of God.”
Coming to camp is a gift, many of the campers said, adding that it is a life-changing experience for them.
For Betty Carnathan, SOME helped keep her off the streets, and she currently lives in SOME housing.
“It’s good that they (SOME) are here,” she said. “If they weren’t, I would be living on the street, because I can’t afford rent.”
She said that she’s had so much fun this year at camp that next year she wants to make sure her friends can also come with her. As she sat meticulously painting a candy jar that she was going to put in her room at the end of the week, she laughed and said that she was painting the jar black so that no one can see all the candy she eats.
Diane Blue, from Clinton, Maryland, said SOME is a wonderful organization that “makes you feel real good.”
“It’s a good thing for seniors to be spoiled,” she added.
At the end of the week, the 60 seniors board a bus back to the city, and for many of them, that departure from camp is difficult, Mary Adams said.
“People don’t want to leave,” she said. “They cry and won’t get on the bus. It’s the peace of heaven for a week.”
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