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Summer church camps nurture bodies, souls


7:00 A.M. EST July 29, 2010 | CHICAGO (UMNS)

Mini & Me Camp participants create a sand village at Wesley Woods, Williams Bay, Wis. UMNS photos by Barbara Dunlap-Berg.
Mini & Me Camp participants create a sand village at Wesley Woods, Williams Bay, Wis. UMNS photos by Barbara Dunlap-Berg. View in Photo Gallery

Tracy Farrell lives with her husband and three children—ages 5, 7 and 9—in an apartment in south Chicago. The town of Princeton, Ill.—two hours west of Chicago—is home to Julie Davis and her two girls, 6 and 8.

Both moms and their children found a slice of summer solace at special-interest camps offered by the United Methodist Northern Illinois Annual (regional) Conference.

Farrell’s children attended a weeklong day camp at Chicago’s Union Avenue United Methodist Church. Davis and her younger daughter spent three days at Mini & Me Camp at Wesley Woods Conference Center in Williams Bay, Wis. That same week on the same campus, her older girl checked out Creative and Performing Arts camp.

They all had a blast.

A quick scroll through annual conference websites shows that while traditional church camps remain popular, special-interest camps are gaining fans. The Rev. Kevin Witt, camp and retreat ministries director for the United Methodist Board of Discipleship, said, “I think there will always be a place for traditional crafts and campfire and those aspects of (camping). But I think it will be among a mix of many other kinds of camp and retreat experiences.

“I’m excited about who we’re becoming as The United Methodist Church, and how that’s shaping camp and retreat ministry.”

Mini & Me camp provides sneak peek

For first-time campers, homesickness can be a problem. Camps for parents and younger children to attend together are a logical solution. The camp week is shortened to three or four days, and participants do some activities together and others separately.

Children play foosball at the day camp at Union Avenue Methodist Church in Chicago.
Children play foosball at the day camp at Union Avenue
Methodist Church in Chicago. View in Photo Gallery

Home-economics teacher Kristy Ehrler brought her daughter, 6, and son, 9, to Mini & Me Camp at Wesley Woods.

“It’s perfect for the little ones to get ready to go to camp without their moms,” she noted.

After mothers and children shared breakfast, counselor Kori Beck led the kids in Bible study and making a related craft, and the moms bonded by walking around the lake or driving into town for a quick shopping trip.

In the afternoon, the adults relaxed and chatted on the beach while the children splashed in the refreshing water and built intricate sand villages. A highlight was an evening pontoon ride on Lake Geneva. Wriggling into life jackets, wiggly campers scrambled onto the boat. Eager shouts and giggles punctuated the quieter conversation of the mothers keeping watch.

Like close-knit neighbors, moms kept track of all of the children.

“When all the kids are together,” said the 30-something Davis, “the moms have given each other the freedom to say, ‘Hey, you need to be doing this’ or correcting the kids without the other moms getting upset. That’s pretty much how it is in my neighborhood at home.

“I’m a single mom,” added Davis, office manager for an electrical supply company. “This is our family vacation.”

Creative camp spotlights talent

While nine younger children and their moms were sampling camp, recent college graduate Margaret Bresser was shepherding 10 older-elementary Creative and Performing Arts campers through a lively production of “Daniel in the Lion’s Den.”

“The thing I love,” Bresser said, “is we give these kids a week to learn a musical. They buckle down, and they do a fabulous job. They really surprise you with how they learn the songs and the lines.”

Anna, a fifth-grader, exclaimed, “It’s fun! Everybody has new ideas and we get to put on a play.”

Wade, the only boy in a bevy of girls, appreciated being a shoo-in for the role of Daniel.

The campers warmed up with a decided favorite “Pharaoh, Pharaoh, oh, baby, let my people go”—complete with elaborate motions and kids trying to out-sing one another.

By the third day, the twice-daily rehearsals were paying off. Campers were singing with gusto and learning their lines. And the Friday performance for their parents was a success.

Day camp models acceptance

Fast forward to the South Side of Chicago, where Union Avenue United Methodist Church opens its doors for a week of free day camp for children ages 5 to 12.

Parents—working and unemployed alike—deliver their children in time for a nutritious breakfast. That is followed by typical camp activities—Bible study, crafts and recreation. The century-old church has a timeworn, two-lane bowling alley and gym and an inviting playground with swings, climbing toys and a merry-go-round.

“This is my children’s first experience with camp,” said Tracy Farrell, who grew up near Union Avenue, in the financially strapped neighborhood of faded apartment buildings and bungalows.

“My children love camp and talk about it all day long. They get to interact with other kids, learn about God, unwind and be themselves.”

Preacher’s kid Laura Nieves is assistant program director for the camp. Raised in the city and a veteran camper, she understands the children and their situations.

In a neighborhood where children often fall prey to gangs by age 11 or 12, Nieves believes the church’s outreach saves lives.

“Some children find acceptance here at the church; some find it in the streets.”

Bible stories take on new meaning. “It is easy to relate to someone like Joseph,” Nieves said, “when you’re living with 12 other (siblings) who hate you and take your things.”

Participants are guaranteed at least two good meals because lunch is provided as well.

“I like camp,” said Jazlyn, 9, “because it has food and fun, and everyone is nice.”

*Dunlap-Berg is internal content editor for United Methodist Communications.

News media contact: Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5489 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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