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Summertime Church Camps Create Community and Fun

Many of us have childhood summertime memories of attending Vacation Bible School, where we memorized Bible verses, acted out biblical plays, ate cookies, and played with our friends. For the most part our children have not had church camp experiences, but our congregations are discovering ways to hold summer day camps that provide meaning for Unitarian Universalist (UU) children.

High Street UU Church, Macon, GA (107 members), has organized a Monday to Friday Peacemakers Camp for five years. Themes have been Diversity, Feelings, Bullying, and Reconciliation. About forty-five children and youth, ages eight to thirteen (10 percent from the church, the rest from the community), attend. The camp always fills up, says organizer Jane Donahue. Camp staff teach conflict resolution skills, help children be in charge of their feelings, and listen to them. About half the members of the church help in some way and there's seldom a problem recruiting volunteers.

The camp is held at a Presbyterian retreat center with a pool, lake, and ropes course. Kids stay four nights. The camp initially was funded by grants from the UU Funding Program. For the last three years a UU benefactor from Canada has contributed $13,000 for putting on the camp. Other sources, including High Street Church and individuals, supply funds for other events throughout the year for campers, including a trip to Habitat for Humanity headquarters and Martin Luther King Day events.

Without donated funding, the cost per camper would be about $250, says Donahue, but since some can't pay she chooses not to charge anyone. There will be a presentation on the camp at General Assembly in June.

The UU Church of Arlington, VA (1038), holds a Peace Camp for one week each summer. Last summer about fifty children from five to eleven attended. Half were from the church and the rest from the community, including from two nonprofit organizations serving low-income families.

A local couple is hired to run the camp. Using volunteer staffers from the church and the two other nonprofit organizations, they lead the children through games (cooperative rather than competitive), arts and dance activities, and conflict resolution techniques, giving them experiences that help instill peace, equality, and the ability to promote change. For more information contact Sarah Munson, uuca [at] uucava [dot] org.

Foothills Unitarian Church, Fort Collins, CO (493), has held summer church camps for many years under current Director of Religious Education (DRE) Eleanor VanDeusen, fuuc [at] webaccess [dot] net, and former DRE Kate Erslev, kate_erslev [at] webaccess [dot] net (now at the UU Fellowship of Boulder, CO). Themes have included "Our Planet Earth," "World Religions," and "Jesus, the Carpenter's Son, " as well as a Native American theme.

The camp accommodates thirty to forty UU youth and several friends and requires five to six youth counselors, who receive small stipends, and two adult co-leaders. Cost is about $60 per child. "It helps connect children across the ages and with the youth volunteers," says VanDeusen. "It gives us a whole week to address a topic in more depth than on Sunday. Last summer we did a Peace theme. We started with inner peace, moved on to peace within families, and then to the larger world. Someone came and did yoga, we visited a Buddhist retreat, and an artist who was working on a peace mural came and the kids helped with that."

Erslev notes, "The advantages are spending five days together, doing some really great projects, and getting to know each other. The children got to know the minister, who joined us for lunch and worship. We visited our Jewish and Christian neighbors. The children worshipped in the sanctuary and had the opportunity to see the church as a fun and inviting place to be."

Martie Olson, director of religious education at Peoples Church UU, Cedar Rapids, IA, recommends another camp.

Olson organized an EARTHcamp for Kids, a concept developed by John Denver’s Windstar Foundation. Twenty children in grades 4, 5, and 6 participated in the five-day camp, held at a nearby Franciscan spirituality center. “It was a wonderful success,” said Olson, who previously trained at the Windstar Foundation in Colorado. In addition to children from Peoples Church the camp was open to children outside the church. It also helped the church make a connection with the spirituality center. The camp featured hands-on nature activities plus games, theater arts, and music.

About the Author

  • Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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