Unique youth church camps focus on service, vocation and fun

By Lynne Conner for Chronicle Media

Sister Joachima participates in the water balloon toss at the St. Therese Vocations Camp at Bishop Lane Retreat Center. (Photo by Lynne Conner / for Chronicle Media)

Disconnecting from cell phones and electronic devices, Rockford area teens will instead be linking with their peers, others in the community and their faith as part of three unique church camps this summer.

With a focus on serving others, exploring religious vocations and having fun, the camps will take teens on a journey of self-discovery while they work for the greater good.

A yearly tradition at Westminster Presbyterian Church (WPC), a summer youth mission trip typically consists of high school teens and their chaperones traveling to an economically depressed area of the country to perform community service work. 

This year’s mission trip was billed as a “Stay-Treat”; David Hegge, WPC youth ministry director explains, “This summer, during the week of June 18-22, we did a local mission trip, staying here in Rockford.  About 20 teens from the church worked at Gigi’s Playhouse, Rock River Valley Pantry, Carpenter’s Place, helped out around Westminster and worked at Stronghold Camp and Retreat Center Conference Center in Oregon.”

“To quote an old movie, ‘We’re on a mission from God,’” Hegge said.  “Our church has a long-standing tradition of a summer youth service week.  The kids really love it because during the day we are helping a wide variety of worthy organizations and then each night, we come together and do a fun activity.” 

Some of this year’s recreational activities included zip lining, visiting Magic Waters Waterpark and going on a hike.

“Since we are a church mission group, we did a Bible study during the week that focused on not just the miracles that Christ was able to perform; but the miracles that we are able to do because of Christ,” Hegge said.

Todd Rhines, director of the Welcome Project at Temple Baptist Church, looks through school supplies that have been donated for the camp’s refugee children. (Photo by Lynne Conner / for Chronicle Media)

Guilford High School student, Hope Markley, one of the teens on this year’s WPC Stay Treat commented, “I always look forward to mission weeks like this one.  Being given these wonderful opportunities to help others in our community really makes my day.  I see our youth group grow closer to each other and God through this work.  I love it.”

One of the Stay Treat adult chaperones, Cindy Myroth gave the experience positive reviews.

“This is an incredibly kind group of kids who have been together for a long time,” she said. “They are doing great things for the community all in the name of God.”

In addition to developing the personal faith of those in the youth group, Hegge sees the Stay Treat as a way to build responsibility among the teens and give them a sense of accomplishment. 

“The kids come away with a feeling of satisfaction over a job well done, which is very meaningful for them.  They’re are coming together and seeing that despite doing service work, it can still be fun,” he said.

For a few weeks in early summer, the usually peaceful grounds of the Bishop Lane Retreat Center, southwest of Rockford, come alive with the spirited shouts and chatter of Catholic teens collaborating with priests and nuns in outdoor field games. 

These activities are only part of the self–discovery, faith and fun that comprise the Diocese of Rockford’s vocations camps.

“The camps are set up so that young men and young women see the beauty of the Church,” said the Rev. Kyle Manno, director of vocations for the Diocese of Rockford. “The point is not to turn them into priests or turn them into nuns, but to plant seeds so the campers see the possibilities that are open to them.”

There are three vocations camps each summer, each geared toward a specific age group. The St. Therese Vocations Camp caters to girls entering seventh grade to college, Jerimiah Days is for middle school boys in grades 7-9 and the First Call Retreat focuses on young men entering 10th grade through college. 

“The main thing that we are trying to instill in the young men and women who come to vocations camp is that since God created you, He’s the one who knows why you were created and what you were created for,” Manno said. 

A main focus of the camps is the celebration of Mass and prayer, which Manno says is key to discovering one’s vocation in life. 

“The campers learn how to pray and develop a deeper relationship with Christ,” he said. “We talk about all the different vocations in life, not just the religious life as a priest or nun.  We talk to them about marriage and discerning who to marry; we talk about the single vocation and we talk with the boys about being a deacon.  Above all, we want those at vocations camp to see that being close to the Lord is a joyful way to live.”

Another perk of the camp is that the youth get to interact with priests and nuns in an informal setting.

“Young people today do not typically see priests and nuns outside of church,” Manno said. “Our experience now is not like it was 40 or 50 years ago when there were nuns teaching in Catholic schools.”

The 55 girls and young women who recently attended the St. Therese camp got the opportunity to spend time with 19 nuns from around the Midwest.  The nuns led prayer, small group discussions and even partnered with the girls to participate in an obstacle course and water balloon toss.

Veronica Miller, a college freshman from Durand, and Adele Stachyra, a high school junior from the Diocese of Joliet, met at vocations camp four years ago and became fast friends.  The camp is a yearly tradition for the girls who enjoy the opportunity to learn more about vocations while growing in their faith. 

“I love the joyful atmosphere; the people here are wonderful. The sisters are so encouraging and inspiring to talk with, I always come away with a stronger commitment to my faith,” Miller said.

“I always come back to the camp because of the positive environment and the wonderful girls who encourage me on my faith journey,” Stachyra said. 

More information on the vocations camps can be found at www.rockforddiocese.org/vocations/vocation-camps/

Manno sees the vocations camps as a powerful tool in helping teens grow spiritually while challenging them to disconnect from the outside influences of social media. 

“Specifically, youth today are missing authentic joy in their lives.” he said.  “Social media is awesome.  I use it every day to spread the Good News, but a difficulty there is that it can rob us of the present moment.  We’re always trying to look into the past or see the future…but this authentic joy comes from living a Christ-centered life rooted in the present.”

Imagine having to attend school or find a job in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language or know your surroundings.  This is exactly what refugee families experience when they immigrate to the United States.  Fortunately, The Welcome Project (TWP) at Temple Baptist Church functions as a bridge for refugee children to help them acclimate to “American culture and school expectations”.

“For the parents and adults, there are ESL classes and refugee help through Rock Valley College or Catholic Charities, but there really wasn’t something specifically for the kids, so that’s where the idea came from,” said Todd Rhines, director of TWP. 

Father Kyle Manno Vocations Director for the Catholic Diocese of Rockford, participates in the water balloon toss at vocations camp. (Photo by Lynne Conner / for Chronicle Media)

Originally launched in 2016, TWP is set for the week of July 23-27 and is specifically for refugee children in third through eighth grades.  “We focus on kids in third through eighth grade because when they get to that age, they become self-aware and they start noticing differences in other children.  This is especially apparent for kids coming from other countries,” Rhines said.  “There is a language barrier and cultural norms are different, so it’s crucial that we help these refugee kids with the changes they are experiencing.”

Refugee children attending TWP have come from Burundi, Congo, Ethiopia, central Africa, Afghanistan, Myanmar and Eritrea in years past.  “TWP and Temple Baptist don’t recruit the children who come to this camp.  We have a partnership with Rock Valley College and Catholic Charities’ Refugee Resettlement Program who function to recruit children for our program and provide interpreters,” Rhines said. 

During the camp, children are provided with breakfast and lunch and take part in tutoring sessions which include help with reading, ESL and computer literacy.  There is also worship, dance and small group modules each day with a fun activity at the end of the day.  “On Friday, we have a send-off ceremony for the kids and we give them backpacks filled with school supplies, so they will be prepared once school starts,” Rhines said. 

Adult and teen volunteers are what make TWP a successful program.  Rhines said that they aim to have a two to one ratio so that there is one adult or teen helping no more than two or three children.  He added that there are about 50-60 volunteers on hand each day of TWP.  “We’ve had people from 16 all the way up to 90 help with TWP.  We want to create an atmosphere of all ages, all people, because that is how Rockford is, many ages and a diverse population,” he said.

“Our goal with TWP is to prioritize the camp for kids who have just arrived in our community within the last year or so, but we do have kids that return to the camp after their first year.  We like to have these returners help out as translators for the week,” Rhines said. 

“There was a group of boys last year who became really good friends during TWP week.  They were all going to attend the same school, so they were thrilled about already having friends before school started.  It’s just a really cool melting pot of kids from different countries getting to know one another,” he said.  For more information on The Welcome Project, call Temple Baptist Church at (815) 399-2665.

Whether serving others in the community, discerning a vocation, growing spiritually or having fun; these unique church camps truly offer youth and young adults something to ‘Like’ and ‘Share.’


Unique youth church camps focus on service, vocation and fun–