Every summer, parents search for ways to get their children some experiences during their summer break that are engaging and interesting. What is more interesting than our faith and more engaging than the chance to put that faith into action? At St. Francis of Assisi, there are many opportunities during the summer for elementary through high school students to learn more about being the ‘hands and feet of Christ on Earth.’
Parents appreciate the opportunity for an out-of-this-world experience at “STELLAR” Vacation Bible School for their younger students! Marisa Ferrara, coordinator of Elementary Formation at St. Francis, explains, “Kids ages 4-10 were launched on a cosmic quest and had a blast shining Jesus’ light to the world. The opportunity provided by VBS also extended to the fifty middle and high school students that served as teen leaders, engaging and learning leadership skills for life, and the 25 adult CORE team volunteers who assisted in teaching those skills. Campers rotated through five activity stations, each coinciding with the day’s theme. These themes included bringing the gospel to life during Bible Adventures, a child or family’s faith witness and creative snack during ‘KidVid Cinema,’ the games station showed the children the power of teamwork and cooperation, the ‘Imagination Station’ showed how God plays a big role in science, and the service component with hands-on service projects that shine Jesus’ light on our parish and the broader community of faith!” Marisa shared that when a Grandma asked her granddaughter what she learned during the first day of camp, she replied, “Even when life feels dark, we can shine Jesus’ light!” The campers, teens, and adults surely did shine Jesus’ light during VBS! They shared ‘God sightings’ and practiced looking for God everywhere! “As service,” Marisa recounted, “they made rice and beans kits for Our Lady of the Rosary Parish, blankets for Saving Grace animal rescue, beautiful night sky artwork for three retirement communities, light-catching Stained Glass art to help catch and reflect God’s light for others!” VBS continued to impact the area even after it finished! Many of the camp’s theme-specific materials and decorations continued to ‘serve’ when donated to two small protestant churches in the underserved areas around Raleigh. They were thankful for the donation and promised to pass them on to other churches when they finished using them. The campers and counselors learned they could ‘shine Jesus’ light’ always, and that light continues to spread out from St. Francis!
For older students, Mercy Camp was available for Middle School students, and both Mission Mercy and the St. Francis Inn trip to Philadelphia were options for those in high school. Mercy Camp, coordinated by the Director of Faith Formation Jeanne Lewin, allowed middle schoolers to attend a different service site daily. The local sites visited included Urban Ministries, Oak City Cares, CORRAL riding academy (equine therapy), Passage Home, the NC Food Bank Warehouse and Garden, and Umstead Park. The campers went to their site each day, then retired to discuss the corporal works of mercy and how they give us a model for how to treat all others as if they were ‘Christ in disguise,’ which we all are as unique creations of God. Jeanne says they used ‘God sightings’ discussions to have them explain, “How did you see God at the different sites you went to?” On Thursday of the camp week, the kids are present on-site at St. Francis from 8:30 am to 9:00 pm. They all have a presentation on racism and how they can make a difference to those impacted by racism. They have Holy Hour and Adoration in the afternoon and participate in a hunger simulation that evening. On Friday, they participate in Rise Against Hunger as their final act of service in conjunction with the previous evening hunger simulation. Jeanne enthusiastically extolls the value the high school-aged team leaders provided, “It was very empowering and wonderful to see the teenagers step up. We expect a lot from them, and they delivered.” They planned and executed the whole week for their younger campers. Camp attendance for Mercy Camp was high this year, says Jeanne, and the 18 team leaders made it work very well!
The high school students at St. Francis serve as counselors for the camps for younger students, but there are also opportunities for them to participate in Mission Mercy and the St. Francis Inn trip. The Mission Mercy experience involves running the Pequenos Gigantes Summer Camp for the Hispanic Family Outreach Center through Catholic Charities. The students serve as camp counselors and station leaders in a ministry of encounter and presence. Becky Cawley, a former Justice and Peace coordinator at St. Francis, designed this camp experience now run by Tim Hetzel, the current youth and young adult ministry director. The ‘encounter’ aspect for the high schoolers occurs when they return to St. Francis at the end of each day to process and share their experiences of that day. They consider Catholic social teaching and debrief about their day while considering how immigration policy impacts the Hispanic camper’s lives and the Catholic Church’s beliefs on immigration. One of the points of Mission Mercy is to provide face-to-face interaction in the post-Covid world and to be present for the person in front of you without technology or distance between you. Tim says, “The kids got a chance to see and encounter people who might not look like them or have the same experiences as them and to have a transformative experience because of that. Then have a space to process that experience and see the presence of God in the people they were fortunate to experience during the Mission Mercy.” ‘Seeing God in others’ is a constant theme in all St. Francis summer camp offerings.
The St. Francis Inn trip has been a consistent ministry of the Franciscan Friars in downtown Philadelphia for a long time, and delegations from St. Francis go throughout the year to work in the food ministry at the Inn. It often becomes a tradition to attend yearly among parishioners who always speak of how it impacts their lives. During the summer, high school students can work there with adult chaperones. As one parishioner shared about this summer’s trip, “I have been interested in volunteering at The St Francis Inn for years, but the schedule has never worked previously. When I heard about the week in June this year, I asked my son if he would like to go. I saw it as a ‘last trip’ for this mother-son duo before he heads off to UNC-Chapel Hill this fall.” Her son agreed, and the trip was on! She continued, “The experience blew me away. Each day started with a mass, staying on the same basic schedule with various jobs that needed completion, and ending the workday with prayer and fellowship with our group of five until we fell into our beds at night. The kids worked together and with other adults.” There were some chances to visit the local area as well. She adds, “We took a quick trip to downtown Philadelphia for a photo with the Rocky statue.” The impact, however, was profound, “The conversation the five of us had on the trip was meaningful and filled with laughter. The drive back to Raleigh started with a discussion and reflection, followed by a picnic of Cheesesteaks in a park. It ended with three sleeping teens and a great conversation between two adults.”
When she asked her son about the experience, he replied, “‘THAT is what being a Christian means!’ I am so happy that we took this week out of our summer to be together, and we are both looking forward to returning to ‘The Inn’ in the future.”
Growing in faith and modeling Christ for others; another ‘Summer of Faith’ at the St. Francis of Assisi parish’s summer programs for our students as the future of the Church!
Author: Mike Watson