During the summer, Salesian Youth Ministry volunteers Sarah, Anya and David, along with Br Ste Lloyd, went to serve at Camp St Francis, a Salesian summer camp for children, overlooking a Californian beach. David looks back on the experience.
Why are you here? This is not a challenge to you, the reader, it is also not an invitation to give up on this article already - though it might save you a few minutes and spare you any disappointment – rather, it is the question that guided our own reflection time during the hugely successful Camp St Francis season. This is the question that was put to each of the counsellors during the preparation week to help channel our thoughts, and to allow us to bring to mind our own personal reasons for being at camp. It soon became very apparent that a lot of our reasons overlapped, probably as we shared one Salesian spirit, and love of the young with one another. As well as being the thing that inspired us through prep week, it was also the question that we were invited to return to as the weeks went on, reminding ourselves why we were there at camp, especially in the more challenging times.
Although, as camp started it became more difficult to find the time to reflect, this particular reflection became a lot easier as soon as our young people arrived, bringing life to the beautiful camp site, as for many of us, our reasons for being there were centred around them. Through the laughter of the young people, amongst other things, these reflections also became easier as once again, it became very clear to each of us why we were there.
We were also invited by Fr, Tom, who was the camp director for the first week, to think of what it is that we can learn from the young people we were set to encounter at camp. Again, there was a variety of answers, with the simplest answer being “joy”, as we all know that many young people radiate joy. And although this is a very simple answer, it is as powerful as saying that we can learn to accept people in the way that our young people do, with many young people seeming to take the thought “it is enough that you are young” for me to play with you. Sound familiar? This question was put to us at the end of our prep week together, and led us into the camp season in great spirits!
Each week at camp ran from Sunday afternoon through to the following Saturday morning, with each day following a fairly similar structure.
The main goal of the Sunday was to allow the young people to feel at home, both with the camp itself and with each other. This was done through the typical ice breaker games, as well as having time to set up a contract of sorts for that week with the other boys or girls in their cabin. It was also achieved through pasta, as Sunday was always the one day you could predict what we would be eating at camp. After supper, we continued our process of making the young people feel at home with a whole-camp activity that allowed them to explore the various parts of the site that they would be using for play, prayer, food, liturgies, and much more. And once the young people felt settled at camp, it was time for them to be initiated into their cabins.
This was an activity that was prepared each week by the head cabin counsellor of each cabin to give the young people a chance to continue to build the friendships they had started on their first day. There were a range of ideas on display from the counsellors, ranging from obstacle courses to performing a haka; from chants to decorations, and much more in between. From here, we headed back to our cabins to end the night together, as we did every night, with a short cabin prayer, led by one of the counsellors.
The programme from Monday to Friday was very similar, with the exception of Wednesday’s, as there was something special prepared to keep energy high in the middle of the week.
Each morning started with a morning prayer prepared by the liturgy team for each week. The prayers often changed locations to remind our young people that God is with us wherever we are. The most popular prayer spaces were chapel, both indoor and outdoor, and the statues of Don Bosco and Mary our Mother. As well as praying in different places, the young people were also given the chance to pray in different ways, with each prayer being independent and different from the ones that came before.
We would then be led in a Good Morning by one of the counsellors to help to introduce the theme or the virtue for each day, which ended with a challenge or invitation inspired by whatever had been shared in the Good Morning.
Breakfast followed, and as for all meals, everyone sat in their cabin groups, meaning that the bond within each of the cabins grew stronger all of the time.
It was then time to introduce our first activity of the day. “What time is it campers?” “COMMERCIAL TIMEEEEE!”
Each day there would be either three or four activities for the young people to sign up for, for the first session, and for each of these activities there would be a commercial, or an advert to you and me. This was the chance for the counsellor(s) in charge of each activity to capture the imagination of the young people to ensure that their activity was as successful as possible. With the choices involving things such as football, skate park, arts and crafts, fitness, reading room, science, nature, archery and game room, the young people needed some persuasion to aid their decision; persuasion from popular characters such as The Beatbox Knight, Robin Hooday, Mr Imagination, and of course, Mr Motivator himself, The Bro.
And having signed up to whatever most appealed to them, off they went! Off to play, or learn, or both, for the next hour or so, until it was snack time. Fruit and a chilli powder type thing, Tajin, was served most days. Fruit and chilli powder? A very bizarre concept, but very much part of the Mexican culture. And strangely enough, it worked really well … most of the time. After the “last call for firsts … seconds … thirds”, the snack was wheeled away, and it was time for activity two, which was almost the same as activity one, with the only difference being that each cabin group was assigned to an activity together.
From here, we went in to our liturgy moment for the day, with the celebration of the eucharist at least twice a week, and catechetical sessions twice a week. At these moments, it was clear to see the joy of the Gospel present within the young people, though this may have been partly due to Fr Thien performing mind-blowing magic tricks as part of his homily. Whatever the cause, it was wonderful to see the young people engaging so fully with these liturgical moments, allowing themselves to be fully immersed in the celebration. The catechism sessions helped to focus on practical ways to live out the joy of the Gospel, with Br Ste’s Beatitudes session and reconciliation preparation using origami swans, standing out as particular examples.
After lunch and the chance for the young people to rest up, and get some sleep, read, or just chill in their cabins for a while, it was time to head down to the beach. At the bottom of the hill that camp sat on - that was no worse than White Nancy - was the stretch of beach belonging to the camp site. Here the young people would just play. From shelter-building to ‘capture the flag’, the beach period was a great chance to burn off the energy that was restored after a nap. At least once a week, we would walk for about a mile down to Manresa, the local public beach, which has a lifeguard, meaning we were allowed in the water. Bodyboards out, pretending to swim down to a hole on the floor, and dancing around to try and stay warm in the freezing cold water was the routine when at Manresa. If ever you want an example of the young being young, take 50 young people to the beach, and let them run, play and shout.
As camp is essentially an educative experience for the young people, they would be given the responsibility of cleaning their cabin after arriving back from the beach, to make sure everything was in order before the daily inspection. For around an hour, the young people would all pull together, sweeping floors, cleaning mirrors, dusting light fittings and thinking of other obscure places their inspector could look for dirt. There was something really calming about seeing them work in such a way: this was of course before the “Imperial March” started to play across the campsite. Inspection time. Don’t be caught away from your bed, or without your name badge. And just hope that Br James doesn’t check the blinds because they certainly haven’t been cleaned!
Once inspection was over, it was time to breathe again, and to close all the blinds and doors to rehearse for talent show - another aspect of camp that was a lot of fun, but is taken very seriously by everyone involved. This is of course because winning the talent show gave your cabin a stronger chance of being named as the honour cabin for the week, and winning the much sought-after Trident.
A typical day at camp would follow this timetable until around 7pm, before a final, closing activity that took up most of the evening.
As previously mentioned though, Wednesday was different. Wednesday, or Crazy Wednesday as it is known on camp, was far from typical. It was never very clear exactly what would happen on a Wednesday, and it was almost not worth issuing timetables, because Wednesday pretty much ran on the premise that anything could happen. The only thing that you could be certain of was that you would definitely need to shower. At LEAST once. This was because of the crazy games that were planned for each Wednesday afternoon, starting off as small water-based obstacle courses, playing on the slip-n-slide, and other silly things for no real reason other than “We can”. These games were more often than not anti-counsellor, with the young people being given the chance to soak their counsellors, with the head cabin counsellors taking first hit. The water games were all good fun. And then came the flour bombs. Packets of flour-filled material that burst on impact sometimes are as pleasant as they sound … especially after facing the water balloons, water guns, and of course, the hose. All part of the fun of camp, or so they would tell us.
There was no set activity for Monday or Tuesday, but it was often something more active, relating to the after-dinner-skit of the day, linking back to the theme of the week. These skits saw the progression of the story for the characters of their various worlds, with each week having a new theme, and the dining room having a full makeover. Wednesday evenings saw us head down to the beach for our campfire with s’mores, camp fire songs, and chant battles. Thursday evening was talent show evening, a chance for the young people to showcase to their parents what their cabin had come up with for that week, with the help of the silent, and slightly mischievous cleaners Biff and Duff, a new group of character judges each week, and two new hosts each week, including Sarah as “Miranda Hart” and Anya as “Lana” two aristocratic sisters trying to work through their ongoing dispute with each other.
Friday night was awards evening, with each cabin picking one stand-out camper from their cabin, each activity deciding on a number of awards for the campers related to their activity; the Don Bosco award for the best assistant counsellor of the week, and the Dominic Savio award for the overall camper of the week. As special as these awards were, the one award that was most highly anticipated was the awarding of the Trident for the honour cabin of the week, as this was the award with the highest level of bragging rights at stake. To continue the celebration of our week together at camp, Friday was also film night, giving the young people the chance to relax together before heading for home on Saturday morning. It also gave many of them the chance to belt out Moana with no shame at all.
And that was camp. A crazy, action packed, enriching summer that the three of us were extremely privileged to take part in. We would like to thank Sue, Fr Gerry, Br Ste, and everybody else who helped to make this trip possible on our side of the pond, and of course our new friends across the Atlantic for welcoming us, and for making us feel at home right away. Although the suntans (well … sort of) have faded, our voices are back, body clocks back up to speed, and the flour finally out of our hair, I am sure I speak for the three of us in saying that the experience will never be forgotten, nor will the new-found friendships that were made with everybody we were lucky enough to have met.
Until the next time,
David McCormick and the Camp St Francis team!