Pandemic means no 73rd year of Catholic Youth Camp

| July 1, 2020 | 0 Comments

In this file photo from 2017, children at Catholic Youth Camp go canoeing on Big Sandy Lake near McGregor. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

Theresa Famoso, 33, attended Catholic Youth Camp on Big Sandy Lake north of McGregor, Minnesota, when she was about 10. She’s never forgotten the experience — the people she met, the camp’s emphasis on faith and the fun activities.

“The counselors and staff were very loving and welcoming,” she said. “It was so much fun — a week of experiences and adventures, and still being centered around Jesus.” Back then, her family belonged to Epiphany in Coon Rapids.

Her son, Leo, 12, has gone to the same camp the past four summers — two years when they were parishioners at St. William in Fridley, and two years as members of their new parish, St. Francis in Brainerd. His sister, Kennedy, 9, has attended camp the past two years.

But, they won’t be going this year. Due to coronavirus concerns, Catholic Youth Camp is closed this summer, which would have been its 73rd year. “Everybody understood the situation and has been super kind and very encouraging,” said Natalie King, its executive director.

“My kids actually took it better than I did,” Famoso said. “I cried because I knew what they were missing. And I knew it was nothing that any of us could control.”

About 600 people ages 7 to 18 typically attend the week-long camp over nine weeks from June to August. It offers traditional camp activities like archery, swimming, canoeing, fishing and paddle boarding. But as a Catholic camp, it also is a celebration of faith, King said. “That’s the most important part of who we are.”

Young people don’t have to be Catholic to attend, but about 90 percent of the campers are Catholic, King said.

A priest celebrates Mass once a week and campers attend morning and evening prayer services.

About 65 percent of campers return to the camp the year after they first attend, King said. Kids have fun, learn skills and make friends, she said. “They have role models whose faith is important to them. This is a very special place.”

“Just to see my kids come home … on fire for Christ and passionate and full of love and joy, is so refreshing,” Famoso said. “My son takes it back to his school and talks about Jesus with his friends.”

Not hosting campers for nine weeks is a huge budget hit for the camp, a nonprofit organization, King said. “It’s devastating.”

Costs such as food for campers aren’t an issue this year, but the camp still pays utilities, staffing and office expenses, and insurance on the property, which is expensive, King said. The camp employs three full-time staff at its office in Roseville.

The camp fundraises each year, in part for scholarships for campers or for camp projects. This year, King said, “we’re fundraising to survive right now.”

Staff members started a fundraiser in late June to raise $100,000 by September. “That’s a lot,” King said, “but we have 73 years of alumni out there.”

Of the tuition paid before camp was canceled, about one-fourth of the families donated it to the camp, one-fourth rolled over their tuition to a spot for next year and half asked for a refund.

The camp offers summer sessions only. The camp buildings are not winterized and “there’s not a lot going on the rest of the year,” King said. “We spend the other nine months getting ready for camp — doing all the fundraising and recruiting campers, recruiting staff, doing training and programming, things like that.”

This month, King and her family and some volunteers are staying at the camp to clean, organize and do maintenance projects. “Just small groups at a time,” she said, “and we’re still social distancing and focusing on safety.”

Gina Andersland, 37, is mom to four children, ages 8 to 13, who have attended the camp. The family belongs to St. Stephen in Anoka.

The first year she took her kids to camp, the drive home was two hours “and they could not stop talking,” Andersland said. “They shared everything,” she said, from all of their activities to every single camp song they learned. “They were so excited.”

Andersland said so much happens that week at camp that her children have trouble picking a favorite part. She appreciates incorporation of faith into camp activities. “I think kids need to be excited and know that faith can be fun and shared in a fun way.”

This summer, the family is setting up the backyard pool and a sprinkler. They even plan to tie-dye shirts like they do at camp. But it’s not the same as a week at their favorite camp.

As her children all remind her, “camp is truly the best week of my kids’ summer,” she said.

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