No television. No cell phones. No video games … Awesome.
Surprisingly, that’s how the children who attend St. Joseph’s Youth Camp describe their weeklong experience tucked among the pines about 30 miles south of Flagstaff, Ariz.
Knights of Columbus took over the camp in 1950 and, in simple terms, they want kids to have “the traditional camp experience.” That’s according to Rick Large II, president of the board of directors and a member of Father Marcel Salinas Council 11536 in Mesa. For the first time in years, the nonprofit camp was at capacity every week of July that’s around 80 campers a week, plus accompanying counselors and staff.
“It’s a traditional camp, with a camp fire, horses and plenty of fresh air,” said Large, who fell in love with St. Joseph’s the first time he visited. He said the camp isn’t just for Catholics, and it certainly isn’t just for the rich. As the president of the board, he helps ensure that children of any background can attend including homeless children.
This year, one of the campers showed up with his toes hanging out of a beat-up pair of sneakers. A couple of foster kids attended another week. Whatever their home life is like, all the campers are treated equally.
CATCHING CAMP FEVER
In the third week of July, parents lined up to check in their kids at Our Lady of Mount Caramel Church in Tempe, a Phoenix suburb, on the first day of the third session of St. Joseph’s Youth Camp this year. The temperature was close to 100 degrees, and some of the kids ages 8 to 12 were frowning. Most kept to themselves.
The counselors, teenage volunteers who accompany campers for the week, were all smiles though. They knew how much the children would change during their weeklong camp experience and practically relished the initial negative attitudes. The children remained suspicious. A week? In the woods? Really?
Once on board the bus, high-fives abounded. The celebratory spirit continued when the campers disembarked the bus two-and-a-half hours later. The weather was 25 degrees cooler at the camp, which is 7,100 feet above sea level.
After a series of icebreakers, staff members put on a skit to go over the rules. They stressed the destructiveness of negative language as much as the danger of forest fires. There’s no littering either, and candy isn’t allowed in the cabins.
“Do you think it’s good for chipmunks to eat Skittles?” asked Alyssa Fresh, a college-aged staff member.
“NO!” all 82 campers shouted back.
“And that’s why we can’t have candy in the cabins,” Fresh said playfully.
Fresh comes from a large family in Lake Havasu, Ariz., and started coming to the camp in 2006 thanks to sponsors. She was one of 12 staffers led by Camp Director Brian Byrnes, a member of St. Anthony of Padua Council 9838 in Wickenburg, Ariz. The staff works alongside 30 or so teenage counselors to ensure campers get all the attention they need.
The camp’s 12 cabins are organized by gender two counselors for every eight campers. Camp leaders are strict about keeping the boys out of the girls’ cabins, and vice versa. “Boys are blue, girls are pink. Don’t make purple,” explained Large, the board president. “That makes it pretty clear. No one breaks the rules because no one wants to be sent home.”
Cell phones are also forbidden. During one week, staff members confiscated 12 phones.
On the second day of camp, staff members led the kids on a tour of the grounds. Once at the boundary, staff members Wren Lapansky and Emily Wilson recounted scary stories, taking advantage of summer camp poetic license. The stories make sure the kids remember where they can and can’t go.
Lumberjacks are buried over here, so it’s haunted, of course. And you wouldn’t want to spend time with ghosts, so you shouldn’t be here. … Now this used to be a troll bridge. That is, until the troll destroyed it. And you wouldn’t want to cross this area, unless you’re looking to be eaten by the troll. … That’s not to mention the red-eyed killer teddy bears avoid them as well. They’re bad news.
As the group made its way around the 19-acre camp, the kids asked each other if they believed the troll story. “I don’t know,” one camper said. “It’s only my first time here.” It was day two, and the kids were already talking about coming back next year.
Back at the mess hall, one of the boys was getting riled up at the foosball table. “Take it down a notch,” said Zach Crimmins, program specialist. The camper listened and settled down immediately. You wouldn’t know it was Crimmins’ first time at St. Joseph’s.
“When I first got here, I caught the ‘virus.’ I can see why other staff members have been coming here for years and why they call it their second home,” he said.
Crimmins, who is part of the U.S. Air Force ROTC at Northern Arizona University, shared some wilderness basics with the young campers. His tutorial included a scavenger hunt of sorts using a compass. While that was fun, the boys soon moved on to a more important question: Who’s taller? They measured each other, as boys do, wholly inaccurately.
Three weeks in, Crimmins said the toughest week so far had been “teen week” the seven days that St. Joseph’s hosts teenage campers. The kids come from across Arizona and even from California, and they don’t always get along, at least not in the beginning.
One of the counselors, Timothy Ruane, said being so close in age to teen campers was tough. While being teenagers themselves presents a challenge for some counselors, it also enables them to have a more immediate connection with the teens.
“I’m up here now, and I’m happy,” said Ruane, who first came to the camp three years ago thanks to a scholarship from the Knights of Columbus. In the past, he said, he hadn’t wanted to leave the camp when the summer was over.
When problems do arise, the counselors work through them, supporting each other and consulting staff members.
Byrnes, the director, said one of the teen campers this summer wanted to go home at the beginning of the week. After spending some time with the teen, staff members ascertained that another person from his cabin was picking on him someone he knew from home. The team adjusted, switching the kids to separate cabins. It worked, and the boy happily stayed the whole week.
Counselors and staff members undergo safe environment training sessions in abuse prevention. It’s a requirement the Knights of Columbus don’t take lightly.
“It’s morally important that these kids get up here,” he said. “This may be the one thing in life that keeps them on the straight and narrow.”
Simply being respected and being listened to by their peers transforms campers. The kids will also do things they’ve likely never done before, and may never do again.
Down at the horse stable, about 20 campers gave riding a try. They strapped on helmets and waited to be called to their horse.
“Now, lift your leg over and stick your foot in the other stirrup,” a riding instructor said to one of the boys.
“I can’t,” the boy said.
“We don’t believe in ‘can’t’ here,” the instructor barked back. Sure enough, the boy could mount the horse and loved his ride.
“At first, it’s hard to get some of the shy kids to open up,” said Will Giannola, assistant director. A member of Blessed John Cardinal Newman Council 7513 in Flagstaff, Giannola started coming to St. Joseph’s 15 years ago as a camper. “By the time the week is over, [the shy kids] won’t be quiet,” he said.
Parents notice a change, too, according to Large, the board president. Some parents tell him their kids come back converted they now eat vegetables.
“Whenever kids leave here, I swear they leave in a better place than when they got here,” Byrnes said. “Even kids who come from good families need this kind of attention.”
Alexandria Saquella, who just graduated high school, was on staff as head counselor. Every morning, she gathered campers together for the raising of the flag, the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer. She also asked for a volunteer to lead grace before each meal. Campers and counselors from various faith traditions led prayer throughout summer.
“I got hooked and fell in love with the camp and the people,” said Saquella, who’s been coming for years. “It’s a big family here.”
She said serving as a counselor in years past gave her the confidence to serve on her high school student council; she was student body president her senior year.
“Working here made me aware of leadership skills I have,” Saquella said.
The same is true of many other children who pass through the camp. By taking away technological distractions, kids are forced to pay attention to each other. What they find is that their peers are a lot more fun than their iPods.
“We don’t have cell phones or technology,” Saquella said. “We get away and focus on relationships.”
And the friendships they form will never be obsolete.
J.D. Long-García is the editor of the Catholic Sun, the newspaper of the Diocese of Phoenix.