By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
ATCHISON, Kan. — If mud was their biggest fear, that phobia is gone.
It is not to compare the 79 middle schoolers who came to the first week of Camp Savio with pigs. But pigs in a pen couldn’t have had a better time, as the young men and women competed in volleyball, tugs of war, and water balloon fights in slop practically up to their knees.
“Best job ever,” said Jenna Prather, a camp staffer who dove right in.
“I’m having a blast,” she said. “I get to see all these middle schoolers having a blast and growing in their love for Christ and for each other.”
“Fearless” was the theme of this year’s camp, which was previously called Camp Edge. But when the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph took over the camp from its LifeTeen origins, the new name was a fresh start, but the lessons in faith were just as strong.
In fact, the lessons are so strong that the word is spreading. This year, an extra week of the camp was scheduled for all the middle schoolers who wanted to come.
And 35 of them the first week, June 9-16, came from one parish — St. Gregory Barbarigo in Maryville.
Jenni Halley, the new youth minister at St. Gregory, joked that when the pastor, Benedictine Father Martin DeMeulenaere, told her she was hired in March, he added, “Oh, by the way, there’s this camp, and the deadline is two weeks.”
“I had two weeks to sign kids up,” she said.
But the parish had her back. St. Gregory parishioners, through their support of the parish, paid half the camp fees for any and all prospective campers.
“We had a huge number of fifth, sixth and seventh graders (from the parish school) coming into my room,” said Halley, who also taught middle school last spring. “These kids have a desire to participate and learn about their faith. They wanted it. Yeah, it took a lot of time, but it didn’t take a lot of effort.”
Halley, as a rookie youth minister, also relished the opportunity to meet and share ideas with other youth ministers from throughout the diocese who were among the nearly 40 adult staffers, volunteers and chaperones at the camp’s first week for 79 kids, with another 60 kids expected the following week.
Among them were seminarians Trevor Downey and Jared Samson. Both of the (God willing) future priests were also covered head to toe with mud, and they loved it.
In fact, they said, they will be better priests (God willing) because of it.
“It is a gift for me to learn how to connect with kids,” Downey said. And they are also teaching him.
“Prayer is the biggest thing,” he said. “And learning how to love the Lord when you are covered in mud.”
Samson seconded that idea.
“I’m having fun being out with kids and spreading the Gospel,” he said. “You have to learn how to relate to people, hang with them, and have fun.”
If any of the adults had trouble with the “having fun” part, the middle schoolers quickly set them straight.
Kennedy Sartwell and Jessa Perez, already friends from Sacred Heart Parish in Warrensburg, met new friends every day.
And on the one day where they got down and dirty in the mud, they were pros. Kennedy was caked in it, literally, from the top of her head to the soles of her feet.
“God wanted me to be fearless about it,” she said, echoing the camps’ theme. “He wanted me to go for it, just like I will do for my faith.”
“We learned we should be fearless,” said Jessa, who was somewhat, but not much, less muddy.
“We shouldn’t care what anybody else thinks,” she said. “As long as you love God, you should do what he wants you to do.”