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When the “veterans” talk about what brings them back to the Junior CYO Camp at Rock Springs year after year, they don’t mention the horseback riding, canoes, volleyball, swimming pool, arts and crafts, Frisbee golf or even the spirited and spontaneous card games.
“It’s a place we can talk about God and our faith,” says a girl from Colby, Kan., at the Memorial Day weekend camp for the third time. “It allows me to really understand what it means to be Catholic, and I like that feeling.”
“We’re living our faith, our Catholicism, for a few days,” adds her friend across the dinner table, who then notes wistfully that they both have reached the age limit for campers. “But we’ll be back as counselors,” she notes with a smile.
That is a pattern Sister Barbara Ellen Apaceller has seen often in her 31 years as director of the annual camp for kids in grades six through nine that takes over Rock Spring 4-H Ranch, about 15 miles south and west of Junction City, Kan. At this year’s camp there are about 200 campers from throughout the Salina Diocese, plus another 25 of so high school seniors and college students who serve as counselors. Also on hand are a few Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia and several other older adults helping Sister Barbara Ellen with administering the entire event.
Most of the counselors are camp graduates.
Such is the case for Jed Smith of Abilene, who was a camper for four years and then a counselor for another 12. This year he couldn’t work out his schedule to make it 13 — but he showed up on Memorial Day, Monday, anyway, to lend his support and see if he could help out.
“I just couldn’t quit cold turkey,” he says with a laugh. “I had to come for at least one day, just to feel part of it.”
What started as a breezy conversation with two other counselors quickly deepens: “This camp is the closest to God I ever feel,” Jed says. “When I was in sixth-grade — my first year here — it was the first place I ever felt everyone loved me, just for who I am.”
“These kids can shine and be proud of their religion and their faith,” adds James Newman, a native of Hoxie, Kan., who now lives in Boston. He flew to Kansas Friday night to be here for the camp — his 20th at Rock Springs, counting both 4-H and CYO. “It’s a part of everything we do, and they all know it’s OK, we love them.”
“It’s about acceptance,” adds Eileen Remley of Concordia, who now lives in Lawrence as a student at the University of Kansas. “God loves them exactly as they are, and we feel that here.”
Jed has the final word on the subject for now: “This is heaven; this is what I think heaven is like. It’s a place where you feel God’s love and you can form friendships unlike any other.”
This year’s camp has been marked by that kind of religious commitment and the accompanying maturity, say Sister Barbara Ellen and several of the other “veterans.”
“Top to bottom, campers to counselors, you can really feel it,” James Newman says. “We’re all having a good time, but we also know that’s only part of the reason we’re here.”
Among the counselors, Sister Barbara Ellen notes, “They’re really here for the kids. There have been some years when (the counselors) seemed to be more here for each other, but not this year.”
Sister Lois O’Malley, a Sister of St. Joseph of Wichita who has taken a break from college students at Kansas State University to help at the camp for the last six or seven years, agrees.
“It’s great to see these kids interact and really have fun,” she says as she looks out over the crowd gathering for lunch. “They create a bond through their faith, and that’s a wonderful thing to see.”
Bishop Paul Coakley and several diocesan priests were also in the crowd gathering outside the dining hall on Monday. The bishop had come to Rock Springs to spend a few hours, give a few encouraging remarks after lunch and chat with some of the campers and counselors, who included about half a dozen seminarians from throughout the diocese.
Not all of those were veterans, however.
Brian Lager, who grew up in Grinnell, Kan., west of Hays, and is now attending seminary in Denver, concedes that he was sent to the camp as a diocesan assignment. “I had to come,” he says with a laugh. “But now that they made me come once, I’ll be back if I can arrange it. These kids are special.”
The camp director couldn’t agree more.
“Just to be around these kids… they’re so firm in their faith and love of God,” says Sister Barbara Ellen, who serves as Director of Youth Ministry and Religious Education for the Salina Diocese. “With them I have no fear for the future of the Church.”