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Betsy Kneepkens: Camp Survive’s transformations are best seen up close

Every August I look forward to the same bus ride: I get to chaperone middle schoolers from the east side of our diocese to Camp Survive.

I see this as a privilege, and I am left wondering why others are not vying for this job. Few situations place you in the midst of adolescents at a time when they are most real. For many, this week is the first time away. For others, they go without knowing anyone else. And still others think they have everything all figured out. The one-and-a-half hour bus trip is an annual education in the lives of young people, and I love every second of it.

Betsy Kneepkens
Betsy Kneekpens
Faith and Family

A little background on Camp Survive. This week-long church camp is held in McGregor each year. The effort is organized by our Department of Youth Ministry and is probably the most sought-after activity the Diocese of Duluth offers. The 205 open spots fill up in ten days without any formal advertising.

Also, the camp staffing is by trained high school camp returners who serve as junior counselors or prayer team participants. Youth ministers, as well as several priests and seminarians, are responsible for the senior leadership. Whether it is campers, junior counselors, or prayer team members, there are always considerably more young people interested in being part of this particular event than space will allow.

For the past several years I have been the “go to camp” bus chaperone. I greet the campers and families, collect permission slips, and make sure everyone is accounted for. I watch the gentle goodbye hugs and words of affection from the parents as the kids enter the bus. I observe more children being nervous than excited. We begin the bus ride with a prayer, and the parents wave as we leave the parking lots.

Most of the middle schoolers are quiet, anxious, and difficult to engage in conversation. Several of the more reserved students select the first few seats so they can sit alone. I do my best to engage these kids, asking questions about their parish and if they have any experience with this camp before. The students that sit in the front of the bus are typically first-time camp-goers.

I know what fun lies ahead of them at camp because all six of my children have had at least one Camp Survive experience. More importantly, I know what sort of transformations occur at camp, and I can hardly wait for that same thing to happen to these middle schoolers who are so apprehensive as travel the highway to McGregor.

This year my experience was significantly different. Instead of being the “go to” bus supervisor, I was the “go home” chaperone. This new role positioned me perfectly to see the amazing work of the Holy Spirit. The bus arrived on time to pick up the campers, but the entire camp looked like a ghost town. I made my way to the lodge’s large conference room. Once inside, I came upon 300-plus young people finishing Mass.

As the priests were processing, the youths were bursting with praise and worship, making it obvious no one had any intention of leaving anytime soon. The song ended, but the campers did not. These young people continued to sing praise from the tops of the lungs, all the while signing the song and moving to the beat. The best way to describe this is these kids had joy in their hearts, and that happiness was rooted in the Holy Spirit. It was the most glorious sight.

Right before the (much delayed) departure, I witnessed endless hugs, high fives, and “let’s keep in touch” comments by campers from other parts of the diocese who were not taking the bus home. As the driver managed to navigate the large vehicle around the tall pine trees to the main highway, no one needed me to help start a conversation. They talked about their small groups and how cool their leader was, they exchanged adoration and Mass time experiences, they laughed about the jokes they played on each other and how their first impressions of some people were all wrong. They talked about coming back next year, some as campers and some as leaders. It was obvious to me that if these young people did not have an affection for the church before camp, they certainly do know.

These campers were stinky, and they just glowed with the love of the Lord. They were fed at camp, but with a lot more than s’mores. They tasted the beauty and richness of our church. Camp Survive sets that bar high, opening up these children to all that is good and true about our Catholic faith. Any parent that greeted their child after camp can sense the change in their kid. They are bubbling with excitement and are confident about the faith their parents are handing down to them. They are open to more and will take more if given to them.

This is not the first time these sorts of life-changing experiences have happened at Camp Survive, it is just the first time I observed this in the multitudes leaving camp. My children have always returned with a transformational experience. I have tried to take this opportunity to elevate the experience they had into the faith life of our family. I think it would be prudent for our larger faith family to get a better understanding of what happens at Camp Survive so we can continue to feed these kids at this level.

It is beyond words to explain the connection these young people made with Christ, but it is obvious they are have the capacity to go deeper. What should our parishes look like so that this transformation continues to happen? What adjustment must be made so that this energy and truth can be the foundation of every parish?

The future of our parishes is already here, and they are preparing themselves. When we continue to embrace these young people, they will be part of the catalyst which will continue to evolve our parish communities. I am convinced these youth are an important part of the Holy Spirit’s work, which is intended to further enrich and renew the splendor of our church.

Next August, it will be the first time I will not have one of my children on the bus to Camp Survive. Sadly, they have outgrown the camper age. I am hopeful they will be selected to be a prayer team member or a junior counselor, but that leaves them off the bus.

I feel strongly that I should not have to retire from my bus chaperone duties simply because my children have grown up. The education and joy I receive from this experience brings me so much hope for our church, but it also helps keep part of my aging heart young. Next August, I would put my money on being on that Camp Survive Bus.

Betsy Kneepkens is director of the Office of Marriage and Family Life for the Diocese of Duluth and a mother of six.