SHAWANO — Fifty-two middle schoolers. Five days. One mission.
Students in grades six through eight gathered at Camp Tekakwitha in Shawano County June 15-19 to grow closer to Jesus and their peers through the most natural means: the outdoors.
Paired with the expected “camper experience” of sleeping in cabins, canoeing, building campfires and playing games, Extreme Faith Camp is a five-day Catholic summer camp hosted with the intention of offering an “up north” experience married to opportunities to learn about and grow in the love of Christ, according to youth minister Bailey Hansen.
“When you’re here at camp, kids realize that Jesus is present to us in the chapel, and he is present to us at the Gaga Pit (a dodgeball style game),” she said. “He is present when we’re making crafts, and he is present when we’re playing capture the flag. God is not just a church, he is a life event.”
Hansen said the camp started four years ago when Becky VanKauwenberg, a youth minister at the Quad Parishes (Annunciation, St. Joseph, St. Jude, St. Patrick), Green Bay, discovered the camp in Minnesota. Hansen said VanKauwenberg thought it was a “beautiful format” for a youth camp and decided to get some youth ministers in the Green Bay Diocese together to recreate it.
Beginning the day with an optional 6:45 a.m. “polar bear plunge” into the waters of Loon Lake, students participate in daily Mass, small group discussions on various faith topics, recreational activities (archery, crafting, canoeing or ecology labs) and prayer time.
“The night before I made my decision (to come to camp), I was praying and asking God to tell me what to do because I didn’t know if I should come or not,” St. Paul (Combined Locks) middle schooler Max Digman said. “It was scary to me to think I’d be away from my sister, my family and my pets, but I know I made the right decision because I’m meeting new friends, new people and everyone is really kind. And being outside gives you that connection to God who, to me, is saying, ‘I’m here all around you.’”
The week also offers the sacrament of reconciliation and eucharistic adoration. Anna Schmidt, the emcee of this year’s camp, has been with the Extreme Faith Camp team since the beginning and said the faith of the middle schoolers leaves her speechless every year.
She explained how the students spend the week participating in fun outdoor activities and spending time with friends, but when she asked one girl during afternoon activities what her favorite part of the whole week had been so far, the answer was unexpectedly simple. “She looked at me and said, ‘The first night of adoration when we got to carry a candle up to Jesus and say, “I’m all in.’”
Due to the growth and popularity of the program, Schmidt said the Extreme Faith Camp has grown large enough to support two separate sessions. The second was scheduled for June 29 to July 3. She said the first two years the camp focused on structuring the program well and keeping it small and manageable with just a few parishes involved.
“The third year it just kind of blew up,” she said. “We maxed out what this camp holds for campers. With adults and middle schoolers, we had a group in the 90s. It was so amazing. So we decided this year we would open it up for two weeks because we didn’t want to turn anybody away, but at the same time we need to keep our numbers reasonable so that we can give them the best of ourselves.”
Nathan Runde, a sophomore at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver, is one of the team leaders for the camp. He said he loves being able to talk and play with the middle schoolers who often see a “change of heart” over the course of the week.
“I think at camps like this you really start taking hold of your faith and saying, ‘This is my own; it isn’t just something Mom and Dad tell me I have to do,’” he said. “I think that’s really important for these kids to start establishing a solid prayer life and learning about their faith. It’s a good place to say, ‘OK, I’m going to take my faith, and I’m going to actually live this out.’”
Carlee Hietpas, now a high school junior, agreed with Runde. Hietpas was a camper for two years and then joined the leaders as a member of the prayer team for one year. She said that, although the experience is different for each camper, there is no denying the Holy Spirit is present and at work.
“When we asked them in the beginning of the week what they were looking forward to, they said the food and the Wacky Games,” she said. “But I see every single camper have a really amazing experience at adoration, and they always come back at the end of that night totally changed.”
Next year’s camp is open to all middle schoolers in the diocese. High school team leaders and chaperones are also welcome. For more information, email Becky VanKauwenberg at [email protected].