The gym of St. Bernadette School became a big top as the Orchard Park parish hosted their festive summer Bible Camp themed "Parade Around the Our Father."
"It's kind of a circus flair along with it. All of our decorations have a circus theme. It's very upbeat," described Tracy Brege, the camp director. Hand colored pictures of monkeys and giraffes filled the hallways. Banners and a giant bag of popcorn filled the gym.
Held July 15 to 19, the weeklong camp offered daily crafts, songs and games, along with Bible lessons for kids in kindergarten through fifth grade. Each day has a theme. So, when Fish day came, the kids heard the story of the loaves and fishes, then had a snack comprised of pretzel rods, licorice lines and gummy worms used to catch goldfish crackers.
"It's a great camp because we have our high school youth leading the kids to the different stations. They're the group leaders, so they're working with the same group of kids throughout the whole week and build a relationship there," explained Brege. "We also have some of our high school youth assisting in the different stations. So, there is an assistant to the music adult director and there is an assistant to the snack director, as well as crafts and things like that."
The kids visit six different stations for 25 minutes each. They get Bible lessons, learn some songs, make some crafts, and play some games. There is even one section just for snacks.
Participants are broken up into four groups according to grade. This year's service project is hand-making fleece tie blankets for the Mercy Sisters who live in the convent next door.
"We'll send them with a nice card so they know they are thought of and loved," said Brege.
The middle school Edge program operates separately throughout the week.
"We're just trying to offer something along with Vacation Bible Camp for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, where there wasn't something before. So, we're doing a similar thing, but more age appropriate for the those in sixth, seventh and eighth grade," said Jesse Saltarelli, the parish youth minster, who operates the program with his wife, Sarah, the director of middle school ministry.
The older kids are reading Scripture, and attending daily Mass, along with playing games and building community.
"They're having a blast," Saltarelli said.
Why do preteens decide to spend a week at church just as summer vacation is starting?
"I think a space where they can be themselves in a safe space with one another and be built up in a culture, I think, is constantly building them down on social media," Saltarelli reasoned. (They're having) a real human to human conversation and community. Whether they recognize it or not, that's what's keeping people around."
The parish priests, pastor Father Paul D. Seil and parochial minister Father Robert Owczarczak stop by throughout the week to say hello. Father Seil, former host of "Our Daily Bread," manned the grill for the Thursday picnic.
"(The Bible Camp) is really been driven by the laity of the parish and the staff members," he said. "I don't really have to do anything. I come over and say hello to the kids, visit with them a little bit. Then I'm
here for the cookout on Thursday."
The Bible camp has been going on for decades. Brege can recall her daughter, now 22, attending in kindergarten. Brege thinks she might have attended herself.
"It gives an opportunity for our youth of our parish and our community a chance to get to know each other, to grow in faith, and to really build a relationship, not only with the Church, but with each other," she said.
Brege has seen kids meet each other at camp, then see each other at sporting events or faith formation class, and remember each other because of the relationships they build after coming year after year.
Teen volunteers usually return over and over again to give back to the community that raised them.
Sarah Schuler and Hannah Johnston work the snack department.
"The two of us work in snacks, so we see all the kids come in," explained Schuler. "They always come in at different times during the day, so we always hear different stories about what they're doing either at lesson or the games outside. They always come in here full of energy and love being here."
The kids enjoy playing games and making dance moves to the songs they learn, but they also accept the opportunity to share their faith. "We had one boy come in and we asked him to lead prayer. He said his own prayer, and it was really intelligent. So, it's kind of strange. They're both interested in the fun aspects, but they're also pretty interested in the religion aspect as well," said Johnston.