By Rose O’Connor | Correspondent
It’s safe to say that many consider Vacation Bible School one of the best weeks during the summer for parishes in the Diocese of Trenton.
While each parish offers different VBS programs at various times throughout the summer, one element of the catechesis series that is common is the evolution of camper to counselor.
“There’s a lot of noise that week, but it’s a joy-filled noise that permeates the building,” Mary Pat Scordato said with a laugh.
Scordato has served as director of religious education for the past five years in St. Mary of the Lakes Parish, Medford, and has spent 14 years as a member of the Vacation Bible School team at the parish.
Like many parishes across the Diocese, St. Mary of the Lakes has experienced a circle of evangelization through VBS, where volunteers who facilitate the program are actually former “graduates” returning to the program they attended when they were younger.
“We have 90 junior counselors and counselors who work with the students in grades Pre-K through five,” Scordato explained.
These junior counselors and counselors range from sixth-grade to college-aged students who attended VBS in the past and have received ample training in the faith program, as well as issues such as dress code, appropriate language, cell phone usage and responsible behavior as leaders.
The counselors must sign an agreement and hold themselves accountable.
“Right now, we have a waiting list to be a counselor,” Scordato said of the camp that runs the first week of August each year.
While she acknowledged many students use the week to fulfill service hour requirements for high school graduation or admittance into the National Honor Society, Scordato said, “They go above and beyond the hours they need in service to their Church.”
“They are really great; they learn how to be group leaders and are showing the junior counselors what it is to be a group leader,” she said. “Some of the students who are counselors have been in the program for 10 years now. They share their faith and really get to see both sides of VBS.”
Coordinator of religious education Margaret Zola, whose own children have participated as both campers and counselors in Vacation Bible School over the years at St. Mary Parish, Bordentown, believes that despite all of the hard work, “It is their faith and love of God that bring the student volunteers back to the camp, year after year.”
Laura Connell, co-director of Vacation Bible School at St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish, Avon-by-the-Sea, sees evolution from camper to counselor as the “beauty” of the program and part of the “founding vision” for VBS in the parish that was founded by co-director Marion Berry during the 1980s.
Connell herself had been involved in VBS since 1990.
“It’s a very successful program because of the teen helpers,” she remarked of the approximately 50 youth leaders from seventh grade through high school, and fifth- and sixth-grade helpers who assist in teaching 125 campers about their faith.
The counselors, who attend St. Rose High School, Belmar; Manasquan High School; Christian Brothers Academy, Lincroft; and Red Bank Catholic High School “are an active part of the activities, from setting up for VBS the week before to leading the Pre-K and kindergarten campers,” she said.
Vacation Bible School at the Monmouth county parish not only illustrates the circle of evangelization of camper to counselor, but that “it’s also intergenerational,” Connell said.
“The counselors are excited to share this experience with little brothers and sisters and cousins. It really becomes a family event,” she stated.
“It’s so inspiring,” Connell said of the opportunity for the students to become the teachers. “The helpers and teen helpers are amazing, and we are thrilled they continue to stay in the program even as they get older. Becoming a leader in Vacation Bible School is something the younger children look forward to. This is part of Faith in Our Future – this is evangelization.”
Barbara Evans, director of religious education in St. Denis Parish, Manasquan concurred.
“The kids in camp have a blast and there are so many that enjoy it, but they just grow too old for the program. So it’s great that we can still include them in VBS as assistants,” she offered.
“They are helping other students learn about God, and they are having fun,” she said of the 46 middle and high school students who served as crew assistants and leaders recently in Manasquan.
This year’s theme of VBS in St. Denis is “Maker Fun Factory,” and fun was certainly something the 60 campers were having.
“That’s what our students show to the younger campers – that our faith is fun! That there is joy in our faith and joy in the Gospel,” Evans said.