Out of the Woods
With inspiration, sweat, and not much else, our team created a Covenant camp experience for kids in the city.
by Jamie Sladkey and Josh Hiben | March 20, 2017
Who says a camp experience has to take place on a scenic lake surrounded by pine trees? We believe that Covenant camping is not life-changing because of its location. It is life-changing because it creates space and time for kids to be accepted and loved, supported in community, and to become Christlike role models. Camp makes room for all campers to be their own silly self and be still before God, encountering a new way to live life with Jesus and with others. It is formational, preparing young people for the future. Covenant camping is about the community of believers embodying the good news of Jesus.
So every summer we wonder, how can we get as many kids to camp as possible?
At Covenant Youth Collision in Chicago, a nonprofit focused on enriching local congregations through collaborative youth ministry, we are constantly connecting new churches and students to our Covenant camps in the Central Conference. Recently, however, we began to think about the families who are unable to take advantage of those rich opportunities. Even with scholarships, the cost is beyond the means of many families. The distance from the city—plus a lack of familiarity with camp culture—means that we see too many kids without access to the benefits and power of a camp experience. We decided to do something about that.
Enter “Kids College.” Covenant Youth Collision (CYC) has a network of more than a dozen churches. That means we have a strong understanding of the needs and communities throughout the North Side of Chicago. One significant need is for affordable summer childcare, so last spring we decided to create a day camp experience that combined the traditional values of Covenant camping with an educational component to highlight the importance of school and even open the door to possible future college attendance.
We understood the need and we had a passion for Covenant camping. But would we be able to pull off a four-week, nine-to-five summer day camp?
First, Covenant camp enthusiast and Ravenswood Covenant Church pastor Phil Staurseth volunteered to host us at his church four days a week. Next, we turned to North Park University, with whom we have partnered in other CYC projects. Jodi Koslow-Martin, vice-president of student engagement, was enthusiastic about our idea and agreed to host Kids College at North Park one day a week.
Our next question: how would we feed our campers? We did some research and discovered a free Chicago summer meals program funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. We were approved as a summer site, went through the mandatory training, and soon the possibility of having hundreds of meals delivered to our door every morning of camp was a reality. The two largest expenses of camp—facilities and food—were now covered for free!
But as spring slipped away and summer drew near, we still had no idea how we would pay for staff and necessary supplies. CYC runs on its own shoestring budget, supported primarily by donations from individuals and partner churches. We had no capacity to take on this extra programming.
Then in early May we received a $10,000 grant approval from Covenant Children’s Ministries, a ministry of the Central Conference in Princeton, Illinois.
Everything was now in place to see if we could actually make a new camp happen. We had no registration system, no former campers, no hired staff, no programming created. Our ragtag crew of CYC leaders (the two of us, plus Teel Short, Bethany Roesler, and Marcus Payne) gave up our summer plans and joined the adventure. Our motto became, “Who knew it would be difficult to build a camp out of nothing?”
We began promoting to three neighborhoods—
Albany Park, Ravenswood, and Uptown—for families with children between third and eighth grade. We handed out flyers door to door and at every public school in those communities. We created Facebook ads and contacted every church to pass out flyers to their congregations.
But two weeks before camp was scheduled to begin, fewer than twenty kids had signed up. Our goal was fifty kids a week for four weeks during the month of July, with a total capacity of 200 campers. We told ourselves that if we didn’t get ten more kids in the next two days, we would cancel the final two weeks of Kids College.
Within two days, forty more kids had signed up! The week before camp started we filled up week one to capacity, with fifty campers.
By the end of the summer, all four weeks were sold out. Families paid on a sliding scale—neighborhood families paid $50 per child per week, and families from our sponsoring Covenant churches paid $150 per student, with scholarships available to anyone in need. After the first week, families started re-enrolling their children and telling their friends about us. One parent of two campers said, “I have brought my children to so many different park district and YMCA summer camps, and each morning my kids would wake up not wanting to go. But with Kids College, even after three whole weeks of attending this camp, they still wake up every morning eager and excited to attend! Whatever you all do, keep doing it!”
Our daily activities at Kids College mirrored the schedule of a day at camp. We began with breakfast, then held worship and small groups, followed by lunch, big games, and arts and crafts. The educational component brought volunteer educators who helped teach kids the fun and importance of math, science, technology, finance, creative writing, engineering, and more.
Every Wednesday we took an excursion to North Park University where university staff taught “Junior Achievement” classes on finances and money management. At the end of the four weeks, students received certificates that they could eventually exchange for scholarship monies at North Park. After class, North Park athletic coaches and players ran training clinics for our campers in soccer, volleyball, basketball, and softball.
Somehow it all worked. “Typically camp happens at wonderful and holy places on lakes and mountains and out in the wilderness—but at Ravenswood we have seen this same camp spirit of relationship, experience, and memories in the work of CYC,” said Phil. “It was a gift to be part of it all. Our church just opened our doors and camp happened.”
And unlike a camp experience in a traditional setting, Kids College gave campers a chance to engage on a college campus, and, for many, get a sense for the first time of the possibilities for their future.
Our liaison with North Park, Alison Crino, said, “North Park is deeply invested in our local community, and we desire to see our neighborhood kids exposed to our loving campus community from an early age, in the hopes that they would be motivated to pursue learning and get excited about their futures. It was amazing to see how their lives (and ours!) were enhanced and changed.”
Through Kids College we were able to meet students who wouldn’t have come to church any other way. Eight-year old Adeliia, who, with her mother, recently immigrated to the U.S. from Kazakhstan, had a stomachache one day, so our camp photographer and office administrator, Bethany, helped distract her by reading children’s Bible stories to her.
Suddenly Adeliia said, “I want to meet God. I want to be his friend.” Bethany replied that God wanted to be her friend more than anything in the world, and that they could be! When Adeliia asked how someone can talk to God, Bethany explained to her what prayer is. Adeliia prayed, “Dear God, hi, I want to be your friend. Thank you for camp because people are nice to me here and I have fun. I love camp and I never got to go before. And thank you that they speak to me in English, but they think it’s cool that my mom doesn’t speak English. Sometimes people make fun of her, but my friends here and the counselor didn’t make fun of her. And please make my tummy feel better. Amen.”
Through Kids College we had the unbelievable opportunity to work daily with students of many races, cultures, even religions, and tell them every day that Jesus loves them. Every child should be able to experience the joy of Covenant camping, no matter where they are from or how much their family makes. We are excited to continue to take steps in this next year to expand Kids College to reach more children and families with the love of Christ and the joy of Covenant camping ministry.
We are also expanding our relationship with the university. This summer, North Park plans to host Kids College three days a week. We also hope to move from four weeks of fifty campers to six weeks of seventy-five campers, for a total of 450 students served. We are convinced that Kids College is one of the best ways to serve the needs of our partner churches and neighborhood families.
Near the end of the fourth week last summer, we asked Adeliia what she thought of her time with us. She answered, “Since coming to the U.S., Kids College has been the best place. It made me so happy, and I learned about God, and all the counselors made me feel very happy. Thank you!”