Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, summer camps have never been more vital to children and teens' mental, emotional and spiritual health both in the United States and worldwide.
That’s according to leaders from three of the country’s largest Christian camps who told The Christian Post that they’ve heard an “outcry” from parents and young people desperate for connection and spiritual renewal after over a year of the pandemic.
Numerous studies show that young people are experiencing new or worsening mental health conditions since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020.
“Kids have gone through so much this last year-and-a-half. They are in a stage of life where they need a lot of human connection. They're transitioning from one pivotal grade to another, and from one school to another, and all those important interactions have just been taken or modified or gone,” WinShape Foundation Camps Senior Director Chris Witt said.
"Camp is a place where you can restore some of that, where kids can run free and meet someone that hears them, sees them, understands them, and hopefully have an encounter with Christ.”
“Parents and kids are begging for it,” he added. “Every parent is concerned about their child, and every parent has a lot of questions about how we're going to handle things. But at the end of the day, camp is something parents and kids desperately want.”
From daily temperature checks to extensive staff safety training, here’s how three leading Christian summer camps are preparing to make camp fun and safe this summer.
For WinShape Camps, a Christian camp launched by the family that owns Chick-fil-A and offers overnight and day camp experiences for kids of all ages, everything has always started with “safety” — and that hasn’t changed post-COVID, according to Witt.
“You don't have a chance to minister to a child if you can't create a safe environment, emotionally, physically, spiritually, all those ways, so that hasn’t changed,” he explained. “If anything, it's just a matter of looking at things differently to create an incredibly fun, spiritually impactful environment without compromising that.”
This year, WinShape spread staff training across six different campuses to ensure maximum safety. Campers will receive a pre-camp questionnaire to ensure they haven’t recently had COVID-19 symptoms or been exposed to someone who has. Daily check-ins, including temperature screenings for everyone, will be required.
The camps will most notably limit capacity at all locations and place campers in "family groups" with whom they will experience most of their camp day.
“These family groups will travel together all the time, which is where you will build your friendships with others and with counselors,” Witt said. “The spaces may feel a bit different, but when it comes to engaging in their activities, it'll be the same as they always have.”
When anxiety and depression are at an all-time high among young people, Witt said community is vital.
“Isolation exacerbates this issue. Relationship is built into the DNA of Creation," he said. "We were built to be together, to be interactive and to live in the context of each other. Discipleship means chasing after Jesus and chasing after those who are in front of us who have loved Jesus longer and learn from them. You can only do that in community.”
It’s essential for kids to have an encounter with God outside of their parents, Witt said — and that’s an opportunity Christian summer camps provide.
“Our prayer is that our kids would be safe, emotionally and spiritually and physically, in the context of their day. We hope that in that environment, God will speak to kids about the truth of His Son and who Jesus is and understand both their need for Him and the full expression of who God created them to be.”
“I hope our kids come and have a safe experience where they encounter Jesus, and they walk away going, ‘I am loved, I am seen and I am called to live just beyond what I could imagine. The world has been hard and isolated and scary. But man, I have a God who loves me and can do immeasurably more than I ever could dream.'”
Fellowship of Christian Athletes
Since its inception in 1954, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes has challenged athletes and coaches to impact the world for Jesus Christ. One of the ways this organization does that is through its summer camps. FCA President and CEO Shane Williamson said that he’s hopeful that this year, more than ever, the camps will bring “hope and healing” to the next generation.
“We believe fellowship is the field to our faith,” he said. “We all have our own journeys individually, but we were designed to be in fellowship with each other. This fellowship is the fuel that really drives our faith and really can become catalytic in many ways to our journey.”
“We’ve seen a huge passion and outpouring of interest in people wanting to participate and to get back into areas of opportunity where they can be in community and fellowship and enjoy each other in many ways that we haven’t for over a year."
Held around the world, FCA camps serve as “inspiration and perspiration” for athletes and coaches who want to reach their potential through comprehensive athletic, spiritual and leadership training.
Williamson said there’s a “good bit of differentiation” across the U.S. and globally regarding COVID-19 restrictions. FCA is observing the individual guidelines as closely as possible.
“We want to aggressively pursue every opportunity that we can within the context of the way FCA does camp, both in the U.S. and internationally,” he said. “We’re also trying to be as aware as possible of what the local, regional, national and international policies and suggestions are regarding how to set up a safe environment for young people to be able to enjoy a safe camping experience.”
The theme of this year's FCA camps is "Pursue," based on 1 Timothy 6:11: “Pursue righteousness and a godly life, along with faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness.”
“Never before has it been as paramount, as therapeutic, as the opportunity to bring a generation back to knowing that their future is not going to be brought down in the realm that they have existed in for the last few months,” Williamson said. “We just want to be a part of helping heal a generation and give them confidence and passion for their future.”
Young Life exists to help kids build bridges of authentic friendships and introduce them to Jesus Christ. The ministry's camps, in particular, seek to provide fun, adventurous, life-changing experiences.
“We've desperately missed having camp. Kids have missed having camp and maybe need it now more than ever," Chad Sievert, senior vice president of camping at Young Life, told CP.
“This summer, we're spending a lot of time focusing on why we're doing camp and then adjusting to how we're doing camp.”
Sievert said Young Life is following COVID-19 guidelines — all of which vary state-to-state. Guests and staff will be screened as they enter the camp, and throughout their stay, they’ll wear masks when physical distancing isn’t possible. And the camp is operating at reduced capacity to allow for more distancing.
Meals and events will be held outdoors when possible, and handwashing stations will be placed throughout camp. Additionally, teams will clean and sanitize high-touch surfaces multiple times a day.
This year, the camp plans to serve about 50,000 kids and leaders, Sievert said.
“We’re excited for them to hear the Gospel in a camp setting, and I think we can do that even with COVID guidelines and restrictions that will happen this summer," Sievert said. "This camping season really gets to be a catalyst for what's to come in Young Life with kids and leaders in their local communities.”
Though Young Life was unable to meet in person during the pandemic, Sievert stressed that the discipleship aspect of the ministry never stopped.
“One of the best things we can provide kids is a safe and healthy relationship with an adult in their life, and at Young Life, we get to provide that opportunity,” Sievert shared. “The how has looked different in the last 12 months as we've not been able to meet. But we've continued to pursue kids, whether it's over zoom or in person, and that discipleship has continued to happen in terms of healthy relationships between a kid and an adult in their life.”
“We know that the Lord is sovereign over all of this,” he said. “How we do it may look different, but our mission has remained the same, and that's to pursue kids and help them grow in their faith.”