The Germ of a Great Idea
This past year, St. Thomas’ Parish, Dupont Circle, has been deeply involved in welcoming newly arrived immigrants to DC and helping them to get settled here or to reach their final destination in the States. As people settled in short-term housing in the hotels on New York Avenue NE, the parish stayed in touch, supporting families as they could.
As summer approached, the Rev. Lisa Saunders Ahuja, rector of St. Thomas’, realized that the children of these immigrant families would have no summer program because all the summer school slots had already been filled. Without continuing English-language classes, the children would likely lose their English skills over the summer. What, she wondered, could her parish do to flip the script?
Looking at a map of the Diocese, Rev. Ahuja realized the closest parish was Church of Our Saviour, Brookland Parish. She mentioned the possibility of a summer camp to me (not only do I live in Brookland, I attend Our Saviour), and together, we met with Sherone Ivey, the Senior Warden at Our Saviour, when this germ of an idea really began to sprout. The following Sunday Sherone and I met with the vestry who approved using the space at Church of Our Saviour for the summer camp without hesitation.
With that, it was onto the next hurdle: Raising the money.
Loaves and Fishes and Logistics
Church of Our Saviour submitted a Congregational Growth Grant proposal for $14,000 in late May – and received a grant of $9,200. The Diocese was then able to allocate another $3,900. This camp really was going to happen! We all hit up our friends for support and raised another $8,000. We connected with the folks from Mutual Aid. We learned that Georgetown University has a program to provide English-language training, transportation, and legal assistance for asylum seekers.
The pieces were coming together: A miracle at the magnitude of the loaves and fishes.
We scheduled the camp – now called Veranito Summer Camp – from June 27 to August 10, decided on the age range (9-12 year-olds), and worked out the number of campers Veranito could support well – 25.
We sorted through all the many logistics you’d expect in a startup enterprise: Hiring camp director Araceli Ma – whose extensive experience working with children and camp made her the ideal candidate – and an assistant. Recruiting volunteers. Gathering the vast array of materials any good summer camp needs (art supplies, sports equipment, and games, oh my!). Coordinating with our partners at Mutual Aid and Georgetown University.
Camp Was a Blast (As All Camps Should Be) – And So Much More (Ditto)
For seven weeks we gathered at Church of Our Saviour in the parish hall, every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Mornings were full of activities: art, talks with priests from around the Diocese, going to the park, water games on the church’s grounds, going to the pool (for many their first visit to a public pool – with thanks to St. Thomas’ parishioners for swim gear donations) – and the joys of Legos, Play-Doh, Jenga, friendship bracelets, and the amazing, donated Foosball Table.
The mornings ended with lunch. Volunteer Elsy and her family brought arepas, and the children were overjoyed to eat food from home. Among the volunteers was a caterer, Jocko Fajardo. He had so much fun reading to the kids and hanging out, he signed up to bring two lunches: a taco bar and grilled cheese sandwiches. He died before he could bring lunch, but a number of his friends provided a taco bar and other lunches. The Rev. Marilyn Jenkins, rector of St. George’s, DC, grilled hotdogs and cheese sandwiches. Soup, even on the hottest days, was always a big hit. Cheetos were the favorite junk food, Otter Pops ruled, and no one ever turned down fruit – volunteers brought boatloads of seasonal goodies, all of which disappeared. Every kid went home with snacks to share and every week we sent home a bag of whatever wouldn’t make it through the weekend.
Each afternoon, a group of about eight Georgetown University student tutors worked with the kids on their English and helped out with lunch and transportation. The lessons were designed specifically for the skills of each child. The final assessment showed that each child improved their English skills over the summer, with at least one girl making a remarkable increase of several levels. What a joy to see the skills and confidence each child found!
Our campers were also given education in values. There was a 30-minute talk every Wednesday where topics such as gratitude, the light of Christ, friendship and respect could be discussed and important questions explored. How do we cope when a loved one is no longer with us? What does taking part in an inclusive and safe community for LGBTQ + members look like? Am I a beloved child of God?
During the camp session, the children were curious about Kim, a transgender woman from Venezuela who volunteered regularly. This gave us an opportunity to have a conversation about Pride and respecting the dignity of every human being. A GU student, who is gay, led the conversation. I shared my own story and spoke of making a life with my wife. Later that day one of the kids told Araceli his mother has a wife – and how it is hard sometimes.
A Lasting Impact
Many of the children (and their families) arrived in the U.S. deeply traumatized. They had seen many people who died on the impossible journey to the U.S. At the hotels, parents kept their children in their own rooms because everyone still felt alone and afraid. One mother told us that the camp meant the world for her nine-year-old daughter who worries for her father, still detained at the border. She had been silent most of the time since arriving at the hotel, but with camp came friends and new experiences. Each afternoon after arriving home from camp, she would enthusiastically tell her mother all about the day’s activities.
Over the course of the summer, the children played together, sang together, ate together, and learned more about themselves, the world, and God’s love. Together. All the pieces that make camp a rich, formative experience.
The Economy of God
Araceli reached out to the parents every day. We landscaped the garden in front of the main door of the Church of Our Saviour. Fathers and mothers of the children helped two mornings to prepare the land and the children planted a little plant for each child at the camp. They watered the new garden every morning, learning to take care of the creation. The last week of camp we spent a day at Washington National Cathedral, playing on the grounds, and having lunch at St. Alban’s Parish. Our campers got to visit the Chapel of the Annunciation at Church House (where the bishop and her staff work) and learn about the chapel, which features stained glass windows of women saints. They loved being in the chapel.
The camp was a serious magnet for volunteers and donations – for which we give unending thanks. We averaged seven teen and adult volunteers each day, clocking in almost 5,000 volunteer hours over the course of the summer. Special thanks also go to the priest friends who helped with Wednesday morning sessions on values: the Revs. Lisa Barrowclough, Francisco Valle, Vidal Rivas, Lisa Ahuja, and Yoimel Gonzales.
At the final celebration, communion service, and blessing, each child received a fully stocked backpack from the generosity of members of Church of Our Saviour. Members of Church of Our Saviour and St. Thomas, along with families, filled the church. Camp officially ended with a festive meal in the parish hall on Sunday morning. Leftovers went home with campers and parishioners alike.
In the economy of God there is always more than enough. This summer at Church of Our Saviour we didn’t have to just believe that. We saw it!
The Rev. Linda M. Kaufman, retired
Parishioner at Church of Our Saviour