With games, art projects, movies, snacks and more, St. Peter’s Vacation Bible School (VBS) is not only fun, but leaves its campers with religious lessons that will last a lifetime.
Margaret Andreozzi, who is in charge of VBS and the elementary autism coordinator, said, “Here at St. Peter’s we are helping kids build lifelong friendships; not only that but we are helping to build community throughout our camp and the city.”
St. Peter’s masterfully fuses fun and religion by taking Christian beliefs and concepts and making them age appropriate.
The 200 campers are divided into 20 different “crews” with about eight children and two counselors each. The campers are from kindergarten to fourth grade while the junior counselors are from students in the 5th to 8th grades. These counselors are partnered with the younger crews as leaders to help the younger campers. High school volunteers, senior counselors, work within the station to help the volunteer running it.
The camp is an unplugged zone, where counselors are not supposed to use their cell phones or gadgets.
Andreozzi said, “With all the technology we have now, kids’ face to face interaction is deteriorating, it’s starting to break down. We are trying to fix that and we see a difference year to year in the counselors that come back.”
Although the main camp is for school-aged children, St. Peter’s also has a preschool that is run alongside the camp. It follows the weird animals theme and meets with the campers a few times throughout the week.
Andreozzi explained that the preschool is actually helping to grow the success of VBS. The students want to come back and seeing the campers helps them become comfortable in a camp setting.
Katelyn Greene, the preschool teacher for the St. Peter’s VBS, says the small children are learning about animals and how to care for them with fun games like “moosical chairs,” where the preschoolers act like animals.
Greene said, “They are learning about faith through the songs we sing and the chants we say like ‘Jesus loves you.’ Our activities are age appropriate and you really see the beginning of understanding with these young children. It is always nice when you see the kids you worked with in preschool move on to the full camp and just how excited they are.”
The crews rotate throughout the church grounds to visit numerous stations that either let kids watch a short video, play a game or discuss bible verses. The curriculum, themes and mascots are from Group.com, a Christian publishing company that hopes to make “Jesus real for kids” through their VBS publications.
This year’s theme is “weird animals.” These animals, out of the ordinary for the animal kingdom, help the children understand that despite the differences between us, we are all God’s creations and he loves us.
One of the stations, run by Patricia Bastia, is called the KidVid Cinema where the kids watch short films about a real child facing adversity in their life. With a different video each day to discuss, the campers confront various issues from across the world. The five concepts considered this week include a young boy living in an orphanage, a child with autism, one with leukemia, another with anxiety and a brand new perspective from a bully.
Bastia said, “We are opening timely topics of conversation.
This year’s videos deal with some heavier topics and to help the kids process that information, we have a discussion, but we also have a journaling system. Today when we were talking about autism, we discussed what made each one of us different and unique. Instead of shaming each other for the differences we celebrated them.”
The autism video had extra importance for St. Peter’s because they run Autism & The Sacraments, a program that services Rhode Island and Massachusetts and allows autistic children to attend their own mass to reach communion and confirmation. “These are kids who may not be able to attend church on a normal basis, but still deserve to interact with their religion and god we want to offer that and we have for the past eight years,” Andreozzi said.
The program has had 40 of their members make their first communion and eight have made their confirmation.
The campers all also made paper plate marionettes with Katy Magee, the head of the crafting project. With phosphorescent paint, ribbon, markers and string, the small puppets are small creatures to go along with the wild animal theme.
“The kids got to explore who they are with the project. They were all told the same directions, given the same materials and we ended up with so many different results. No one said ‘yours is ugly’ or ‘you did it wrong’; they accepted the differences. It is the lessons they are learning all week put into practice,” Magee said.
Beyond the songs and chants of “Jesus loves you,” the campers also get the chance to study actual bible verses through interactive readings.
Elaine Morisseau, a full staff member of St. Peter’s, gathers the campers to explain different versus through role playing and acting it out with her helpers each day.
“We want to bring the Bible to modern times,” Morisseau said. “Some of the verses may be difficult to understand, but we bring the lesson on the child’s level.”
Andreozzi agreed, saying, “Kids learn in so many different ways and here at the camp we use them all.”
For their first lesson, on Jesus and the lepers, some kids were allowed to eat snacks while others, covered in bright colored stickers, were sectioned off from the rest of the group. The students were allowed to join the rest, once Jesus helped them, but the kids learned what it means to be left out and the harm it can do unto others to leave them out.
Morisseau said, “These are lessons they take with them when they leave the camp for the day. A younger camper, who was a leper for the exercise, told his older sister, who is also in the camp, that he felt bad being left out. She explained to him that’s what the lepers felt like.”
“Even with all the fun the campers are having all day, it is the lessons that are lasting for them,” Andreozzi said. “We want them to leave the camp knowing that God loves everyone and to pass that love on.”
The VBS runs all this week until Friday, when students will have a culmination performance for their families. The campers will show their parents the songs and corresponding dances for the five songs they have learned throughout the week. Pinkberry, the frozen yogurt company, will also be at the performance as a nice treat for everyone.