Rachel Whitmire-Griffith called it vacation Bible school on steroids.
At least, that was the pitch she and others from Independence First United Methodist Church and Eagle Lake Camps used around town as they recruited some last-minute registrations for Eagle Lake Day Camp, which the church hosted this week for children ages 6 to 12.
First UMC was one of five Methodist churches around Independence to sponsor the camp, which was open to all children, not just those from families of the Methodist faith. A few dozen day campers received a week of Scripture-based lessons and stories, water-filled fun time outside and then afternoon “rally time” that included some silly skits put on by the college-age counselors.
“We wanted for anyone in Independence to have this experience, because it could be a once-in-a-lifetime thing for some kids,” said Whitmire-Griffith, director of children's ministries and preschool director at First UMC.
“Anybody we could reach,” added J.C. Harp, lead pastor at First UMC. Our goal was to do something in the urban area, kind of our way of fighting mass shootings (elsewhere).”
Harp said the church had been saving for a couple years to host an event like this, including some fundraisers, and with donations and some help from the Missouri Methodist Conference, it was able to cover the full $200 cost for about four-fifths of the children. The church had been planning since January when it secured Eagle Lake for the week.
Eagle Lake is based in Colorado Springs, Colorado and hosts camps there as well as sending seven “Navigator” teams of counselors on the road.
Jason Gomez directed the group of about 20 counselors that guided activities in Independence, which marked the last of the 10-week summer schedule. They did five weeks around Colorado and five weeks around Independence, including spots in St. Louis, Liberty and Lee's Summit.
“We want to partner with churches and create a community impact,” Gomez said.
One of the most important things they do during camp weeks is give each child some one-on-one time to talk with counselors about life – boys with boys, girls with girls. The counselors send postcards to the children in the weeks after to follow up.
“We meet them where they're at,” Gomez said. “The main thing is Jesus, how do we show kids the love of Christ, how you can have relationships with him and still be kids? We really believe that enthusiasm is contagious.”
Eight-year-old Aleah Ulberg said she enjoyed being at camp with her friend Kennedy and that her mother was excited for her to have the opportunity for this camp.
“At the end of the day one fun thing is we get to do Bible reading,” she said. “My mom asked me if I wanted to go, and when I said yes she said 'I signed you up.'”
Trinity Thompkins, 15, is one of the crew leaders – high school or junior high students who help the counselors with their activities and but also have some themselves for Bible study and one-on-one's. She said she's had the most fun working with the young children.
“They want to race you down the slippery slide or the slip and slide,” she said.
Going through this week and observing the counselors has made Thompkins consider a similar gig in the future.
“They make it look so cool, and I love working with kids,” she said.
Whitmire-Griffith said it might be possible for her church to host a similar event on its own, but it would be difficult to find enough young adults to be effective counselors, and as such she felt blessed that First UMC had been able to connect with Eagle Lake.
“We could do this,” she said, drawing out the phrase to emphasize that uncertainty, “but to find counselors so genuine and authentic, it would be hard.”
“For them to see a face besides me, to see people who have this great of interest, is huge.”