by Shelia Myers
Special to The Leaven
WILLIAMSBURG — The seeds of a dream sown in 1998 are sprouting faith-filled fruit in the archdiocese these days.
Camp Kateri Tekakwitha, the youth camp of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas for grade-, junior high- and high school-aged students, has reached the 15-year milestone of bringing children and families closer to Christ.
What started as a humble attempt to improve archdiocesan youth outreach has inspired thousands of “prayer warriors” to enhance parish life. Camp director Deacon Dana Nearmyer, who is also lead consultant for the office of evangelization and Catholic formation of youth, said the camp has impacted more than 20,000 people since its inception.
Deacon Nearmyer credits the camp’s growth and success to the generous support of the archdiocese and a Catholic community that contributed sweat equity and money.
“What’s blown our minds is how many people have invested in this camp and believe it’s theirs,” he said. “It’s amazing to us how a giant number of people understand the mission of connecting more deeply with Christ and, more importantly, tons of them have gone into church work.”
Kyli Maddox, of Church of the Nativity in Leawood, is now 26 years old. She attended camp from 1998 through 2001 and worked as a camp counselor in high school. She now works as a campus minister for St. James Academy in Lenexa and is helping to coordinate the 15th anniversary celebration.
“Because of camp, I know Jesus,” Maddox said. “I know love and I am blessed to live my life with joy and peace because of that. I am just one of the thousands whose heart has been opened to God’s love because of camp.”
Deacon Nearmyer said most of the Johnson County youth ministers are former campers and staffers.
And now that former participants are old enough to start their own families, he said, he sees them bringing their kids back as campers.
“We’re starting to see this whole circle,” he said. “These kids show up with an expectation we’ve never had before.”
Showing families the potential
That was not the case early on. The biggest obstacle was showing people what was possible with summer camp.
“Parents didn’t grow up going to Catholic camp,” said Deacon Nearmyer. “My wife Debbie and I both went to ecumenical camps [as teens] and had extraordinary experiences. We were telling people, and nobody understood what we were talking about.”
Father Thomas Tank understood. He had been dreaming of a Catholic outdoor camp for youth since 1969.
“My hope was, through various activities, young people could have a different experience of Christ and the church — one that was fun and engaging as well as spiritually enriching,” said Father Tank.
As then-pastor of Nativity in Leawood, Father Tank invited the Nearmyers to help get the camp off the ground.
Twenty-eight campers and staffers participated that first year at Perry Lake. In 2001, the camp outgrew the rented space and moved to the 292-acre facility in Williamsburg that is now Prairie Star Ranch.
The ranch is used year round for spiritual retreats and parish activities, but the heart of the program is Camp Kateri Tekakwitha.
Inspiring the next generation
After 15 years, the Nearmyers see parents and kids enjoying the powerful experience they enjoyed at their ecumenical camps growing up.
But with a bonus, as Catholic campers get the sacraments. Add the serenity and beauty of nature, and you have a recipe for a transformational experience.
“For kids to have a weeklong experience surrounded by the Lord’s creation, submerged in a culture of Catholic faith, it’s going to make an impact on their hearts and on their lives,” said Debbie Nearmyer.
Trisha Miller, of St. Pius X Parish in Mission, has witnessed the impact. She helped four teenage girls, religious refugees from Bhutan, attend camp last month.
The girls were nervous and scared when Miller left them on Monday, but “glowing with excitement” by the end of the session.
“I see new confidence in the girls, more willingness to try something and more willingness to make non-Nepali friends,” Miller said. “They learned a new kind of trust at camp. Their English improved.”
The reality of the camp far exceeds Father Tank’s initial vision, but he said there is always room for improvement.
“My main hope is that the camp will continue to do even better what it is already doing — engaging our Catholic youth people in a great experience of Jesus and the gift of life in Christ that we have as a church community,” he said.
This engagement will continue to bear fruit as camp alumni become enthusiastic leaders in their parishes and communities. Former camper and staffer Ginny Winter McCarthy, also of Nativity, said camp made her the person she is today.
“The person I am, the community I seek, the leader I strive to be, originated in the community that surrounded me and built me up at Camp Tekakwitha,” she said. “Here’s to 15 times 15 more grace-filled, divinely guided and endlessly impactful years!”
The camp invites former and current campers, staffers and their families to join in the 15th anniversary celebration of Camp Kateri Tekakwitha at Prairie Star, July 28, from 4 to 8 p.m. Bring memories, stories and pictures. For more information and to RSVP, contact Kyli Maddox at: email@example.com, or visit the Facebook page, “Camp Tekakwitha at Prairie Star Ranch.”
Schedule of events:
4 p.m. — Welcome and tours
5 p.m. — Dinner
6 p.m. — Praise and worship
7 p.m. — Mass with Archbishop
8 p.m. — Mikey Needleman Band