Archdiocese Local

Camp Tekakwitha: Behind the scenes

Caroline Hanson and Mary Kate Pikus (from left in blue) prepare lunch for campers. The two manage all kitchen operations and oversee the handful of staff members who help them each session. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

by Moira Cullings
moira.cullings@theleaven.org

WILLIAMSBURG — It was a moment months in the making.

On June 6, the staff of Camp Tekakwitha at Prairie Star Ranch in Williamsburg welcomed the first round of the nearly 1500 campers they expected to see this summer.

Despite some first-session nerves, the team of mostly young staffers knew they were well-prepared to tackle the ups and downs of a summer spent mostly outside and with scads of tweens and teens. They had trained for this.

In its 24th year of operation, Camp Tekakwitha is a well-oiled machine. But directors Deacon Dana and Deborah Nearmyer said planning and preparation are the keys to its success.

Back in the saddle

Casey Baker has a short commute to work. If he wanted, he could ride his horse the four miles to Prairie Star Ranch.

As the ranch’s horse trainer, his job is never boring.

“You haven’t lived until you’ve put 25 screaming, extremely excited fifth-grade girls on horses and taken off down the trail,” said Baker.

Camp horse trainer Casey Baker keeps his eye on a new rescue horse that he is working with to acclimate to the ranch and make sure it is rider-friendly. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

Some of the kids are scared at first, but he’s witnessed many conquer their fear.

“Once you get them on these horses and you show them how to lead their horse . . . you see their confidence grow incredibly,” he said. “By the time we get back, they’re a completely different person.”

Baker spent the spring ensuring his 29 horses were ready to carry campers this summer. He also cut back the trails so they’re safe for the young riders.

Casey Baker uses gentle techniques to gain the trust and respect of the horses at Prairie Star Ranch. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

During camp rides, he’s not without help. Baker trained five counselors who have assisted him throughout the summer.

“I teach them some horse psychology,” he said, and how horses communicate.

“Ninety-nine percent of it is done with body posturing,” he explained. “I teach them how to read horses.”

This knowledge, along with the bridling and saddling skills they acquire, allows the staff to help riders who run into any problems on the trails.

Casey Baker rides one of the horses at the ranch on a day when campers aren’t riding. For Baker, sharing his love for horses and the faith with campers and staff has been life-changing. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

Baker has been challenged in unexpected ways since starting at the ranch last March.

But a moment during a family day last fall reminds him of the powerful ways God works at Prairie Star.

A man approached Baker saying that his daughter, who is a quadriplegic, was hoping to ride a horse for the first time.

“I put the dad on the horse and then I cradled his daughter in my arms and handed his daughter up to him on the horse,” said Baker. “He carried his daughter while Cruzer, one of our horses, carried them both.

“She had no function physically at all. She couldn’t even hold her head up. But I watched her try to smile, and I watched tears come to her eyes as she was trying to understand and experience God on the back of this horse.”

“It’s amazing what God can do with anything or anybody,” he added. “That moment changed my life.”

Made with love

This is Mary Kate Pikus’ 11th summer at Camp Tekakwitha.

But the Saint Louis University junior and St. James Academy, Lenexa, alum is experiencing it in a completely new way this time around as a co-director of the kitchen.

She and Caroline Hanson manage all kitchen operations and oversee the handful of staff members who help them each session.

Caroline Hanson, left, and Mary Kate Pikus make spaghetti for campers and staff at Camp Tekakwitha. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

Before they stepped into the kitchen, they completed an online food certification course, which taught them about food preparation, where to store certain foods, safe temperatures to cook in and how to properly clean dishes.

“It’s definitely a learning process,” said Pikus. “We learn something new every day about how something in the kitchen works.”

One of their more tedious tasks is using Sysco’s online ordering system.

“[We] try to get down to the closest number where [campers and staff] would have enough if they want seconds,” said Pikus, “but also to where we’re not throwing a lot of food out.”

As co-directors of the kitchen, Mary Kate Pikus, left, and Caroline Hanson have spent most of their time this summer preparing meals for campers and staff. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

As a longtime camper, Pikus knows how special mealtime can be — whether it’s spaghetti night, taco night or French toast day.

“I always loved the camp meals because sometimes you would see them and be like, ‘This looks a little interesting,’” she said, “but you ate it and you still loved it.”

The atmosphere the meals provide is unique to the camp experience.

“The meals are one time you get to sit down and dive into those special conversations with your cabin,” said Pikus. “You’re not running around, and the counselors don’t have to worry about where you are.

“All these little things make [meals] special.”

For Mary Kate Pikus, working in the kitchen has been a new way to provide for campers at Camp Tekakwitha, a place she’s been every summer for 11 years. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

Heading into the first week of camp, Pikus felt like things had come full circle since she would be the one providing food for the new generation.

“This place is really special,” she said. “I feel like I’ve grown up here, so it’s part of my life. I’m just happy to be back and excited for a new experience.”

Camper turned counselor

Brianna Ball will never forget the drives home to Paola each year after her mom had picked her up from camp as a child.

“I would be talking the full hour,” she said, “just rambling on about not just the activities like the rock wall and swimming and horses, but I would be talking nonstop about the faith.”

For the past two years, Ball, a sophomore at Benedictine College in Atchison, has been a counselor at Camp Tekakwitha, taking on the role she once admired as a kid.

Ball’s key ingredient for a successful summer is taking time to discipline herself both mentally and spiritually.

“Deacon Dana and Debbie always tell us, ‘The most you can do is start praying now,’” said Ball. “You have to have a good faith foundation in order to help the kids have a good faith foundation.”

Camp counselors get ready for the day with an enthusiastic cheer and prayer session in the early hours of the morning. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

Before camp even opened this summer, the counselors gathered via Zoom for initial meetings, and then underwent a weeklong training when they arrived at Prairie Star.

That week acted as a simulation of camp so that counselors became familiar with their roles and were ready to look after their campers.

It takes dedication to be a counselor, said Ball. Some stay for half the summer while others stay for all of it.

“Being away from family for so long and not being able to communicate with friends all day, that can always be pretty hard,” she said. “It’s a lot of work, but it is super-rewarding.”

Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann celebrates Mass with the youth at camp. The archbishop makes a point to visit the camp each year and interact with campers and counselors. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

The experience is one Ball said she could never replicate.

“Camp was where I really found my heaven on earth and discovered that Jesus is actually in the people that surround me,” she said.

Bird’s eye view

There’s much to see at Camp Tekakwitha — from the calmness of canoe rides to the thrill of the ropes course and the crackling of bonfires under the stars.

Creating a social media and marketing plan that illustrates all camp has to offer was Nicole Tubbesing’s chief focus heading into the summer.

“I’ve always been a behind-the-scenes gal,” she said. “I love the inner workings of things and how things play out that nobody else really sees.”

Nichole Tubbesing photographs campers on the lake. Tubbesing helps with the camp’s social media and marketing plan, as well as creating and maintaining the master outline of events and activities that keep day-to-day operations running smoothly. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

It’s Tubbesing’s fifth summer working at Camp Tekakwitha and her second on blue team — a group of veteran staff members who act as middle management between the directors and counselors.

They spend much of their time writing an outline of how camp will play out day to day and making sure everything runs smoothly.

Tubbesing said that as helpful as it is to be organized, staff members also have to be flexible.

“You go into each summer with an expectation of what it’s going to be like [and] what it’s going to look like,” she said. “And then, the expectation as soon as you get there always changes. But it definitely always changes for the better.

“You have to be willing and able to roll with the punches.”

Nicole Tubbesing has spent much of her summer capturing the moments that illustrate the joy of Camp Tekakwitha. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

Tubbesing said that flexibility has been ingrained in the staff after the unconventional year they’ve had.

Knowing the campers would have had a difficult year, too, made her want to provide the best experience possible.

“In every interaction,” said Tubbesing, “everything is done with such intentionality that you can’t help but be filled up when you’re there.

“I think that’s going to be really cool to take a break from everything that’s going on in the world.”

Adventure awaits

Camp Tekakwitha delivers an adventure that Gregory Wellnitz plays a vital part in creating.

The director of Prairie Star has worked at the ranch for 11 years, the same amount of time he’s doubled as the challenge course manager.

Gregory Wellnitz, director of Prairie Star Ranch, stays busy all day running supplies, doing maintenance and leading group sessions at the camp. Wellnitz has worked at the ranch for 11 years, while doubling as the challenge course manager. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

The course undergoes quarterly inspections, and every element of it is inspected before and after each use.

The staff who manage the course undergo extensive training, too.

“Each year, the camp staff and retreat team who will be trained as facilitators on the challenge course come together to go through a 60-hour training on how to safely and effectively facilitate our challenge course activities,” said Wellnitz.

Day one of the daily training lays the groundwork.

“By day five, our staff are 30 feet in the air running the course, practicing rescues and refining their communication skills with participants,” said Wellnitz.

“This training is an intense process both physically and mentally,” he added.

A camper scales the outdoor rock wall at camp. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

Once campers arrive, they have the chance to participate in the various rope activities and reap the benefits of the staffers’ hard work. It’s a joy for Wellnitz to watch.

“Lives are changed on challenge courses,” he said, “and I want to be a part of that.

“Part of the new evangelization is finding new methods to help hearts encounter Jesus Christ, and ropes courses can be one more tool in our work to be disciples of Jesus and make disciples for Jesus.”

Second home

The moment Allie and Drew Foster arrive at Prairie Star Ranch for the summer, they feel like they’re home.

“It is refreshing to be back in this community of college students and young adults that want to live the faith joyfully and share it with others,” said Drew.

“Even when the work is challenging,” he continued, “it is amazing to know that you are surrounded by a community that cares for you and will be there to lift you up when you need it.”

Father Dan Morris, archdiocesan vocations director, talks with a group of campers before lunch. All camps have the goal of not only giving the kids a fun and active experience, but also a deeply religious one. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

The Fosters are the camp’s assistant directors. They work closely with the blue team to prepare content for camp each summer.

“We help them to develop experiences that are engaging and help campers come to know Jesus personally,” said Drew.

Every summer, the couple is challenged to think outside the box and create original experiences that keep campers coming back.

One of their favorite parts of the preparation process takes place the night before the campers arrive.

“As a staff, we take time to pray together,” said Allie, “and we also pray for all of our campers coming the next day by name.

“It is awesome to see our staff cover our campers and their families in prayer before they ever pass through the front gate.”

First-year camp counselor Michael Santamarina takes the temperature of a woman at Camp Tekakwitha. For Deacon Dana and Deborah Nearmyer, hiring the right young people is a pertinent part of their work. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

The moment camp gets rolling, the Fosters said its spiritual blessings abound.

“There is an electricity in the air around this place,” said Allie. “It is clear that the Holy Spirit is working.”

Lifelong family

Camp Tekakwitha comes and goes each year, but for the Nearmyers, it holds a permanent place in their lives.

“Even though this is just a summer program,” said Deborah, “our family has gotten to be involved in this mission since the beginning.

“It’s truly something that’s talked about at our dinner table and in our house all year long.”

Deacon Dana Nearmyer wears many hats at camp, here patrolling the camp grounds. The Nearmyers are involved in every aspect of camp, trying always to keep things fresh and different. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

First and foremost, the Nearmyers create a theme for camp based on the message Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann wants to send to the youth in the archdiocese.

This year’s theme is: “St. Joseph: Anchored in Hope” in recognition of the Year of St. Joseph.

Other preparations include working with the American Camping Association (ACA) on its 300-page accreditation process and, special to the past two summers, studying Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations for camps across the country.

Debbie Nearmyer leads a session for the girls and their counselors. She and Deacon Dana Nearmyer create a theme for camp each year based on the message Archbishop Naumann wants to send to the youth of the archdiocese. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

Like the Fosters, the Nearmyers also help fine-tune camp’s offerings.

“We try to make sure we have some activities that are new and interesting and different,” said Deacon Nearmyer. “People will come here for eight years as a camper, and we want the curriculum and activities to be fresh.”

Their most strenuous undertaking is hiring the staff. Starting around Thanksgiving, they make the application available; then they start interviewing in January.

It’s a task they don’t take lightly.

“We believe assembling the right witnesses is so important,” said Deacon Nearmyer. “Asking the right questions and digging deep and aligning the right people [is key].”

Deacon Dana and Deborah Nearmyer have been at Camp Tekakwitha since its founding 24 years ago. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

Typically, around eight states and 25 universities are represented among the staff.

All the work is worth it, said Deborah, when she watches those young men and women transform.

“You shift gears when you come out here to camp,” she said, “and it becomes this job that is profoundly about the other.

“It’s always about looking at the needs of the other and providing space for [campers] to encounter Christ.”

About the author

Moira Cullings

Moira attended St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park and Benedictine College in Atchison. She majored in marketing, minored in psychology and played center midfield for the women’s soccer team. Moira joined The Leaven staff as a feature writer and social media editor in 2015. After a move to Denver in 2018, Moira resumed her full-time position at The Leaven and continues to write and manage the website and social media channels. Her favorite assignment was traveling to the Holy Land to take photos for a group pilgrimage in 2019.

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