Local Youth & young adult

Camp Tekakwitha brings it all together for a summer of unforgettable memories

High ropes is just one of the many fun activities at Camp Tekakwitha in Williamsburg. Others include the challenge course, a climbing tower, horseback riding, mountain boarding, mountain biking, swimming, water slides and archery. LEAVEN BY JAY SOLDNER

by Joe Bollig

WILLIAMSBURG — Camp Kateri Tekakwitha at Prairie Star Ranch here has become legendary as a place of extraordinary experiences and friendships since its gates swung open for the first time 26 years ago.

It’s a place where people want to go . . . again and again.

Sophia Aguayo, a member of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Shawnee, ought to know. She attended camp from the fifth grade in 2014 until she graduated from high school in 2022.

“I liked the fun outdoor activities a lot,” she said. “I liked how it was a space for young people to express their faith, which you don’t often find exclusively for young people.

“I liked the opportunities to make new friends each year, because each year you’re placed in a different cabin with different people. You make good relationships and bonds with other people in your cabin and during activities. I felt after going for so many years . . . I had a lot of camp friends I’d see every year.”

But it didn’t stop after high school graduation. Last year, she returned as a camp counselor, and this year, she’s going to do it again.

A camper scales the climbing tower at Camp Tekakwitha. The archdiocese expects 1,500 campers this year. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

It’s not too late to be a camp counselor

This is not unusual, said Deacon Dana Nearmyer, who is co-director of the camp with his wife Deborah.

“Many of our staff members and counselors are former campers,” said Deacon Nearmyer. “They want to provide youths the same experiences they had to help them know Jesus as they pass through their middle school and high school years.”

It’s not too late to get in that application to become a camp counselor or staff member (sometimes also called a “sherpa”), and applicants don’t have to be former campers. Most counselors and staff members are young adults who’ve graduated from high school and are often college students on summer break.

Their skills, experiences and faith are very much appreciated.

“We love faithful Catholics who want to serve the young church,” said Deacon Nearmyer. “We have positions like kitchen director, rope course crew, lifeguards and counselors who lead groups, and outdoor facilitators who run activities such as the archery range. We provide the training.”

“The Saint Kateri Tekakwitha chapel on site is a very sacred place to thousands of staff and campers,” said Deacon Nearmyer. “When they talk about it, they describe it as a place where they encounter the Lord in the deepest ways, their best prayer experiences ever.” LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

The depth of community among the counselors and staff members is extraordinary, he said. They end up becoming lifelong friends. And the faith building is invaluable.

“The best way to learn the faith and experience it is to share it,” said Deacon Nearmyer. “Being a camp counselor gives you the opportunity to be embedded with the kids for a whole session.

“You really learn your faith and strengthen it as you share it with young people. So many times a person can be left sitting on the sidelines, but here you get off the bench and into the game.” (See sidebar for application.)

There’s still room for more campers

Just as there are still opportunities to become a camp counselor or staff member, there are still open slots for campers during sessions in June and July for youths entering fifth and sixth grades, junior high and high school this fall.

So far, only Camp Kateri Session 3, July 10-12, for boys entering fifth and sixth grades this fall is full. There is still room in others. Scholarships are available. (See below for camp session costs and availability.)

Campers gather before praying the rosary together. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

Deacon Nearmyer expects 1,500 campers this year, maybe more. They will participate in activities including high ropes, the challenge course, a climbing tower, horseback riding, mountain boarding, mountain biking, swimming, water slides and archery.

A new thing this year is more kayaks.

“We have about 14 two-person kayaks,” said Deacon Nearmyer. “We can accommodate 28 people at a time [on these].”

The campers have 90 minutes of outdoor activity followed by 90 minutes of interactive spiritual activity. There are also Bible studies, access to the sacraments by visiting priests, and the chapel.

“The Saint Kateri Tekakwitha Chapel on-site is a very sacred place to thousands of staff and campers,” said Deacon Nearmyer. “When they talk about it, they describe it as a place where they encounter the Lord in the deepest ways, their best prayer experiences ever.”

The biggest fans: parents

Some of the biggest camp fans are parents who send their children there.

“Camp, and places like it, reinforce what their parents teach them at home. It isn’t new information, but when a cool college student who loves the Lord says the same things Mom and Dad say, the faith takes on a higher priority,” said Deacon Nearmyer.

Campers pray together during a 2022 session. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

Joshua Zacharias, a member of St. Michael the Archangel in Leawood, appreciates this aspect of camp.

“All four of our daughters have gone to Camp Tekakwitha for multiple years,” he said. “It’s been an important part of our family’s summer activities for our kids. It’s super-important for [our children] to be in that environment, with other kids interested in their faith.”

Zacharias and his wife have noticed that, after attending camp, their daughters are more intentional at Mass. They pay attention to the readings and listen to the homily. They talk about the homily in the car going home and have good attitudes about volunteering and giving back. Learning about the saints at camp has paid off when the girls wrote papers at school.

Sending your kids to Camp Kateri Tekakwitha is no guarantee he or she will become a strongly committed lifelong Catholic — but it can help.

“Several national research projects say that kids are making the decision by age 13 or 14 years old of whether or not they want to remain Catholic for the rest of their lives,” said Deacon Nearmyer. “They can certainly change their minds and there certainly are reversions, but we believe the church needs to provide first-generation encounters with God for kids at their earliest age and continuing through their pre-adolescence and adolescence.

“We feel that, for kids and their families, that this is a place to really build up your faith — not just for the summer, but for a lifelong commitment to be committed to Jesus and his church.”

Applications and camp information

• To apply for a staff or counselor position, go to: archkck.org/camp/general-information/campstaff/

• For camp information, to register for camp and to check costs and availability, go to: archkck.org/camp/Tekakwitha/

About the author

Joe Bollig

Joe has been with The Leaven since 1993. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s degree in journalism. Before entering print journalism he worked in commercial radio. He has worked for the St. Joseph (Mo.) News-Press and Sun Publications in Overland Park. During his journalistic career he has covered beats including police, fire, business, features, general assignment and religion. While at The Leaven he has been a writer, photographer and videographer. He has won or shared several Catholic Press Association awards, as well as Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara awards for mission coverage. He graduated with a certification in catechesis from a two-year distance learning program offered by the Maryvale Institute for Catechesis, Theology, Philosophy and Religious Education at Old Oscott, Great Barr, in Birmingham, England.

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