by Joe Bollig
WILLIAMSBURG — Sending a child to Camp Tekakwitha or serving as a camp counselor here has become an annual experience for some archdiocesan families, even becoming a generational tradition.
For those families, it just wouldn’t be summer without Camp Tekakwitha, which is held annually at Prairie Star Ranch near Williamsburg.
Two people who exemplify that generational relationship with the camp are Katie and Ryan Burton, members of Holy Spirit Parish in Overland Park.
Katie came to camp as a counselor in 2000 when she was a 19-year-old rising college sophomore. Her husband Ryan, her then-boyfriend, used to visit her between sessions. Katie was a counselor for three summers.
The Burtons have kept a close relationship with the camp ever since. They even named their first child Kateri, after St. Kateri Tekakwitha.
When the last camp session of this summer ended on July 25, the Burtons were honored for their support of the camp with the Echo of Kateri award, given to them by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann during the closing Mass.
“Working as a counselor helped prepare Katie for her vocation as a mother, as she grew in her devotion to the Blessed Mother by praying the rosary with other counselors,” said camp co-director Debbie Nearmyer at the Mass.
“Now, instead of counting her eight campers,” she continued, “she counts her six — soon to be seven — children as they journey out for adventures to glorify the Lord.”
The Burtons have attended multiple Family Camps and Katie served on the Camp Tekakwitha Women’s Retreat team. Their children have begun to attend the camps, too. Katie has worked in youth ministry, vacation Bible schools and other ministries at her parish. Katie and Ryan are also members of the Family of the Apostles of the Interior Life.
The Echo of Kateri award was also given to Father Scott Wallisch during a Mass on July 16 at Camp Tekakwitha.
“Because of how much Camp Tekakwitha and Prairie Star Ranch mean to me on so many levels, this is one of the biggest honors I’ve ever received,” he later said.
But it is one he feels he doesn’t deserve.
“I am very grateful not only for this honor but for all that Camp Tekakwitha and Prairie Star Ranch do for our archdiocese and me personally.”
Not only has Father Wallisch frequently celebrated Mass and offered the sacrament of reconciliation at the camp, he has also been active in youth ministry and formation during all of his assignments. Currently, he is pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Shawnee.
The COVID-19 pandemic presented many challenges to Camp Tekakwitha. Some activities were canceled. There were new rules about social distancing, mask wearing and handwashing.
“These kids have had so many disappointments,” said camp co-director Deacon Dana Nearmyer. “This was the first activity — especially faith formation — that they’ve been able to do. For many of them, this was the first activity outside of their families that they’ve been able to do.”
The summer camp hosted 10 sessions as usual, but they were shorter. Normally the camp hosts 1,400 campers during the summer sessions, but this year there were 756.
The final Extreme Camp for high school-aged campers was reduced from nine days to four, with most campers spending three nights in tents instead of the bunkhouses. Some commuted daily from home.
“We’re super grateful to the parents [of the campers] and to our staff for rolling with the punches and for all the adaptations they had to make,” said Deacon Nearmyer, “and to prioritize the mission with all the constraints.
“It was a heroic effort to make this summer happen.”