By Tony DeGol
Maria Schall has a confession.
She was not a fan of Camp Zacchaeus the first year she tried it.
“I was homesick,” she admitted. “But I was bold and went back.”
That courage paid off because she soon made friends and fell in love with the unique experience.
After many years as a camper, Schall is now enjoying her fourth summer as a Camp Z counselor.
“I just really love camp – the whole atmosphere – it’s a just a great week away from everything,” she said. “You’re surrounded by other kids and counselors who just want to be really active and true in their faith. I think that is my favorite part just because we are all there for the same reason – we all want to grow and learn about our faith and more about Jesus.”
Schall is one of several young adults – all alums of camp or other diocesan youth ministry opportunities – who enthusiastically volunteer as Camp Zacchaeus counselors.
They are young people on fire with their faith, as the saying goes, and they are eager to share that faith with our youth.
Typically, the week-long Camp Zacchaeus attracts a couple hundred kids each year at a camp site in Somerset County.
Counselors are in charge of groups of eight to 12 campers and lead the kids through their activities and make sure everyone is safe and having a great time.
“Whenever I was a camper, my counselors were what really helped the week come together,” Schall recalled. “I enjoyed pool time, I enjoyed learning, I enjoyed Mass, but my counselors were what really rooted that message in me, and they were so fun and energetic. I wanted to do that for the younger generation so whenever I was old enough, I became a counselor. I look forward to it every year.”
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Camp Z is happening virtually this year from July 19-24 for young people who register. The reservation deadline is July 13.
The children will enjoy the usual mix of spirituality and fun. In addition to Mass and evangelization talks, there will be craft projects and other recreational offerings.
Although campers will not be physically present with them each day, the counselors are still playing a key role in assisting Camp Director Francine Swope, Camp Chaplain Father Brian Saylor, and the adult staff.
Zach Lowe believes his years as a camper inspired him to share his faith with confidence. Now, as a counselor, he feels privileged to help carry on the tradition.
“We always like to say children are our future, but I think children are our present,” he noted. “We need lots of children to inspire their peers, their teachers, and their families to spread the values we hold dear to our hearts – kindness, forgiveness, compassion. I think our world needs a lot of that nowadays, so to play a part in that is such an honor to me. I’ll come back as long as they have me and my schedule allows for it.”
Erin Koehle never participated in Camp Zacchaeus, but was active in the diocese’s Junior High Youth Days and Senior High Youth Conferences (SHYCON).
Through her role as counselor, she loves encouraging the kids to be engaged in Catholic life.
“Faith isn’t just going to Mass every weekend,” she reminded. “There is so much more involvement than just that.”
This year’s Camp Z theme is “Bold for Christ,” which Koehle hopes resonates with the students.
“Being bold doesn’t mean just stepping out and preaching to everybody, it’s being bold in the little things too – going out of your way to do something small for somebody and saying little prayers throughout the day thanking God for what He has done for us,” she added.
Schall is glad she gave Camp Z another try after that first year.
She is studying to be a teacher, but her experiences as a camper and a counselor are giving her another important education.
“Our youth really need something like this where they are surrounded by everyone where they can be very open about their faith,” she insisted. “They can ask questions. They learn. Everything is about our Catholic faith and how great it is. Who knew you could tie Jesus into swimming at the pool, but we find a way, and as counselors that’s our job. I know that I have my faith deeply rooted in me, and I want to instill that in other kids.”
[Photo: Camp Zacchaeus counselors (front) Rachel Hall and Kaylee Schall; (standing) Zach Lowe, Erin Koehle, Anastazia Hall, and Maria Schall prepare for virtual camp July 19-24.]