With most schools closing only the week before for summer vacation, it would seem a stretch to get kids and teachers to return to class.
But then, Vacation Bible School (VBS) at St. Peter’s Church is no ordinary school.
Every year since it was started six years ago, more and more young people from pre-kindergarteners to college students have returned.
“Every year we’ve increased and now we have to cut it off at 200 kids for safety reasons,” said Margaret Andreozzi, St. Peter’s elementary faith formation coordinator and school founder.
Andreozzi attributes the success of the program to those who keep coming back to help over the years. All of the counselors are volunteers. The Vacation Bible School began on June 28 and ended on July 2.
Many of the adults who volunteer are teachers in Warwick, Cranston, and even Massachusetts. Some just ended their paying jobs to teach at Vacation Bible School.
Andreozzi believes teacher devotion to the school is because they want the children to feel like they belong to the St. Peter’s community, and that they are wanted there.
She also thinks that is the reason why many of the campers eventually become counselors.
One such person is Pilgrim’s Class of 2013 valedictorian, Natalie Tocco. Tocco has attended the school for the past five years and is now a full-fledged counselor. She said that she joined because Andreozzi simply asked if she was interested.
“I had never heard of this. It sounded interesting and fun, and I wanted to experience what being a counselor was like because I had attended summer camps before but was never a counselor,” she said.
Tocco also said that she has learned many helpful skills for when she goes to college in the fall.
“It has helped me grow patience and tolerance for people and how to deal with younger children. I’ve been kept on my toes, especially because I’ve had to be a leader.”
Another future college freshman who keeps returning is Cory Woodbine, who graduated last month from Bishop Hendricken High School. Woodbine said he was lucky enough to attend a Catholic school, so he received a religious education there, but he acknowledged that not everyone is as privileged as he is.
“I enjoy working with the kids. I just want to embrace the kids who didn’t go to a Catholic school and help them learn their faith and stand strong with it,” he said.
Counselors are not limited to college kids, though. Students can become counselors starting in fifth grade and go all the way through college, another reason why Andreozzi thinks Bible school has been so successful.
“To the high school counselors, it’s a place to feel safe because high school is hard. Seeing college students come back to be counselors gives them incentive to come back. For the junior counselors, the fifth through eighth graders, it’s the first time they’re responsible for younger children in a group, and we’ve found that when you give someone as young as fifth grade responsibility for someone else, there aren’t as many discipline problems.”
The counselors are given a handbook prior to VBS, which instructs them on what is expected. One of those expectations is that cell phones are not allowed during the camp. Andreozzi believes that this allows the counselors to become closer to their campers, and gives them the chance to create lasting relationships.
“The relationships help them build their own futures as they grow as people,” said Andreozzi.
She has seen many campers become counselors because of these friendships, which she believes helps them become good and responsible adults. There is no application process to become one. Andreozzi said that because there is no application process for the counselors, they are meeting the needs of the church.
“The Catholic Church should welcome everyone and by turning them away, we would not be fulfilling what we believe as our mission statement at St. Peter’s; the fact that as a church, we meet the people’s needs wherever they are,” she said.
Children who attended went to six different rooms in the lower church and administration building for a 35-minute span, and learned something pertaining to the day’s theme in each room. Every day had a different theme, and an animal mascot called a “Bible Buddy” helped the children learn it. The entire week had an overarching theme as well, which was expressed through the animal mascots.
This year’s theme was “Kingdom Rock,” which, according to the camp counselors, helped children learn that they can stay strong with the help of God and His teachings. The first Bible Buddy was Sir Valiant the Lion, whose message was that “Trusting God helps us stand strong.” Over the course of the week, children learned with the help of other Bible Buddies, including Swift the Falcon, Pip the Mouse, Victoria the Fox, and Duke the Horse. Truman the Bulldog was the last Bible Buddy, and he spent the last day teaching them, “God’s love helps [us] to stand strong.” Group Publishing, the same company that produces the Bible study and CCD textbooks they use, develops the curriculums they use each year, and sends out a kit to churches that order it.
The Cinema Room, the Bible Room, the Game Room, the Music Room, the Mission Room, and Imagination Station were the six rooms that helped to reiterate these lessons. In each room, there are specific activities and lessons that the children cover.
In the Mission Room, children also got to take part in a mission to help others around Rhode Island. Led by Traci Pena, Amy Singer and Erin Kennedy, the Mission Room focused on the church’s “Bundles for Babies” project. “Bundles for Babies” is an initiative through Rhode Island’s branch of Healthy Families America, which is a program that pairs expecting mothers and families with a home visitor.
Healthy Families America assists families that experience poverty, unemployment, homelessness, behavioral health issues and many other extra stressors. The home visitors help them access community support, become more self-sufficient and plan for education and jobs. The home visitor stays with the family until their child turns 3.
Children in the Mission Room helped to make infant care bags, which included receiving blankets, “Boo-Boo Bunnies,” which were small toys made by the children themselves, and infant goods donated by members of the church on the first day of the program.
“Kids were excellent when it came to the mission,” said Pena. “They were very excited to make the bags, Boo-Boo Bunnies, and tie the ribbons around the receiving blankets.”
Planning such an event takes a lot of time and effort.
Andreozzi begins planning the camp in February with the help of other church members. After they order the VBS kit from the publishing company, they are able to begin planning the camp. Campers pay an affordable fee so that the church can cover the cost of VBS.