Summer Bible school camps seeing increased enrollment

(Credit: Nicole Smith)
(Credit: Nicole Smith)

From sports camps at the Riverhead Recreation Department to interactive shark camps at the Long Island Aquarium, there are no shortage of ways kids can fill their weeks off during summer vacation.

In recent years, one type of camp in particular has noticed a rise in enrollment: local vacation Bible schools, with some camps now boasting well over 100 children ages 4 to 12.

At Wading River Congregational Church, enrollment has increased from an average of 25 students at camp 10 years ago to more than 100 now, said Julie Lutz, the church’s camp director.

“We have around 120 signed up,” she said, adding that registration is open until the first day of camp on July 20. “It goes up every year. We’re nearing capacity.”

At Living Water Church in Riverhead, Sr. Pastor George Dupree said this year’s camp, held June 20 to July 3, saw a higher enrollment and daily attendance than previous years.

About 270 kids ages 4 to 12 registered, he said.

“We have a pretty good mechanism as far as reaching out to people and letting them know [the camp is] taking place,” he said, adding that the camp’s numbers have continuously increased over the past four years.

Mr. Dupree said that the summer camp’s cost — or lack thereof — also plays a role in getting larger numbers.

“I know some camps that are similar to this do have certain admission fees and I’m sure they get good attendance,” he said. “I do know that for some people who come [to ours], even if there was a nominal charge, it would be out of ballpark for them to attend [so being free] is a big part of it.”

The camps have evolved to be more interactive and fun, drawing in children who might otherwise be turned off by the idea of “Bible camp.”

North Shore Christian Church in Riverhead had 230 kids enrolled at its Summer Slam, a five-day camp earlier this month. The church had to cap registration, turning away about 30 people due to too much interest and not enough space in the church, said Jerry Halpin, lead minister at NSCC.

“We’re letting them really have a great time and I think that is reflected in our numbers because kids remember that and are like ‘I wanna go back’ each summer,” said Ashley Pinciaro, a children’s minister at NSCC.

This atmosphere has drawn in families who don’t attend the congregation hosting the camp.

“It is now much more of like a community outreach,” Ms. Lutz said. “Ten to 12 years ago, it was mostly the kids in the church. Now the bulk of the kids who come are kids from the community. It’s open to everybody.”

At a recent camp day at the NSCC, the children in attendance danced and cheered on the confetti-covered floor as they sang songs, participated in a Bible story game show, watched camp leaders sumo wrestle in pool tubes and more. On Friday, the camp’s final day, bubbles were shot out of a bubble-maker and filled the room, adding even more energy to the festivities.

Each day was given a theme. This year’s “double dared” the children to be brave, kind, generous, faithful and excited.

“[Wednesday] they did the Mentos in Pepsi experiment and it showed a reaction,” Mr. Halpin said. “So [the station leader] talked about how once you’re generous your generosity blows up and makes everybody around you generous, so that’s what we did there.”

Ms. Pinciaro said that each of the stations that kids rotate through — crafts, story, snack, imagination and recreation — reinforce the theme of the day.

“It’s our goal to tell [the kids] about Jesus in a really fun way that will stick with them,” she said.

Parents appreciate the goal, citing it as one of the reasons they enjoy sending their kids to Summer Slam.

“The kids love it because of all the things there is to do,” said Lindsey Copenhaver, 40, of Riverhead. “I like that they incorporate Bible stories, in the songs they sing and the crafts they do. I think that’s important … and they do a good job with it.”

Each camp boasts a substantial volunteer rate — many of the volunteers being young adults who aged out of the program.

“Kids who came in the past and are older want to come and be helpers,” Ms. Lutz said. “So let’s say we have 100 to 120 kids, we also have 30 kids who are 11 or 12 who come and are junior helpers.”

With such a large audience to cater to, work for the 2016 summer camps begins once this summer ends. Each year new themes are picked, new lessons taught and new games played in an effort to keep the experience fun and engaging.

And it’s working.

“I love it,” said Jenifer Zaug, 31 of Riverhead, whose kids attended Summer Slam. “I’ve brought [my kids] back for a couple of years. They have fun.”

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