Few sounds bring out the joys of summer as unmistakably as squeals of laughter from children. This summer, those sounds will be amplified as 240 kids gather for the popular Land-Based Summer Experience run by the Franciscan Life Center in Meriden, Conn.
Unlike other camps these days, the Summer Experience gathers 60 kids ages 6-12 for each of four weeklong day programs to do simple things like pet animals, mold clay, swim, learn about the environment, sing and play games. And, just like other boys and girls from the preceding eight summers of the camp's existence, the kids can't wait.
“We're a real low-tech camp,” laughed Franciscan Sister of the Eucharist Sister Clare Hunter. “There's no technology here. Just a chance for kids to come, be outside in the sun, have fun, play with the animals in our barnyard, and do what kids do in the summer.”
“The focus here is on relationships—with nature, each other, animals, the environment, God,” she continued. “There's no competition, no pressure to excel. Just relax, enjoy each other and have fun in the process. There's a simplicity here that the kids respond to.”
Holding fast to the theme, the sisters don't formally call it a camp. The “summer experience” is just that—a chance to be outside, interact with nature and each other, play, climb the 103-year-old copper beech tree, and hold or pet an animal. And for some, it's the first time.
“I like all the sisters and the goats and the chickens,” said Rachel Adams, age 7 from Cheshire, Conn., who was enjoying the camp for the first time. “The sisters are really kind to us, the goats are really soft and gentle—and the chickens are scary.”
Said Sister Naomi Zimmermann, who coordinates the program, “The animals are a definite high point for most kids, I would say. They have names for all the goats and chickens, and they learn about their behavior and how to respect them.”
This year, the camp received a special grant from a local foundation to teach the art of raku. Sister Maria Sena, a Native American and master potter, is giving the children hands-on experience making pots or other designs they can take home with them.
Simplicity is key. Donning bathing suits one hot June afternoon, the kids begged to go swimming. “Wait till you see the pool,” said Sister Clare, turning a corner near the barn to reveal a plastic, three-ring pool. “Fifty dollars from a local store, and the kids love it,” she said laughing.
Amazingly, the camp is so popular that the sisters don't even advertise it and the roster is still full. In fact, there's a waiting list.
“We even have older kids who try to get in the camp by telling us they're under 13,” Sister Clare laughed. “And some families bring their cousins from other states who are visiting for the summer and come purposely for the camp.”
“Even the children who came years ago, now come back as teenagers to be assistants,” she continued. “It amazes us, too. But I think it's because there's a continuity here. They make friends one summer and want to come back the next to keep those friendships alive.”
For many of the children, the experience is a first-time exposure to a rural setting. For the past two summers, the Franciscan Life Center has been offering scholarships to children from urban schools.
“We send kids who otherwise would never have a summer camp experience for economic reasons,” said Jay Bowes, youth minister for Sacred Heart/St. Peter School in New Haven, Conn. “Our kids love it.
“It's a very different experience for urban kids—from the rural farming activities and the diverse group of kids, to the love and care of the sisters who run the program. It's been a great experience for us, and a wonderful, fun-filled opportunity for the kids.”
Proving the point was an enthusiastic 10-year-old, Suen Haggigal from New Haven. “I want to come here again,” she said, “I want to come here every day.”
“The underlying theme is that we're all unique, all part of God's creation,” said Sister Naomi. “I love it. We see such a variety of kids from all over Connecticut plus other states. I love seeing them have fun. And with the passing of each summer, I see the kids grow up.”
The summer experience carries a Christian message that builds upon the spirituality and simplicity of St. Francis who taught about relationships and elements of creation. Although religion is not taught directly, the children pick it up from morning prayers and from the way the sisters lead them in interacting with each other and the environment.
The Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist were founded in 1973 after the Second Vatican Council. It follows the spirituality of St. Francis through apostolic service in spirituality, counseling, education, music, health and elderly care, business services and a land program.
The motherhouse is located in Meriden and is part of the Franciscan Life Center Network that offers professional services and programs at centers in Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Washington, Connecticut, Oregon and Texas—as well as in the Holy Land, Assisi and Rome.
Mary Chalupsky writes from Milford, Connecticut.