July 26, 2019

A splash of summer and the Spirit

Moments of joy and self-discovery show God’s presence at CYO’s summer camp

Campers enjoy a dip in the pool with their adult counselor at Camp Rancho Framasa in Brown County. (Submitted photo)

Campers enjoy a dip in the pool with their adult counselor at Camp Rancho Framasa in Brown County. (Submitted photo)

Editor’s note: After a recent visit to Camp Rancho Framasa in Brown County, John Shaughnessy, assistant editor, felt inspired to write a letter to God.

Dear God,

If you know anything about summer camps these days—oh, that’s right, you know everything about everything—then you know that in this age of technology kids rarely write letters anymore from camp to their mother and father.

Still, I know you have always seen the value of writing down stories that show people in relationship to you and each other. And there’s a wealth of such stories from Camp Rancho Framasa in Brown County, the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) camp in the archdiocese.

Consider a story about you and a homesick teenager that 22-year-old Kara Koepfer loves to tell. Koepfer now mentors new counselors at the camp, but this story is from the time she was a counselor leading a group of high school students on an adventure that included camping, caving and sailing.

“One night, this girl was really homesick,” Koepfer says. “I told her that I love to stargaze. We started looking at the stars together, and the conversation turned to Jesus and the beauty he has created, and how much love he has for us. After that, her whole mood shifted. She was so excited. You could almost see God wrapping her in his arms. She enjoyed the rest of the week. It was so cool to see.”

Then there’s this amazing story about a child with cerebral palsy who came to camp in a wheelchair. It’s a favorite story of Stephanie Okerson, who manages a program that makes sure that campers of all abilities and challenges have a great experience.

“On this day, we were going caving,” recalls Okerson, who is known as “Steph” by everyone at the camp where she has worked for 16 summers now. “It’s physically demanding. You have to crawl. You have to roll. You’re going to get muddy. It’s very tiring. And this boy really wanted to do it. And there’s no reason he couldn’t. His counselor and I helped him through the most challenging parts of the cave. By the end, all three of us were exhausted. But he did it. It was a huge moment. He was excited to be part of it with everyone else.”

Steph has the biggest smile on her face as she shares that story, God. And it’s still there when I ask her a question about you: “What would you tell God about this camp?”

“I don’t think I’d have to tell God anything. I think he’s here,” Steph says. “He’s in the struggles, the joys and the successes. It makes it easier to come back here year after year. It’s somewhere where you can really see God at work.”

At 11 years old, Isaac Rosario says he has found you in the new friends he’s made, in his times of homesickness, and in a “Parables” session when he helped act out the story of David and Goliath—a story that counselor Sarah Shover told Isaac and the other boys in his group that “anything is possible with God’s help.”

“Sometimes, I just talk to him about my day, what’s going on in camp, what are the highlights of the day and what are the lows,” Isaac says.

Ten-year-old Cora O’Connor was thinking about you—and praying to you—in the “high ropes” section of the camp. There, she climbed up a pole and then began crossing a shifting wooden plank high in the air. All the time she was harnessed and connected to a rope held by counselors. She was also uplifted by the encouragement of the girls in her group.

“Walking on the boards, there was this large gap. You had to step over open air. It felt good when I made it because it was over, and I could go back to the ground,” says Cora, smiling.

Cora’s counselor is 20-year-old Sarah Pankratz, and she has a message for you.

“The first thing I would say to God is, ‘Thank you.’ Because at CYO camp, you learn to find God in the smallest places. When I was a camper, my counselor and I were walking to a meal. I have a vivid memory of me asking her about her favorite part of camp. And I remember she said that the longer she stayed at camp, the bigger God got.

“The three things we try to give campers are fairness, kindness and showing them who Jesus is by the way we treat them.”

You should know God—I forgot again, you already know—that 50-year-old Diane Munneke considers the camp as a magical place in her life. She viewed it as a safe haven for her when her dad died when she was 14. And this year she wanted to share the camp experience with her 12-year-old son, Jack, and her 20-year-old daughter, Katie. So Munneke and her 76-year-old mother, Pat Schmutte, signed on as volunteer nurses at the camp for a week.

Munneke especially wanted the experience for Katie, who has special needs because of a progressive, genetic disease called tuberous sclerosis.

“My time with her is precious,” Munneke says, emotion tinging her voice. “When I enrolled her, she literally told everyone. Her first morning here, she sat up and said, ‘I’m so glad I’m here!’

“When you’re blessed with this child, you get stripped of a lot of expectations, and you’re left with what’s important. To see her happy and verbalize it is priceless.”

That feeling is just what Kevin and Angi Sullivan have always strived to create during their combined 72 years of working at the camp, including being its co-directors since 2007. Married for nearly 31 years, they first met as counselors at camp here, became engaged on the outdoor basketball court here, and have raised five children here. They’ve also influenced thousands more with the considerable help of the counselors.

Sure, God, there’s no denying the allure of swimming, horseback-riding, creek-stomping, snake-finding and campfire-singing. But Angi and Kevin have made sure that you run through

this place. They’ve made sure your Spirit flows through all the trees, the hills and the creeks, with all the paths leading to you.

There are statues of your son and his mother throughout the camp. There’s the cross above the chapel in the most visible part of the camp. A huge crucifix overlooks the tables where the campers and staff eat. And every week of camp ends with the celebration of the Mass.

“It’s the culmination of the week,” Kevin says. “Celebrating the liturgy is the epitome of being Catholic.”

Kevin also wants you to know this, God: “You’ve probably been watching what we’re doing here. Are we doing this right? I think you would say, ‘Yeah, you’re all about relationships, and that’s what I’m all about.’ ”

I’ll close this letter with one last story for you. It’s from Steve Connaughton, who’s worked here for 28 summers, including his current role as summer program director.

“I had a friend come here, and she was in the chapel at one point,” Connaughton recalls. “The kids were squealing with joy outside as she tried to concentrate on her prayers.

“She said, ‘It was kind of like heaven. Here I am, right in front of God, and I heard all this delight around me.’

“It was a powerful moment for her.”

It was also a great day at camp for me—a day filled with fun, faith, terrific people and the beauty of nature.

Thank you for the gift, God.

All the best to you,
Your friend,

John Shaughnessy

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