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Vacation Bible school moves online

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“Maybe we should just cancel.”


That was an option Jean Lupinacci, director of faith formation at St. Mark Church in Vienna, considered in April as she tried to plan vacation Bible school months out while the coronavirus pandemic left in-person events uncertain for the foreseeable future. As she discussed possibilities with her team of five catechists, the question came up, “Why don’t we think about doing it virtually?”


Churches across the diocese have had to reevaluate their plans for the summer tradition that mixes fun and games with religious education for kids. As the coronavirus halted many parish activities, some churches canceled or put resources on their websites — but others have moved the camp online.


At St. Mark, the catechists saw an opportunity to get experience teaching online ahead of religious education classes that may go virtual in the fall; there were teens eager to help with the vacation Bible school; and it was a chance to think outside the box. So, the staff began weekly planning sessions to see what adjustments they needed to make. In the end, they decided to forgo the program the parish purchased in January and start from scratch, answering the question, “What’s happening in these children’s lives right now?”


The new camp, with the theme “Journey Through God’s Kingdom,” will guide the youngsters through reflections on the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity and how that relates to family, the faith community and the kingdom of God. The modified schedule is now three days instead of a week, and offered to grades 1-5, leaving out the kindergarteners, who were considered too young for an online program. The week before the July 14-16 camp, families will pick up “rucksacks” from the church with the crafts, snacks and activities for their virtual journey. Daily Zoom calls will provide structure to the day and allow the campers to interact.  


With an online program, Lupinacci wasn’t sure how many campers would sign up, but “even if there were 10, even if there were 5” kids, she said, they decided it was worthwhile.


“We figured it was the kind of thing where … it didn’t really matter how many people signed up.”


So far, they’ve received 21 registrants.


Amy MacKinnon was only one month into her role as coordinator of children’s faith formation at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Vienna when she realized she might have to move her first vacation Bible school online. As church activities halted and public Masses were suspended, she figured the camp — even online — was still a way to stay connected. She went in with the mentality, “Let’s do what we can to help them keep their faith alive.”


The parish used Our Sunday Visitor’s Rocky Railway program, which helped facilitate the move to online by allowing them to host password-protected videos.


Similar to St. Mark’s plan, the week before the camp ran June 29-July 2, the 30 participants’ families picked up kits that included toys, books, music and T-shirts for the children, and a separate booklet for the parents with an explanation of the program and a suggested schedule. Zoom calls put the children and leaders in touch daily. The rest of the schedule was flexible so families could build the schedule that worked best for them.


“A big part of vacation Bible school is the kids interacting with each other,” said MacKinnon. While the switch to online limited the interactions to an extent, “on the other hand, their parents were much more involved,” she said.


That was true for Jayme Majdi, mother of 6-year-old Max, who participated in his second vacation Bible school at the church.


“I was just happy to hear they were doing it,” she said. “They said they were going virtual and I said OK, well, we’ll just make the most of it,” deciding she and Max would “take the adventure together.” She set up a little classroom for him at home, wrote the daily schedule on the whiteboard, and participated in all the Zoom calls.


“It was so much fun,” she said. “It’s just great to have this experience, you know, having Catholicism in the classroom.”


After the camp, she wrote an email to MacKinnon and said, "It was even more special this year since I got to be involved in the process and enjoy taking the journey with him. Since we don't have Max enrolled in parochial school, it's especially important to us, as a Catholic family, for him to have this experience."


MacKinnon said the camp’s spiritual reflections to trust in God were helpful reminders to her as well. “How do you run a vacation Bible school in the middle of the situation we’re in right now? Well, Jesus got us through it,” she said.


Bartlett can be reached at Meghan.Bartlett@catholicherald.com.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020