Children end Vacation Bible School in St. Justin the Martyr Parish, Toms River, with a big concert in mid-July, which was preceded by Mass. Children experienced their faith through the theme “Roar.” Rich Hundley photo
Children end Vacation Bible School in St. Justin the Martyr Parish, Toms River, with a big concert in mid-July, which was preceded by Mass. Children experienced their faith through the theme “Roar.” Rich Hundley photo

Vacation Bible School is a staple of children’s summer experience in the Diocese of Trenton, giving the youngest members of the Church an opportunity to learn about and express their faith through fun activities and games.

That experience can be so poignant that former VBS attendees bounce back as younger volunteers, eager to share what they’ve learned and be part of the community’s Christian influence in the middle of summer break.

Jeff Siedlecki, youth ministry leader in Holy Eucharist Parish, Tabernacle, has watched the interaction firsthand and seen the impact VBS can have on children.

“I can only imagine the joy and excitement in the hearts of a second-grader sitting in the back seat as they pull into our church parking lot for the start of VBS,” he said. “A big tent arches over the entrance, playful music fills the air – but it’s the happy faces and enthusiastic high-fives of those awesome teenagers that greet them every morning that they appreciate most. The opportunity to start out each day elated and welcomed goes a long way for the little ones, but it also energizes the teen to give their all as volunteers for the entire day.”

Siedlecki believes the teens see an opportunity to evangelize during VBS. “They embrace the opportunity to reflect the face of Jesus to these wonderful little ones,” he said. “I know the teens bring a youthful energy and enthusiasm that the little ones respond so well to. The teens model a joy in their faith that is infectious. It inspires and motivates everyone, old and young alike.”

Teen volunteer Nickole Russek, who attended VBS herself at the parish as a child for many years, said her desire to stay connected to the program inspired her to volunteer.

“I felt like I was always responsible for making sure all the children had a fun and educational time,” she recalled. “I love interacting with the kids! The more excited they are, the better my week goes.”

Russek hopes that by seeing all the teen volunteers the children realize faith brings people together – and to be confident in what they believe.

In St. Justin the Martyr Parish, Toms River, 64 children experienced their faith through the theme “Roar,” with characters from Disney’s “The Lion King” and a bulletin board reminder that “God is wild about us.”

“VBS is teaching the children through Scripture how to take the Gospel message and make it alive and relate to ourselves and each other,” said Ellen Noble, parish coordinator of religious education for 11 years. “That’s the beautiful gift of VBS – they may come with children’s Liturgy of the Word each week and get the Readings, but this makes it alive. They do hands-on activities to make those words come to life.”

As with most VBS programs, the children are divided into small groups that rotate throughout activities – including a Scripture section.

“It helps the child in the summertime to still connect to what they’re learning all year in religious education,” Noble attested. “It brings them back, to show them, ‘This is what we’re about; God is with us every day.’ It shows those seeds of faith continue, even when classes are not in session.”

Noble has been a parishioner for 32 years, helping with VBS for 31 of them. The highlight for this year, she noted, was seeing 24 teens volunteer to help, in addition to the 24 adult staff members and volunteers.

“Some are our eighth-graders who will be confirmed in spring of 2020, and some are going into their senior year of high school,” Noble said. “It’s a great number of young people.”

VBS attendee Nicholas attested to the fun atmosphere of the week and learning about God’s love. “We had special messages every day, and centers – games, Bible study, snack and arts and crafts. We made binoculars so we can see God’s goodness … we learned that ‘when God is good, life is good.’”

Joe Sasso and Shea Peterson, both seniors in high school, enjoyed helping with the St. Justin the Martyr VBS games, and intend to return next year.

“If you’re a part of this religion, you should know about it – the ins and outs,” Sasso said of VBS’s role in faith formation. “I feel it’s important, especially in today’s world.”

Peterson agreed. “We’re playing games and doing arts and crafts, so these kids are able to apply religion – a complex thing – to everyday life,” he said. “It makes it easier to understand.”

Noble is proud of the parish’s pastor, Father Mark Kreder, and parochial vicar, Father Daniel Price.

“They were with us every day ... they supported the children, they were there for us,” she said. “Our Deacon Jim Gillespie took part in running the games for us… It’s a parish that’s alive and well.”

Video interviews from Rich Hundley contributed to this story.