By Christina Leslie | Correspondent
As the school year draws to a close, summer day camps throughout the region prepare their campus and staff to supervise a joyful onslaught of youngsters eager to swim, run, jump and play while their parents are at work.
One such facility, Collier Youth Services’ Kateri Day Camp, employs the tenets of Catholic social teaching to its charter as it begins its 43rd year of service to the area’s most vulnerable and impoverished.
Kateri Day Camp, a seven-week summer program that calls a 260-acre wooded campus in the Wickatunk area of Marlboro home, shares its name with the first Native American saint and its charism with the religious order that operates it, noted Sister of the Good Shepherd Deborah M. Drago, L.C.S.W., executive director of Collier Youth Services.
“We follow in the footsteps of Jesus the Good Shepherd, to leave the 99 sheep for the one lost or at risk,” she said. “Our work is always to go after that one. Each camper is that one special person to us. At Kateri, hopefully they find a home, a safe place where they can let down their defenses and discover their inner wealth and goodness just the way they are.”
The Kateri Day Camp invites more than 220 children ages 5-13 of low-income families each summer, offering them a safe, affordable, kid-friendly summer camp experience. It partners with Mercy Center, Asbury Park; Project Paul, Keansburg, and 25 Monmouth County towns like Freehold, Long Branch, Neptune and Red Bank to offer on-site activities, off-site field trips, daily swim lessons, arts and crafts, healthy meals and round-trip transportation.
“These are the kids in our own backyard that need a safe place while their parents are at work,” Sister Debbie said. Noting that nearly 97 percent of the impoverished children qualify for free or reduced lunches during the school year, the camp supplies them with a healthy breakfast, lunch and snack each day.
The camp’s nutritional efforts have a ripple effect for the whole family, she noted.
“It’s not uncommon for us to see the kids squirreling some food away for their parents or siblings to eat when they go home,” Sister Debbie related.
The daily schedule begins at 7 a.m. with busing to the camp, followed by a flag presentation and a healthy breakfast. Campers then move around campus to fun activities such as daily swim lessons, arts and crafts or exploring the woods and trails. After lunch, team sports encourage teamwork and communication skills; a snack and bus ride home leaves the campers back with their families about 4:30 p.m.
The day camp also includes a fun literacy program to staunch the dreaded “summer slide” that befalls students away from formalized education.
Collier Youth Services is a Catholic Social Service agency working with the Diocese of Trenton and under the Diocese’s Catholic Social Services. Kateri Day Camp is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization and relies heavily on donations and proceeds from an annual gala. The State of New Jersey does offer them a subsidy, but the amount has not increased in the past 12 years, Sister Debbie noted. Local parishes also contribute books, swimsuits and sneakers and allow the camp to set up donation and information tables in the narthex following Sunday Masses.
In addition to its paid staff counsellors, Kateri Day Camp is blessed with enthusiastic volunteers eager to make a difference in the lives of the young campers.
One such volunteer is Marilyn Lane of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel, who hopes to help the children retain their reading skills. The retired elementary school teacher, with a specialty in reading disabilities, is eagerly anticipating her first summer of volunteerism with kindergarten through third-graders at Kateri Day Camp.
“It’s all in the attitude,” Lane, a longtime supporter of Collier Youth Services, revealed. “I want them to be excited. Showing enthusiasm is very important.”
Echoing Sister Debbie’s charism of Biblical guidance, Lane continued, “It’s important to give joy. If you have it, show it. Don’t hide it under a box.”
Kathy Adleman, a member of St. Mary Parish, has long aided the camp as a member of the Martha Mary Guild in the Colts Neck faith community. A donor’s tour of the facility prompted her to show her respect for Catholic social teaching in a hands-on fashion.
“I was so surprised by what they were doing: swimming, walks in the woods, reading,” Adleman said. “I helped raise money to buy swimsuits and beach towels for the kids. At the end of the tour, I asked if there was something else I could do for them.”
Adleman used her gifts as a retired math specialist to create activities for the five- to eight-year-old children, measuring how far they could jump, matching shapes, and other number-based skills. She also donated games and math materials she had once used in the classroom.
“I became enamored of the camp,” Adleman confided. “I wanted to give them some fun opportunities for a rainy day to keep their math skills strong. It is remarkable what is going on [at the camp] during those seven weeks.”
“It’s all about the dignity of the person,” Sister Debbie said, touching upon another tenet of Catholic social teaching. “The Good Shepherd doesn’t want even one to be lost in the chaos of the times.”