August 1, 2021 | Local News

Campers and staff laugh during a session after lunch on July 8, 2021 during Camp LIFE at Gasper River Catholic Youth Camp and Retreat Center in Bowling Green. ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD | WKC

Off the charts with joy

Staff and campers reunite for onsite Gasper summer camps

BY ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD, THE WESTERN KENTUCKY CATHOLIC

In all of Ben Warrell’s years of camp ministry, this summer has “by far is the most joyful and excited I have ever seen campers and staff.”

Following summer of 2020 – when all camps were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic – the staff and campers of Gasper River Catholic Youth Camp and Retreat Center in Bowling Green were overjoyed to reunite for camp in 2021.

As of press time, Gasper has 301 campers registered for this summer – in addition to 104 people from the Diocese of Nashville who spent their leadership week at the camp.

“Our hope was to have 200 and we’d be really happy if we hit 250,” said Warrell, who is the director of the camp and retreat center. “We had no idea how many would sign up or if parents would even send their kids to camp so we are greatly pleased with the turnout.”

Warrell believes that after being confined for so long, “young people were just eagerly seeking community and some type of return to normal.”

“The community that forms each week of camp around Jesus and the sacraments is always special, but this year has just been off the charts with joy!” he said.

Returning to normal

Warrell said they had only hired a handful of summer staff this year since they were unsure about their numbers, and planned to operate at 60% occupancy for the summer due to pandemic restrictions in the early spring.

The Our Father is prayed during Mass on July 8, 2021 during Camp LIFE at Gasper River Catholic Youth Camp and Retreat Center in Bowling Green. ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD | WKC

In fact, during the first week of camp, staff and campers still wore masks when inside buildings – but by the end of the week, the only state and diocesan restriction that remained was requiring campers to keep their heads six feet apart while sleeping.

Other than that, summer camp at Gasper has essentially returned to the way things were before COVID-19.

“Last summer was so difficult on so many levels and it was eerily quiet here,” said Warrell. “The sound of laughter and praise and worship songs to Jesus have made me tear up all summer long.”

He added that having daily Mass – as well as youth wanting to know what time Mass is each day – warms his heart. Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, which takes place at each summer camp, has also been impactful on the campers.

“One camper came up to me after Adoration and said, ‘For the first time in my life, I felt the love of Jesus!’” Warrell said.

This summer was Anna Ronkainen’s first year on staff, though she had volunteered at Gasper for the past three years.

Ronkainen, who is from Hodgenville, Ky., described summer 2021 as “amazing,” especially since the campers and staff alike are finally “able to be together with other people.”

She said the following months of Mass “on the computer” for many campers, Gasper’s “strong Catholic community has allowed them to grow more in their faith.”

Open to all

The campers’ experiences speak for themselves. On July 8, 2021, the WKC visited Gasper for the day and interviewed multiple high schoolers attending that week’s camp, which was called Camp LIFE (Living It For Eternity).

Allie Buckman, a rising sophomore from Fancy Farm, said that every time she thinks she knows everything about God and religion, “I learn 10 times more at camp.”

“I really love when everyone comes together to sing worship music with your peers,” she said. “You can really feel the Holy Spirit in that room.”

Rising freshman Calvin Padgett, who is from Owensboro, said he loves “coming and making new friends and growing with God throughout the week, and I’m always sad when I have to leave.”

Padgett, who has attended Gasper for seven years, said he even made more friends than usual this year.

“I always feel holier after being here,” he said.

Ashleigh Caldwell, a rising senior from Murray, said this is her seventh summer attending Gasper.

“I absolutely love it,” said Caldwell. “I always learn something in a different way.”

She said she particularly bonded with a group of girls at Gasper in summer 2019, and they have a group chat that continues to this day to stay connected and support each other.

“Just the little things like that show how much of a community Gasper really is,” she said.

Chris Morgan, a rising freshman from Dawson Springs, attended Camp LIFE with his older brother, Tristan Morgan, who is a rising junior.

Campers help each other on Jacob’s Ladder on July 8, 2021 during Camp LIFE at Gasper River Catholic Youth Camp and Retreat Center in Bowling Green. ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD | WKC

Chris Morgan said this is his fourth year attending Gasper, and he looks forward to it annually.

“The staff is all amazing and they care about you,” said Chris Morgan. “My only complaint is that I don’t want to leave.”

His brother agreed, and said that Gasper’s outdoor activities helped him overcome his fear of heights.

Sam Minix, a rising freshman, is not from the Diocese of Owensboro. In fact, he flew out from Fairfax County in Virginia to attend Gasper this summer.

He said he had been looking online for Catholic youth camps, “saw there was a river, and there you go.”

“All of the events have ended with a teaching,” said Minix. “It’s always a very holy experience, a very Christian experience.”

He added that he enjoys the lessons about “our role as Catholics,” and that he has “really built a brotherhood here.”

In addition, Minix appreciates how “they’re very open to people coming from all over.”

‘Makes me feel safe’

Simon Walther, a rising freshman from Bowling Green who has been attending Gasper for “five or six years,” pointed out that each outdoor activity has its own set of challenges and opportunities.

For instance, the giant swing only goes as high as the camper wants – and the camper is pulled up by fellow campers.

“Those are your friends – they pull you up to the height you wish,” said Walther. “Like going to heaven, you need some support system.”

He also added that he sees “more guys show their emotions during Adoration than I ever will in my life. Here, you can open up.”

Kaylee Shupe, a rising sophomore from Marshall County, said she appreciates how the camp activities “try to make everything relate to your faith.”

For instance, she explained, Jacob’s Ladder requires a partner so that the two campers can help each other reach the top.

“You always make new friends at Gasper,” she said, “and you can grow in your faith together.”

Landon Reffitt, a rising junior, and his brother Luke Reffitt, a rising freshman, came to Gasper together from Owensboro.

“I’ve been coming since 2013,” said Landon Reffitt, adding that “the staff and Ben are great. It’s a highlight of my summer. It’s such a blessing that the diocese provides this for the youth so that we can grow in our faith.”

Luke Reffitt said Gasper “feels like home. You come here and when you leave you feel refreshed.”

Todd Riter, a rising sophomore from Owensboro, said he has been coming to Gasper since second grade, after a friend invited him. Today, he in turn tries to invite someone new to Gasper every summer.

“This is one of my favorite things to do each summer; it’s a joy,” he said, adding that he enjoys making new friends at camp as well.

Ella Johnston, a rising freshman from Owensboro, said she has been coming to Gasper for four years.

“Every (year) it’s always impacted me,” she said, expressing her love of Adoration in particular. “This place makes me feel safe, that I can be myself around these people.”

 

Future camp dreams

Ben Warrell shared several big dreams for the future of Gasper River Catholic Youth Camp and Retreat Center:

“We have an amazing donor who is willing to build a 220 ft., two-lane bridge to connect the current 170 acres with the new 30 acres across the road. This will create a brand-new entrance into camp and help us grow and expand. We are seeking to raise $1 million to make the bridge happen and it will forever change the growth and opportunities here at camp. We also have been given a 52 ft. tall climbing tower, which we have called Tower #68 in honor of Logan Davis (one of our favorite campers who passed away a year ago). This tower will have a beginner’s climbing side, an advanced climbing side, a rappelling wall and a free flight activity on the fourth side. We may even be able to run a drop zipline off of it which would be amazing. Five new challenge activities from one generous gift would just be amazing! We also are looking to build soccer and baseball/softball fields on the new property to begin having sports camps and hosting team sports on retreat weekends. We would also love to have a new swimming pool, a new (50 ft. by 100 ft.) office building that would contain a permanent nurse’s station, camp store, multiple breakout rooms and meeting space for 300 people. We also have plans for a 1,500 ft. zipline across the river to the new property. We ask everyone to please be in prayer that God will provide for these dreams and continue to help us grow.”

To learn how you can help, visit www.gasperriverretreatcenter.org/support-gasper-river or call (270) 781-2466.


Originally printed in the August 2021 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.
 

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Publisher |  Bishop William F. Medley
Editor |  Elizabeth Wong Barnstead
Contributors |  Riley Greif, Rachel Hall
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