In parishes throughout the Diocese, summertime means Vacation Bible School.

Religious educators, parish staff and volunteers spend months planning out the annual week of activities, which attract children for arts and crafts, songs and snacks as they learn about their faith.

Confirmation students put on plays to act out Scripture passages for the children, and musicians lead the kids in songs and dances that often get them carried away. Lessons are designed to get the kids excited about their faith, and to gleefully express it.

“The power of Vacation Bible School is that you’re reaching children who are just learning their faith,” said Eric Schlosser, core team leader for the program at St. Joseph Parish in York.

“Having the witness of teen and adult volunteers on fire with the faith inspires the younger students. They see people they look up to being excited about praising God.”

When it became apparent to parishes earlier this year that they wouldn’t be able to offer in-person Vacation Bible School, many opted to find innovative ways of making it available virtually to children and their families.

The BOLT Vacation Bible School program at St. Joseph Parish in York offered children lessons in origami as they learned about the faith.

The BOLT Vacation Bible School program at St. Joseph Parish in York offered children lessons in origami as they learned about the faith.

At St. Joseph’s in York, for example, core team families mapped out a way to offer the BOLT program online for participants to complete at their own pace and schedule. Schlosser set up a website with links to each day’s program of activities. Through the online format, families watched the program’s videos, pausing them when guided to play a game, create a craft, or reflect on a Scripture passage.

“We’re meant to be social, but right now we’re forced at times to do some things in front of a screen instead,” Schlosser said. “We worked hard to have Vacation Bible School, because we didn’t want to lose the opportunity of reaching our kids. In these times, it’s important to think of creative ways to continue programs and ministries. Keeping the community aspect of our faith is important. We have to keep our people connected.”

At Mary, Mother of the Church Parish in Mount Joy, Bill Traphagen echoed the same sentiments.

“We met in person in January and February to plan VBS, spread out the contents of the program, and divvied up who was going to take care of arts and crafts, snacks and music. Everybody was ready to go, and then March hit. There was some talk about canceling Vacation Bible School, but then the question came up: ‘What if we offer to do it virtually instead?’ We really wanted to make this happen for the kids,” said Traphagen, director of this year’s program.

Mary, Mother of the Church Parish opted to use the Rocky Railway program, and volunteers met weekly via videoconference to plan how they would offer it via Zoom.

Leading up to the start of Vacation Bible School, volunteers distributed bags with craft supplies and small treats to each of the 13 participating families, with enough supplies for every child.

As technology instructor and STEM teacher at St. John Neumann School in Lancaster, Traphagen used his expertise to connect participants via Zoom for each session. He also created short videos from photos that families submitted each day to celebrate parish community.

In addition to spreading the faith, a Vacation Bible School tradition at Mary, Mother of the Church is helping people in need. This year, families collected money to support Power Packs Project-Donegal, which provides food and nutrition education to children in the local community. Families also donated canned goods to support local food banks.

A participant in Vacation Bible School at Mary, Mother of the Church Parish in Mount Joy shows off her animal mask from the Rocky Railway program.

A participant in Vacation Bible School at Mary, Mother of the Church Parish in Mount Joy shows off her animal mask from the Rocky Railway program.

“Throughout this process, with our volunteers, we asked what they could offer to make Vacation Bible School a success,” Traphagen said. “We tried our best with the technology that is available to us. It’s about trying to figure out not only what resources you have, but what each person’s talents are.”

James Gontis, Diocesan Director of Evangelization and Catechesis, celebrated the efforts of those involved in Vacation Bible School. “Since mid-March and the difficulties presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, they had to step up to the plate in ways that nobody could have envisioned before. They have provided exemplary leadership in this extraordinary time by thinking of unique, and in some cases, ingenious ways to hand on the faith with zeal, ardor and enthusiasm,” he said. “The online VBS programs provided through our parish catechists and catechetical leaders has just been one of the many examples of their dedication to God’s children in our Diocese.”

Schlosser and Traphagen said their parish VBS programs this year brought an unexpected element: the participation of entire households, not just children.

“Usually what happens at Vacation Bible School is, the kids ages five to seven go off into a classroom for their sessions, the eight to eleven year olds do their thing, and then there is a separate group for those up to age 14. With Zoom, we had everybody together, but everyone managed well,” Traphagen said.

“We have one family with five children. Their older kids are 11, 12 and 13. Only their youngest two participated in Vacation Bible School, but by the end of the week, you could see the older kids getting involved,” he said.

The program’s music and dance videos were a highlight of the week, Traphagen said. Many photos submitted from families showed parents dancing alongside their children.

Activities in the program at St. Joseph’s in York included a game that challenged kids to wrap themselves in a towel and move like inch-worms across the yard. Schlosser said a few dads got involved themselves and turned the game into a competition.

“It was well received,” Schlosser said of the nearly 50 children that signed up. “Yes, in-person is very much preferred, but we couldn’t let an opportunity for VBS pass us by.”

Traphagen said continuing to offer programs and activities requires some ingenuity, but it can be done with enough volunteers willing to help.

“You have to find the strengths and interests of your parishioners,” he said. “Yes, we’re in a pandemic and we can’t do things as we’ve normally done, but think about what you can offer to make things the best they can be at this time. To you, it might be a little thing, but when you bring everyone together with their talents and interests, it builds the programs and ultimately the Church.”

By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness