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Annual CYO week-long camps to return after two-year hiatus

 043021Camp Lawrence reopen new signage

New signage is on display at Camp Lawrence Retreat and Youth Center Camp in Porter County on April 23. Camp directors, counselors, maintence staff and diocesan officials are preparing for the June 20 re-opening of the Catholic Youth Organization's summer camp, after a two-year hiatus due to infrastructure upgrades starting in 2019 and the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. The camp for youth will celebrate its 60th year with modifications for public health concerns. (Anthony D. Alonzo photo) 

 

BY ANTHONY D. ALONZO

Northwest Indiana Catholic

 

        PORTER COUNTY – Glistening lakes, sunny meadows, a cafeteria wafting with the smells of hot dogs and lemonade and the smiling faces of counselors and campers are calling alumni back to Camp Lawrence Retreat and Youth Center.

        Diocesan and Catholic Youth Organization officials, grounds staff and camp directors have had two years to prepare for the 60th-year opening of the annual summer camps near Valparaiso.

        Nervousness is giving way to excitement and the realization that hundreds of youth will arrive at the “happy valley” starting with the first one-week camp session on June 20.

        “Camp was such a big family event for me,” said Rosie Scannell who is co-director of the CYO summer camps with Matt Williams. “This was our big summer adventure – getting to go to Indiana for a whole week with my sisters was just the best time on Earth.”

        Both are alumni of the camp experience, with Scannell, a Chicago resident, attending each year starting in 2005, from when she was 7 to 14. Williams attended from 1999 to 2003.

        Later, Scannell was given an obligatory counselor nickname and is known to campers as “Chimp.” Williams happily answers to “Snooze,” in that role.

        The co-directors are preparing themed weeks of time travel, spirit, holiday, carnival and red carpet, each of which will include festive activities for campers. 

        Participant safety has been the preeminent concern for Camp Lawrence officials who have since early 2020 been formulating a “safe and accountable” coronavirus mitigation plan based on the guidance of state, Centers for Disease Control and camp associations guidelines. 

        The in-person CYO camp season was cancelled in the spring of 2020 in favor of activities made available online. 

        In 2019, plenty of optimism and no hints of a pandemic had camp organizers planning for the 60th anniversary season. However, inspection of antiquated gas lines buried beneath the property indicated significant infrastructure work would need to occur.

        Camp was called off and the grounds were soon criss-crossed with lines of unearthed dirt. Utility companies updated underground gas lines, while also burying overhead power lines as an added safety measure. 

        New wells were dug and a new septic system at the back of the property is currently under construction.

        The structural work was an investment in the future of the 144-acre grounds, which has served not only the CYO camp, but also a plethora of business, church and personal retreats.

        “The revamping of the infrastructure along with other structural improvements positions the Camp Lawrence facility to serve the needs of ministries within the diocese for decades to come,” said facility manager Father Ian Williams, pastor of the LaPorte Catholic churches.

        On-site building and grounds manager Frank Milligan arrived in March 2019. Though he has yet to experience a summer camp season, he can imagine how some of the improvements on the “beautiful property” will increase the creature comforts of participants.

        “We’re in the process of installing air conditioning units for the first time ever in the (campers’) cabins,” said Milligan. “Someone donated the (air conditioning) units for the girls cabin, and they were installed last fall.”

        Companies, individuals and groups such as the Friends of Camp Lawrence have shown great beneficence in donating funds and furnishings. Milligan said the new air conditioning units for the boys cabin came compliments of Southwest Town Mechanical of Frankfort, Ill.

        According to Milligan, each camper will rest in a new sanded wood bunk bed with a covered mattress. When it is time for breakfast, they will dine in a cafeteria that features new ovens, stainless steel preparation areas and tables and chairs.

        Diocesan CYO executive director John Curtin said the disappointment over the two-year hiatus of the organization’s in-person camp experiences is offset by what he observes as people “excited beyond excited” about the re-opening. 

        “From what I’ve observed, there’s a relationship with those associated with camp that will probably never go away,” said Curtin. 

        Four years ago, the camp saw one of its most successful seasons, hosting more than 600 boys and girls from ages 7 to 14. In early March, announcements were made through social media and the camp’s new dedicated website that it will reopen, albeit to a smaller number of participants. Camp is set to run at 50% capacity. 

        About half of the 50% enrollment goal has been met, and enrollment will remain open through the start of camp or when limitations are reached. 

        Curtin says that the many infrastructure and aesthetic improvements of campground structures have come together with a comprehensive plan for pandemic mitigation that will make the experience attractive to both youths – and parents looking for their own kind of week-long retreat.

        The promise of hikes, campfire chats, games and religious activities, generally “experiencing the wonders of the great outdoors in a Catholic Christian environment,” could be a panacea for the last year. 

        “Particularly after a year like we just had, and with all the technology that the kids have had to use for school, I think (the camp) is a gift – to get away from the (computer) screens to let them be outside, and interact with a live human being,” said Curtin.

        Curtin thanked Bishop Robert J. McClory and Michael Wick, diocesan chief of staff, for giving a green light to a modified reopening of the iconic CYO summer camps.

        For many of those associated with Camp Lawrence, the spirit of the property’s late founder lives on. In 1957, Monsignor Lawrence Grothouse borrowed money to purchase a former army barracks and farm to transform into a center for youth and retreat with the motto: “Close to nature, close to God.”

        “Being outdoors and enjoying everything instead of being cooped up points to the ‘Close to nature close to God’ (motto),” said Father Williams. “You’re interacting with God’s works and the people there – God created everyone.”

        For more information about the CYO summer camps, visit cyocamplawrence.com or call 736-8931.

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