Virtual camp that’s real fun

Virtual camp portal enables the camp experience even during the pandemic

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

A new website portal allows Presbyterians and others to enjoy virtual summer camp (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — Five weeks ago, Joel Winchip, executive director of Presbyterian Church Camp & Conference Association (PCCCA), wasn’t sure what camps would be able to do about offering summer programming.

“Summer camp face to face was already in question at that point,” he said.

Winchip contacted web developer Worship Times, asking about the possibility of developing a virtual camp portal website that could be used by PCCCA members and other denominations.  Then he reached out to Stephanie Fritz, the associate coordinator for Christian Formation (CF) in the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

PCCCA is one of five partners in the Christian Formation Collective, which CF supports by partnering on projects that support age and stage formation in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) With mission priorities changing in the midst of COVID-19, Fritz was able to shift dollars from a PCCCA project that involved travel to support the creation of the virtual camp portal website.

Fritz said CF had been asked to use its resources to figure out ways to help its partners continue in ministry in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. PCCCA was looking for safe options to support their camps.

“Here was a collaborative project that met the criteria and encouraged camps to do something new and different,” Fritz said.

“Kids are craving the traditions and rituals they do at camp every year,” says Stephanie Fritz, associate coordinator for Christian Formation in the Presbyterian Mission Agency. (Contributed photo)

With the partnership in place, Worship Times built a password-protected virtual camp portal, which gives each camp control over how and what campers can see. The customized portal also gives camps the flexibility to serve as many age groups as they want — and as many campers as they want per session. Plus, there’s a shared library of content, so camps can choose content that is right for them or produce their own.

Already 45 users are on the portal. Many plan to hold their traditional one-week-at-a-time camp experiences, and some may offer family weekend programs as well.

According to Winchip, one camp wants to use it in conjunction with “camp in a box” materials sent to campers, which they can use in their physical and virtual space. And some Presbyterian camps plan to better connect with campers and their families in the fall.

Before COVID-19, Winchip said camps’ relationships with parents and guardians were for the most part arm’s-length.  They’d drop and pick up their campers without much interaction with staff. More recently, parents are seeking a much more active role in the camp and its livelihood.

This year’s “This is Our Prayer” curriculum developed by Inside Out comes with video presentations that can be seamlessly used on the portal. Its devotionals this year are not just for the camper — instead, they’re family devotionals.

“It’s more intergenerational in how it’s connecting families in a new way to camp beyond the pandemic,” Fritz said.

The virtual camp portal also allows camps to continue to engage young adults in leadership.  Camps using the portal are bringing in summer staff to help run Zoom calls in order to produce and handle all the pieces that go into a person-to-person camp, virtually — which Fritz said are skills young adults already have.

“Kids are craving the traditions and rituals they do at camp every year,” she said.

According to Winchip, most PCCCA members are not doing face-to-face camp this summer.  But some have pushed their dates back to July in hopes that it might be safe then. The virtual camp portal is a possible resource regardless of which option they choose.

“A different kind of summer calls for a different kind of program,” he said.

Click here for a mockup of what a virtual camp experience might look like. Be sure to watch the “Camp Fun” video to see why kids are so anxious to interact with their camp leaders in virtual space.

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