When summer break begins, learning about faith doesn’t come to an end. Houses of worship around The Villages and elsewhere typically provide children with opportunities to have fun and learn about God through summer camps, mission trips and Vacation Bible Schools.
But the COVID-19 crisis has forced some area churches to rethink some of those summer plans, canceling or postponing some events while changing the structure of others.
Vacation Bible School is a popular way children, primarily those in elementary school, learn about religion. VBS programs typically happen over the summer when kids are out of school.
But several area churches have opted to postpone VBS until next year due to COVID-19 concerns. This includes St. Timothy Roman Catholic Church in The Villages, Community United Methodist Church in Fruitland Park, and North Lake Presbyterian Church in Lady Lake. North Lake Children’s Ministry Director Tina Carroll said the decision to cancel VBS was not an easy one, but was made with the safety of everyone in mind.
“What is normally our best asset, seasoned Christian volunteers, becomes a health risk as our VBS leadership consists mainly of a high-risk age demographic,” she said. “Children also don’t really understand social distancing.”
Carroll is encouraging children, their parents and grandparents to find other ways to express their faith in the absence of VBS, such as reading the Bible together as a family, watching services online and starting a gratitude journal.
But North Lake is not completely shutting out activities for children this summer. The church’s Little Blessings Preschool reopened June 1 after being shut down for two-and-a-half months. And North Lake is running a small summer camp for children in grades K-5.
“This summer, the camp is doing an ‘A-Z’ of careers, where each day there are activities, projects and games pertaining to a different job,” said Linda Brown, director of Little Blessing Preschool. “Our original plan was to have adults come in to show campers what they do for a living, but we canceled that due to COVID-19 concerns. We also called off any field trips.”
Safety is quite important this summer for children and staff members at North Lake. Brown said everyone has a temperature check before entering the building, and all non-essential adults are kept out. There’s more sanitation and hand-washing throughout the day. Staff members wear face masks. And the playground is thoroughly cleaned between play periods.
“Once a group of children return from the playground, the area is promptly sanitized and air dried before the next group of kids comes out,” according to Brown. “It takes a little more manpower, but it’s worth it.”
North Lake’s summer camp will also have its own take on Vacation Bible School the week of June 22, Brown said the campers will learn about people in the Bible who were scared, but ended up being courageous.
“I can’t imagine a summer without Vacation Bible School, and I’m happy we are able to do this as part of the camp,” she noted. “The parents of our campers and preschoolers are generally working parents who have been asked to return to their places of business. We are happy to provide them with a safe place to drop off their kids while they work.”
Other churches are moving VBS online this summer. First Baptist Church of Oxford is offering “Concrete and Cranes,” a virtual take on VBS from July 6-10 for kids in kindergarten through fifth grade.
“Due to health concerns, we are taking as much caution as possible to get VBS to children in our community,” according to Marc Preece, youth pastor for First Baptist Oxford. “That’s why we are going to be a fully online VBS this summer.”
Parents who register their children for Concrete and Cranes will be able to come by the church the week before VBS to pick up a bag of supplies for each participating student. Preece says church staff will wear masks and gloves when packing the bags and handing out the supplies to parents.
For VBS week, First Baptist Oxford will send out links for that day’s set of videos to participate in the program. All videos are private on YouTube, Preece noted, and the church will send a list of those links to each registered parent’s email address.
New Covenant United Methodist Church is also taking VBS online, hosting a virtual “Rocky Railway” from July 6-10. The church is also planning an in-person summer camp from July 27-31. The camp runs from 7 a.m.-5 p.m. each day.
“We had a whole summer planned out for our children and teens, but everything got blown out of the water due to COVID-19,” said Kayla DeSimone, family minister at New Covenant. “We are looking at other alternative plans for the summer, particularly for members of our Youth Ministry, who saw their mission trips canceled due to the crisis.”
New Covenant’s summer camp, opened to kids age 3-13, features worship songs, games, crafts, snacks and a faith-focused devotion. DeSimone said the church will do all it can to keep kids and staff members.
Information on New Covenant’s youth programs can be found at ncumcfl.com.
A few churches plan to try their hands at in-person VBS this summer, First Baptist Church of Lady Lake recently announced that it will host VBS from July 27-31. Further information can be found by calling 352-753-4477.
Another is Oxford Assembly of God, which has scheduled one for elementary school students from July 19-22. The church has also kicked off its Amplify programs for area middle and high school students.
“Area children, especially older students, are feeling cooped up, and they want to thrive and socialize again,” said Amanda Hahn, who serves as a youth minister for Oxford Assembly of God. “The Amplify events allow middle and high school students to socialize, participate in Bible study and worship, and be together.”
Amplify Middle, which is open to those entering sixth grade to those leaving eighth grade, takes place from 6-8 p.m. Fridays. Amplify High, open to students entering ninth grade to those just graduating high school, happens from 6-8 p.m. Sundays. Those entering ninth grade will have the option of attending either or both Amplify programs.
And while younger children will be partaking in Oxford Assembly of God’s VBS from July 19-22, older kids have the opportunity to learn about community outreach at the same time. Hahn said Villagers and others will have the opportunity to come and help future generations about discipleship.
Oxford Assembly of God will also offer virtual youth programs for those who may not be ready to return to the church at this time.
The church recently launched “The Bridge,” a virtual ministry for incoming sixth graders via Zoom where kids talk about entering middle school and making the transition from the church’s Children’s Ministry to the Youth Ministry. High school students, including incoming ninth graders, also are invited to participate in the church’s virtual “High School Bible Study,” which Hahn describes as a “deep understanding of God’s Word.”
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