SAN DIEGO — When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it didn’t take long to realize that Camp Emmaus couldn’t proceed as usual.
The weeklong youth leadership program is held every summer at Whispering Winds Catholic Camp in Julian and is attended by about 150 to 175 Catholic teenagers, who are core team members of their parish youth groups.
But the idea of canceling the event entirely was never under consideration.
“That was not an option,” said Maricruz Flores, the director of the diocesan Office for Youth Ministry, who noted that the pandemic had already forced her office to cancel its annual San Diego Youth Day in April.
Subsequently, teens also had been disappointed by the cancellation of other highly anticipated summer activities.
Flores was determined to fill the void and, with the team of parish youth ministers that plans Camp Emmaus each year, it was decided to transform this year’s camp into a virtual event.
“We knew we couldn’t accomplish virtually what we could in person, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t do something, and so we did,” said Pat Clasby, director of youth ministry at St. Patrick Parish in Carlsbad, who helped start Camp Emmaus in 2003.
Instead of gathering at Whispering Winds from June 22-26 as originally planned, participants came together for six online sessions held on Wednesday evenings, June 24-July 29, through the videoconferencing app Zoom. Each session ranged from 75 to 90 minutes.
Unlike the typical Camp Emmaus, the virtual option was offered at no cost — a gift to families, many of whom are struggling financially at this time.
More than 230 youth and their adult leaders, representing 16 parishes, took part in the first week’s session and the virtual Camp Emmaus’ attendance numbers remained steady around 200 from week to week.
The first night of the virtual Camp Emmaus was devoted to icebreakers and community-building, with the teens taking part in online polls and games to get to know each other.
Each night had a theme. There were presentations that found unique ways to get teens thinking about their faith, after which the teens were broken off into small groups of eight to 10 to discuss the topic in greater depth.
The July 22 session was a virtual talent show, and the final week’s installment was to be a livestreamed Mass.
Youth ministers gave shout-outs to each teen participant and parish as they joined the weekly Zoom call. After a closing prayer, to the accompaniment of music, participants were invited to demonstrate their best dance moves as they signed off for the week.
Flores said the youth have responded well to the virtual event.
Stephanie San Pedro, 17, is a member of St. Patrick Parish’s youth group. San Pedro, who attended Camp Emmaus last year, has been pleasantly surprised by the youth ministers’ ability “to pull this off.”
Though disappointed that she will not be able to attend the camp again in person before aging out of the program, she said of the virtual version, “It is a really inspiring opportunity to be with people of the same faith that are struggling to navigate the pandemic just like I am.”
For Caroline Saple, a 17-year-old participant from Mission San Luis Rey Parish in Oceanside, this was her first time attending Camp Emmaus.
“When I first heard the news [that it would be offered virtually], I was really disappointed because … it just felt like another thing that I had been excited for was canceled,” she said.
But, she said, “Even virtual, you can tell that all of the leaders are super excited and passionate about the Lord and are raring to share their love for Christ with all of us. And, even through the computer screen, I can feel the loving atmosphere they have created.”
Joyce Mendez, who leads youth ministry at Most Precious Blood Parish in Chula Vista, said her teens told her that “it feels good” to share their faith in small groups and that this is “long overdue during the quarantine.”
“Although nothing can take the place of being at church and at camp in-person,” she said, “the young Church is on fire and this experience is testimony of that.”