Three young women with a passion for inspiring faith in youth have landed in Alaska to help launch the inaugural season of St. Theresa’s Camp — a Catholic summer camp in the Mat-Su Valley.
Thanks to the work of a local non-profit, Southcentral Alaska will again have a vibrant Catholic summer camp for the first time in nearly a quarter century. The last camp on the Kenai Peninsula closed in the early 1990s.
While operating with the blessing of Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz the new camp is independently owned and operated by a group of lay Catholics.
Starting a new camp after a gap of more than 20 years, however, is no easy task. According to Camp Director Rudy Poglitsh, he knew the camp would need seasoned, experienced staff to get off to a fast start.
“We cast a wide net across the U.S. for quality camp staff, and were pleased to receive applications from some outstanding candidates,” Poglitsh said.
He eventually hired three young women with impressive resumes to get the new camp up and running.
One of those women is Program Director Madelyn Rodriguez. A native of Dallas, Tex., and a student at Texas A&M University, Rodriguez was looking for opportunities in Alaska Poglitsh contacted her. Poglitsh had already received a glowing recommendation for Rodriguez from John Egan, the camp director for The Pines Catholic Camp, a 25-year old Texas summer camp that welcomes more than 1,750 campers each year.
“I am passionate about youth ministry and empowering kids with faith,” Rodriguez told the Catholic Anchor. “To me, Alaska is practically another country to experience while doing something I strongly believe in.”
Madelyn will oversee the camp’s programming, as well as plan and lead counselor training. In addition to her past work at The Pines, Rodriguez brings hands-on experience from attending Catholic summer camp every year from third to tenth grade, and then working at the same camp while in high school.
In her opinion, one of the most important elements of a successful Catholic camp is fostering a true devotion to Jesus.
“Apart from him and his will, we can do nothing,” she said. “Following Christ means taking risks and trusting in his providence. I can say with confidence that St. Therese’s is a product of God’s goodness and will be the medium through which he changes hearts in Alaska.”
Madelyn will have help in working to make this first year a success.
Fellow Texas native and University of Dallas graduate Laura Yokell joins the staff as spiritual and volunteer coordinator. Her primary responsibilities include developing weekly themes for all ages; coordinating with priests to provide liturgies and sacraments and helping to plan the daily schedule.
It’s a lot of work, admits Yokell, but she, too, has years of experience to guide her. Yokell also worked at the venerable The Pines Catholic Camp as a senior staff member and special operations coordinator, and also came highly recommended by camp director John Egan.
Of her decision to work in Alaska this summer, Yokell said she felt God was prodding her to “branch out and help more kids.”
“I want to pass along the faith and love that I experienced as a camper. It is so important for kids to get out in nature, have fun and learn what it looks like to live a Christian life, and, even better, with the sacraments!” she wrote in an email to the Catholic Anchor.
Yokell said a successful Catholic camp must be fun and memorable for campers.
“I hope they make lasting friendships, try something new and grow in their relationship with Christ, but ultimately I want them to have fun,” Yokell said. “A camp experience can inspire faith because it allows youth to get outside and find that Christ can be encountered in all creation … It models how we can live everyday life in a Christian way, from eating a meal to playing sports, and how that experience shouldn’t just stay at camp.”
Rounding out the leadership team at Saint Therese’s Camp is senior staff counselor Lisa Yanzer who hails from Holmen, Wis., and has a degree in special education.
Like her fellow staff members, Yanzer learned the ins and outs of summer camp from The Pines in Texas, as well as Rancho Framasa Catholic Camp in Indiana, but she also teaches special education in Milwaukee public schools during the school year. Lisa says she is passionate about “living the gospel values of my Catholic faith and working with people of all needs and abilities and creating inclusive environments where all are able to participate together.”
One of Yanzer’s primary roles will be to support the other counselors and to help them through the challenges that can be associated with camp counseling. Camp Director Poglitsh says Yanzer’s skills in this area are advanced and necessary to ensure that all camp employees remain healthy and motivated throughout the summer.
“She has a real gift for recognizing when someone needs extra care and attention,” Poglitsh noted, “and she knows what to do to help them remain focused.”
Yanzer is excited about the chance to experience Alaska while doing what she loves.
“Going to Alaska has been a dream of mine for a while,” she said. “I feel very close to God in nature. To have this opportunity to work at a camp in Alaska that combines many passions of mine is an incredible opportunity too good to pass up.”
Yanzer observed that Catholic summer camp “puts faith in a different context” for youth.
“Their parents are not there sitting next to them at Mass or leading them in prayer,” she said. “They take a little control in their own faith through activities, exploration, laughter and joy. They meet other young people who are excited about God and their faith.”
Like her two colleagues, Yanzer said she is eager to share her love of Jesus and the Catholic faith with young Alaskans who might just be starting to deepen their relationship with Christ.
“We are a part of a person’s development when they come to camp, and we get the chance to show them so much beauty in nature and the joy of God through our joy of God and passion in our faith,” she said. “We do this by sharing with campers through activities, silliness, prayer, adventures and the entire amazing world of summer camp.”
For more information about the upcoming camp season go online to stthereseak.com or call (907) 232-2066.