Learning to share, learning to care
Vacation Bible schools offer kids a chance to stretch themselves spiritually while having fun
Every summer, churches in Southern Maryland host week-long programs known as vacation Bible school to give kids an opportunity to grow spiritually while having fun with their peers.
Heroes come in all sizes
Capes were blowing in the wind in Prince Frederick the week of July 10 as Trinity United Methodist Church held its annual VBS with a superhero theme. Walking up the steps toward the church, one could see children draped in the garments of their superhero of choice.
“We’ve hit 77 kids enrolled this year. That’s an increase from 2016,” said Trinity United’s coordinator of Christian education, Rayelle Finlayson, who just finished her second year as VBS director. “I think there would be a bigger enrollment if it was an all-day program. Because it’s a half-day and parents work, we do see a lot of people not do it.”
Trinity United Methodist Church’s VBS, which ran from 9 a.m. to noon, was promoted in church and fliers were distributed to Calvert Library and local schools. During the program, children attend
various educational and extracurricular stations for set increments of time before rotating to the next station. These stations include story time, arts and crafts, singing, snacks and recreational games.
“Snack is a favorite station. I would say that craft time is also a really big deal. They enjoy the crafts that they get to take home,” Finlayson said.
The vacation Bible school had 10 to 15 adult volunteers along with a large number of youth volunteers, who have aged out of the program. Finlayson explained that most of the volunteers come from Trinity United, but she’s looking to expand in future years by offering opportunities to local students who need service hours.
Referring to the percentage of VBS attendees who don’t have consistent church attendance, Finlayson said the biggest purpose of the program is “to let kids hear and know that Jesus loves them and that the Bible and Jesus have the answers for life.
“Obviously, some of these kids are going through a ton of things at home that we’ll never know about and it’s just our one chance to give them hope and give them those answers they might be searching for a lot,” she said. “Even if they’re not hitting hard times now, I know that as they grow up, they will,” she relayed. “I hope that something from VBS will stick with them when they hit those hard times.”
Finlayson began her work with Trinity United’s vacation bible school in 2015 as a volunteer before applying
for the director position the following year. Initially not expecting to obtain the position, she said her time as director has been quite positive.
“I’ve learned that you kind of have to work with what you get. We’ve lost a couple of our key volunteers and I’ve really felt the hit this year. I’ve learned how to roll with those punches and how to bring new people aboard. Vacation Bible school is not a one-man show. I’ve known that in the past, but I’ve really felt it this year,” Finlayson said when asked what she has learned as director.
Finlayson expressed how fun and engaging the job is, describing the joy she feels in seeing the kids who come back annually with high expectations and excitement about the new theme and songs.
“Honestly what I’ve seen over the last two years directing is [that] I underestimate how much kids learn during our week of VBS. I underestimate how much they’re really getting. But I see them walking through the halls and they’re reciting everything we’ve said to them. They go home and sing the songs and they really do get it,” she said with a smile on her face. “It’s really impressive.”
While growing up in New Jersey, Finlayson attended and volunteered at vacation Bible schools. She said VBS has been a big part of her life, and she aims to leave the same impression on the youth who attend Trinity United’s program.
The Rev. Jim Swecker of Trinity United said vacation Bible school is always a wonderful week.
“I love the fact that it opens the church to the community and so many folks from the community come in. When that happens a lot of families and children are affected and helped. It’s a really big week for us,” Swecker said.
Exploring the universe
Windows were dimmed and decorations of stars and planets were suspended from the ceiling in Lexington Park Baptist Church for its “galactic starveyor”-themed VBS, aiming to inform youth that the same God who created the universe loves them and wants to have a personal relationship.
“The theme is searching the visible, discovering the invisible, so the kids are looking out toward the stars and looking at all that God created in the universe that they can see. But they’re discovering who God is,” VBS director Keri Johnston said, indicating some other Baptist churches in the area are doing the theme as well.
Lexington Park Baptist’s vacation Bible school ran mornings from July 24 to 28. Johnston said the program saw its highest enrollment with 200 children from preschool to sixth grade.
“A lot of those kids are kids who already go to a church and the parents are wanting to send them to different vacation Bible schools that different churches around offer. At least 10 percent of our kids come from a background where they don’t go to church,” Johnston apprised, describing an agreement between the church and the St. Mary’s County public school system to send fliers to local elementary schools at the end of the school year.
When children walked into the church for VBS, they entered a 20-minute worship rally where they sang songs and watched skits before going to age-specific bible studies. They then rotated to various stations that offer activities like music, snacks, arts and crafts, recreation time and mission projects.
“A lot of the boys seem to love recreation because they get to run around and get all that energy out and play games. You see a lot of the girls getting into the crafts because it’s something they can go and make and get to take home. A lot of them really enjoy the music, too. It really depends on what that child’s interests are,” Johnston said. “That’s what I like about [VBS], because you can reach everyone and what they like. You’re going to have something that appeals to each individual child.”
This year’s mission project is in conjunction with Operation Christmas Child, as children were asked to bring in school supplies to be put into shoeboxes that the church puts together. The project was made a competition between the boys and the girls, although Johnston jokes that the girls may have an advantage, as the supplies they were asked to bring in weigh more than the supplies requested from the boys.
Lexington Park Baptist’s VBS had 67 volunteers this year, the highest number the program has seen. Most of the volunteers were women and youth, and many of them are members of Lexington Park Baptist.
“This year we have a lot and we need every single one just to ensure the kids are safe and controlled. Sometimes it’s hard to find as many volunteers as we need because we do it during the day, so I’m really, really pleased at the number we have this year. It’s great,” Johnston said, indicating the church held vacation Bible school in the evening a previous year and saw a low turnout in attendees.
Carla Werme, mission leader for the VBS, has been volunteering with the program for more than six years. She said her passion for sharing God’s word and interacting with the children is what brings her back every year.
Finishing up her eighth year as director, Johnston said she has always loved teaching and seeing the joy on kids’ faces when they learn something. A
product of vacation bible school herself, Johnston relayed that she wanted every child to leave VBS knowing God loves them and has a plan for their life. When asked what she enjoys most about vacation bible school, Johnston said “seeing the kids excited and happy and learning about Jesus.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned as director is being flexible and prepared. You never know what’s going to happen when there’s 200 kids and 60some adults helping. You need to be on your toes and ready for anything that’s going to come your way,” she said, adding that the church begins preparing for the VBS in January.
Learning from Jonah
Children at Our Lady Help of Christians Catholic Church in Waldorf spent July 24 to 28 learning the Old Testament story of Jonah to recreate it during a musical for their parents.
“The story teaches the youth to show forgiveness just like God did to Jonah. It also shows them that you can’t escape God’s plan for you,” the Rev. Alain Colliou said in the sanctuary while watching the kids rehearse for the musical.
Around 70 children from age 4 to 11 enrolled to Our Lady Help of Christian’s fourth annual VBS, along with 50 youth volunteers who assisted throughout the week.
“Usually our number is higher, but because extensive renovations taking place in the church our space is restricted. We’re doing a whole different style this year and we’ve written our own vacation Bible school plan,” said Therese Thiedeman, VBS director and director of religious education. They even prepared a 35-minute musical.
Thiedeman said most of the VBS attendees come from their church or neighboring Catholic churches, although there are some non-Catholic children who attend as well. And of course, all were welcomed.
The children learned and discussed the biblical story of Jonah throughout the week to prepare for the play.
Jonah was a Hebrew prophet who was sent by God to prophesy the destruction of the ancient city of Nineveh. Jonah attempted to stray from God’s path by boarding a ship and ended up in the belly of a whale for three days before repenting for his disobedience and thanking God for his mercy. The whale subsequently spat Jonah out, and he wised up and followed God’s plan.
The children attending Our Lady Help of Christians’ VBS rotated to various stations, including drama, music, crafts, games and snacks. Thiedeman said faith is the thread that connects the stations as volunteers stressed forgiveness, mercy, responsibility and responding to God’s call.
“Children are trying out for the roles, although I precast a couple roles to some of the older kids. Each group has a special part to play like the 4- and 5-year-olds are fish and the 6- and 7-year-olds feed the whale, and the 8- and 9-year-olds are the sailors, and the 10- and 11-yearolds are the Ninevites. They all have a section to do so we can work on the whole play as we rotate around,” Thiedeman said, indicating children make props and costume pieces during crafts.
Over her years directing, Thiedeman said she has learned to trust the ideas of others.
“I have my ideas and I come in with my ideas, but you form a good team around you and you get people who really want to participate and you let them be part of the process,” Thiedeman said. “What I love most about directing is the people. I love seeing the kids happy, joyful and hands on learning about God. I love seeing the adults and youth interacting with them as well.”
Distinguishing Catholic VBS from other denominations, Thiedeman said they always try to incorporate the sacraments. This year the VBS had the opportunity for a reconciliation, or confession.
“Those who have already received the sacrament of reconciliation for the first time — usually 7-year-olds and above — will also have the opportunity to once again experience the Lord’s mercy and forgiveness through this grace-filled sacrament during the week,” Thiedeman said.
Colliou, who has been pastor for eight years, noted how fast the kids learned the play and songs. He referred to Jonah as a beautiful story for the kids to learn and expressed how proud he was in the attendees and volunteers.
Above, children attending Trinity United Methodist Church’s superhero themed vacation Bible school play with a beach ball outside the church during recreation time while youth volunteers assist. Below, children play a round of duck, duck, goose outside Trinity United Methodist Church during the annual vacation Bible school July 12.
Children at Lexington Park Baptist Church’s vacation bible school got the opportunity to play indoor bowling at their recreation station.
Volunteers at Lexington Park Baptist Church’s vacation bible school lead children from their worship rally to their individual bible studies July 28.
Preschoolers make bead bracelets at their arts and crafts station at Lexington Park Baptist Church’s annual vacation Bible school.
Attendees of Trinity United Methodist Church’s vacation Bible school enjoy snacks July 12.
Therese Thiedeman, director of religious education for Our Lady Help of Christians Catholic Church, speaks to a group of children about the story of Jonah.
Children at Our Lady Help of Christians Catholic Church’s vacation bible school rehearse their “Oh Jonah!” musical July 25. The children performed the musical for their families July 28.
Children prepare for snack time at Our Lady Help of Christians Catholic Church’s vacation bible school.
Preschool children sing one of their favorite songs about loving Jesus and do the accompanying dance at their music station during Lexington Park Baptist Church’s vacation Bible school.
First- and second-graders recite Bible verses during their Bible study time July 28 at Lexington Park Baptist Church’s annual vacation Bible school.
Youth volunteers lead children in a song at Our Lady Help of Christians Catholic Church’s vacation bible school.