Canton parish camp builds spirit through service

CANTON — The energy was palpable at the St. Gerard’s Kids Camp 50’s Party. As music blasted from inside the parish hall, families mingled and kids and grown-ups alike rocked and rolled on the dance floor.

“Total passion,” said Melinda McLaughlin, a parent, describing the camp. Parent and volunteer Susan Rowan agreed, “It brings tears to your eyes.”

For 17 years the parish of St. Gerard Majella has committed time each summer to one week of character, spirit and community building in the form of the St. Gerard’s Kids Camp. The camp, which took place the week of July 9th, has gained enormous popularity throughout the years. This year, 500 youngsters participated. Held at the Gavin Middle School, the camp itself is nondenominational, and no one is ever turned away for financial reasons; parents are encouraged to give what they can. However, interest this year was overwhelming, and the camp ran out of room, placing 35 families on a waiting list.

When asked where the heart of this successful program lies, the answer from parishioners was unanimous: “Mike and Judy Mehan.”

“Mike and Judy give selflessly…. They bring so much love and passion,” said Melinda McLaughlin, “They are the camp,”

The Mehans are the powerhouse couple who have been running the program since its inception. Mike Mehan is also the parish’s director of Youth Ministry. The two lead a committee of volunteers who plan for an entire year to put the program together.

“The camp is morally driven and creative,” says Judy Mehan. The summertime activities are infused with lessons in character building. This year’s theme, “Disney Dreams,” is an acronym for each day’s focus: determination, respect, energy, appreciation and mentor. There is a place for everyone at camp. Parents commit to volunteering at least one day, and college and high school students serve as camp counselors. Participation is an affirming boost for all ages.

Camp counselor Ed Carroll is so committed to the program that last year he used his military leave to volunteer.

“The program values my time, effort and energy,” he said, explaining his dedication, “It’s something bigger than me, and I love kids.”

“The camp is a great way to bring together kids and adults in one atmosphere,” adds Hannah Sussek, a student at St. Anselm College in Manchester, NH, who helped organize the camp.

Parent Dorice Khoury agrees, “The program is very intergenerational. The teenagers are such great role models and the generations mingle seamlessly.” Amy Robertson, a former St. Gerard parishioner, who now lives in Georgia and returns every year to volunteer, adds, “St. Gerard’s is like a family.”

The camp has a powerfully positive effect on the parish, but its influence reaches even further. After camp each summer the parish sends high school students on service projects throughout the country. Many of these students have grown up attending Kids Camp as campers before becoming counselors. This year 15 young adults are volunteering at St. Francis Inn, a soup kitchen in Philadelphia, helping to build homes in Kentucky and joining the Hurricane Katrina relief in Louisiana.

To support the trip, the parish holds a fundraiser on the camp’s kick-off day. The pitch is simple: a slide show and the testimony of young parishioners who have participated in previous years’ service projects. This year their message was so compelling that they raised $26,000 in donations; $10,000 supported the camp, and the rest funds the service projects.

“It’s all interconnected,” says Gina Gleason, a counselor, “Helping here makes you want to help [on the service trips] so much more.”

And while their purpose is to help others in need, these young adults say they are equally benefited.

“It shows us that we are blessed and to share is our obligation,” says Amy Robertson.

“It takes me out of my comfort zone,” says counselor Ryan Gormly, “I wouldn’t trade it for anything else in the world.”