I’m sad that I have to wait a whole year to come back.”B.L.A.S.T. senior counselor
Every July, a thundercloud of children descend upon Dunrovin for four action-packed days of loud, boisterous fun. They swim, canoe, run around, and make crafts. They eat. They pray. They discover that God can be fun. These are the children of the Catholic charismatic covenant community out of West St. Paul known as CCR – the Community of Christ the Redeemer.
There is something very special about the B.L.A.S.T. children’s camp (Building Lives Around Solid Truth). A student completing the third grade becomes eligible to be an official B.L.A.S.T. camper and can possibly attend every year for a decade, even into adulthood. The CCR kids find a “home away from home” at Dunrovin.
Mike O’Connell (a school teacher who recently switched to non-profit work) and his wife, Angie, are the masterminds behind B.L.A.S.T. Begun by CCR children’s minister Scott Eskro in 2000, Mike codirected the camp in 2001 and has returned every year since. He has seen almost two generations of school kids come through camp, watching children become parents and sending their kids to camp. Mike calls it, “relational longevity.”
The underlying goal of B.L.A.S.T. is threefold: to join lives together in pursuit of holiness and advance the Gospel. Mike comments,
“It is really no different than the pillars of our [Catholic covenant] community. We don’t assume our children will learn by osmosis. We have a six-year rotation of themes. The kids get those themes first in Vacation Bible School, a second time in camp, and often a third time as a counselor. All of the themes have something specific about covenant community and our charisms, and some themes are specifically Catholic. The words and décor are just packaging. We are trying to evangelize our kids.”
Mike uses a stair step model similar to Dunrovin’s LEAD youth program. Kids enter the LEAD program for the initial encounter with Christ, move to training, and eventually to more intense service leadership. Mike nails it when he says, “We know it is just as much about the [older students] as it is for the younger ones. The major reason we have our born and bred CCR kids act as the counselors is that I want to evangelize them. Maria Bielejeski was the first CCR born and bred kid who was a counselor [in 2002]. And now she sends her kids to B.L.A.S.T.!”
It seems 125 kids in the Retreat Center during the hottest days of July would feel chaotic. It does not. Nothing phases Mike. He exudes a calming presence, and this rubs off on the children. They know the rules. The young teen leaders caring for the children know the rules. Order plus an upbeat schedule provide the framework for this amazing faith-filled week. In addition, several parents and seasoned adults assist with the camp. They care for all the students and get to observe firsthand their growth and maturity of faith, as well as the joyfulness of camper life.
However, when the group got to 140 participants, Dunrovin’s staff knew B.L.A.S.T. had outgrown this space. Mike cleverly devised a plan to split into two groups, coordinating dates and a partnership with Kiwanis Boy Scout Camp next door to Dunrovin. He says moving to share one camp between two campuses was an organic process and The Secret to retaining 15-year-olds’ participation in camp. Initially, students took a year gap between being a camper and junior counselor. It can be awkward to have a junior counselor telling her best-friend-but-a-year-younger camper what to do. How about we divide the kids into two camps by age? Problem solved! Younger group at Dunrovin and older group at Kiwanis.
On the topic of growing pains, Mike admits he toured ten other facilities within 100 miles or more outside of the Twin Cities. He found no better option to accomplish the CCR goals than with the combination of Dunrovin and Kiwanis, using the two facilities in tandem. It is a win-win-win.
BLAST became a family affair. Mike’s wife, Angie, does a lion’s share of the organization and is one of the camp “moms.” The O’Connell young adult children assist as well. Mike expresses his gratitude:
“It has been a tremendous gift to our family to serve together. We have our own patterns of family life and prayer, but B.L.A.S.T. is a unique opportunity to bring the Gospel to our own kids and let them live the faith by evangelizing other kids.”
On the topic of evangelization, children and teens from other Catholic charismatic covenant communities are invited to participate in B.L.A.S.T. Young people from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Texas, Florida, Kansas, Michigan, Arizona, and New Jersey all attended in July 2022. How great is it for kids to grow up knowing the Catholic covenant lifestyle is widely shared! They love to see each other every summer and sometimes families travel to keep up their relationships. Community life is truly life giving.
Dunrovin Executive Director Jerome Meeds observed the CCR kids’ camp for the past 20+ years. He appreciated their creative solution in increasing the capacity of the program. Jerome spoke about B.L.A.S.T.:
“What strikes me is that when I see these kids somewhere else, if I say something about Dunrovin, they just light up. It has become a spiritual home for the young people. Even into their adult years, they have fond memories of this home.
“I like their similarities to LEAD by utilizing the high schoolers to help serve the younger kids. My own son was a senior counselor and talked about being challenged out of his comfort zone. A friend said it well, ‘My high school daughter came back from camp and said she like working as a counselor better because she got more out of it.’ The reality is that when high schoolers serve and get out of themselves, they come alive. Their faith comes alive. It becomes more real.”
Although we weren’t fishing for a compliment, Mike gave the Dunrovin staff a huge one. His last comments about B.L.A.S.T. were addressed to the staff, “The decades of employees at Dunrovin have always been great to work with, accommodating, disposed toward service. [They make us feel like they are] happy we’re here.” And Dunrovin is happy to host B.L.A.S.T. A bit tiring, always happy to see them safely get back home, we are happy to witness their smiles and friendships. We love to see kids of all ages growing in the knowledge of the personal love of God and recognizing their own place in community. God is good.
The Community of Christ the Redeemer is a group of lay men and women, singles and married couples, who as laity, live and work in the everyday world. Their goal is to foster and strengthen a practical way of daily living that is rooted in a shared life in Christ. Jerome and Mary Meeds offered their own covenant commitment in 1987 and are deeply grateful for the relationships and companionship in living unreservedly with others in CCR for the glory of God.