By Suzanne Ocsai
Pine Springs Ranch summer camp and Vacation Bible School (VBS) are summer staples for kids, teens, and the young adults who help staff both. A summer without one of these wouldn’t quite be summer. So, when COVID-19 claimed summer plans, conference staff and local church leaders decided to reimagine what both programs could look like in the midst of social distancing restrictions during quarantine.
While camp had to be canceled, that didn’t mean that some camp favorites couldn’t still be offered virtually. Carmen Ibanez, Pine Springs Ranch executive director, received special permission to host the PSR leadership team at the camp for one weekend to help her record and prepare videos featuring camp games, crafts, songs, activities, and snacks that campers could watch at home. All the videos were then posted online at psrathome.org.
For VBS, SECC leaders offered churches two virtual options. One was a one-week, online VBS program called Heroes, created by the North American Division, and the other was a semi-customizable program from the conference called Rocky Railway: Jesus’ Power Pulls Us Through. Because so many summer activities had to be canceled this year, pastors decided that instead of offering the customizable VBS for just one week, they would spread the five-day programming over five weeks. While this created much more work for the pastors, they wanted to provide more fun opportunities to families with limited options.
“It’s nice for one week,” said Manny Vitug, associate youth director for family and children’s ministry, “but the kids are going to be home for the entire summer with nothing to do—some of them even go from one church to the next, visiting different VBS programs.”
The VBS began on June 29 and ran until July 31. Each day of the original week-long program would be stretched across a Monday, Wednesday, and Friday schedule, with its own unique theme created by SECC. There was Move It Monday, which focused on being healthy, Wisdom Wednesday, which focused on nature and Bible nuggets, and Family Friday, which focused on bringing families together to positively and safely impact their neighborhoods.
Leaders worked hard to help attendees have an experience that was as interactive as possible because so much of what kids were being offered was already online, from school to church to spending time with extended family. The conference VBS leadership team, consisting of conference leaders and family and children’s pastors, recorded about 15-minutes of content. Churches could then add their own introductions, songs, or other unique elements, creating 45 to 60 minutes of total content per episode.
Churches also prepared take-home VBS activity bags for registrants that could be picked up weekly. These pick-up times provided families an opportunity to safely interact in-person with other members of their church community.
But it was not just local families who signed on to view the SECC VBS. While churches saw from 30 to upwards of 80 homes register for the virtual VBS, the number of views far surpassed that for many of the broadcasts. Churches also saw registrations from families whose conferences had decided to not hold VBS programs at all or from members who had moved away but still wanted to connect with their previous congregations.
To ensure that as many homes as possible could participate in the VBS, churches relied on multiple online streaming platforms. San Bernardino 16th Street church decided to use Facebook Live, Zoom, and YouTube Live to broadcast their VBS to church members in order to reduce any limitations for those who wanted access, while La Sierra University church used Rio to simultaneously stream to Facebook Live and YouTube Live for their viewers.
Leaders found unique ways to help kids interact with the programming. A couple weeks into the VBS, when kids had learned the songs, Grace Ko, VBS leader at the Loma Linda Korean church, switched from the music videos to the audio tracks and started coupling that with the Zoom spotlight feature. This allowed participants to be highlighted during the song time, virtually mimicking attendees being invited to help lead out on stage during traditional VBS weeks.
“They love that,” said Ko. “They love getting spotlighted and all of us seeing them try that much harder.”
While pastors and leaders faced many challenges this summer in planning and preparing both summer camp and VBS programming, in the end it served to further demonstrate how much they could accomplish together despite the odds.
“Nobody has been through a pandemic, so everyone is figuring it out, and yet we all got together and said we’re going to do this and we’re going to do it well,” said Beverly Maravilla, children’s pastor at La Sierra University church. “And that mattered, and that’s been such a beautiful picture of unity. I’m really proud of our conference.”