The sounds of summer camp are returning to the banks of the Neshannock Creek.

Those sounds were silenced four years ago when former Girl Scout Camp Elliott just outside of Volant was closed because of low attendance. The 101-acre facility, which had welcomed its first campers in 1954, was one of five western Pennsylvania camps decommissioned and put up for sale by the Girl Scouts in 2017.

Now, though, the camp has been purchased by the Pittsburgh-based nonprofit Dry Bones Ministries and rechristened the Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Camp and Retreat Center. It already is registering campers for the coming summer months.

The camp was first envisioned by Father Joe Freedy, a priest of the Diocese of Pittsburgh and the president of Dry Bones Ministries. Freedy began to pursue the idea after seeing statistics that showed 85 percent of Catholic youth stop practicing their faith by age 21. The numbers suggested that traditional religious education was not reaching today’s children.

Freedy became convinced that he had found a better way after being invited to celebrate Mass at Camp Lajas, a five-day wilderness camp held at Moraine State Park. Seeing the impact it made on campers, Freedy and three other priests involved in the camp — including Father Nicholas Vaskov, a former parochial vicar of the four-parish New Castle grouping that now is part of Holy Spirit Parish — formed Dry Bones Ministries to revitalize faith through outdoor camps and retreats.

“For me, it was the testimony of the kids,” Freedy said. “It was like, ‘Wow, this is changing these kids’ lives.’ I think one of the biggest things is the simplicity of it and getting with nature. They’re leaving their phones behind and so at first, they’re really hesitant. It would have been easier for them to leave their own heads behind than their phones.

“But by the end of the week, they don’t want their phones back because there’s a certain peace that has settled into their minds and hearts. They’re not living this fractured, disintegrated life where they have to keep up with a thousand different people and a thousand different things, and if they don’t, they're going to be left out of a loop.”

Freedy believes that being immersed in nature and the beauty of God’s creation helps to form a peace in youths’ hearts that they want to make a part of their daily lives.

”They’re connecting with God, but they’re also connecting with their own hearts and lives,” Freedy said. “Often, there’s a lot of hurt going on in there, and through the experience of a retreat, the community that’s formed, the relationships, their connection with God, their hearts can be healed.”

FINDING A FACILITY

Having identified the mission, then, the next box to be checked was finding a camp where it could be carried out.

Freedy shared his vision with a friend, who suggested that he check out the former Camp Elliott. The priest Googled the camp, checked out the photos and decided that it was worth a visit.

“I came up and visited for the first time and I thought, ‘This is special.’ It’s a beautiful, simple, glorious piece of land. The Neshannock is so pristine. I fell in love with it,” Freedy said.

Still, the priest did his due diligence and looked into about 15 other camps as well.

“For me, every time, I came back to Volant.”

After much additional prayer, Freedy and Dry Bones decided the former Camp Elliott was indeed the place they wanted, and the sale became official on Dec. 28.

Despite sitting empty for four years, the facility was in move-in condition.

“That’s one of the things that really sold us on it, that we’re grateful about," Freedy said. “There’s a lot of work to be done, but it’s kind of ready to go. We had to make some improvements regarding handicapped accessibility and things like that, but a lot of work’s been done since we purchased it.

“The buildings are in great shape, the Girl Scouts just did a really great job of keeping things up well.”

READY FOR CAMPING

Dry Bones Ministries will offer three camping opportunities during its first year at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, which actually is situated in Wilmington Township. The biggest, according to Dry Bones Executive Director Erin Stuvek, is a day camp for children in first through seventh grades. Registration is already open at olmccamp.org, and the camp can accommodate about 50 youths a week.

“It’s going to be an adventure camp, but child sized,” Stuvek said. “We’re going to have Mass every day, we’ll do all kinds of prayer, but intermingled with that we’ll have archery lessons, and rolling around in the mud, and really just giving kids the space to be kids, with adult supervision.

“We’re actually busing kids from Pittsburgh in addition to any coming locally. There’s a good group coming from Pittsburgh who are traveling every day for it.”

The second opportunity will be a leadership program for high school juniors and seniors. The students will be running the day camp, Stuvek said, “then diving deeper into their own faith and having some opportunities to grow there and hang out at night.”

Finally, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel also will be the new home of Camp Lajas, the wilderness-style camp that planted the seeds for Dry Bones Ministries.

“They are on the back side of the property in teepees and out in the woods all week and not showering and all that kind of stuff,” Stuvek said. “They’ll hike and kayak and things like that on site, and off site at Moraine they’ll do a few things.

“So rock climbing one day, white-water rafting down at Ohiopyle one day. It’s really an immersive adventure experience. It’s very effective and just an awesome opportunity.”

Dry Bones Ministries, Stuvek said, is pleased to be able to offer camping experiences in just its first summer of operation at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. However, it also plans to grow in the years ahead.

“This year, it’s very minimal,” she said. “Next year, we want to expand the summer camp program into something that covers all ages, kids entering first grade up through age 18.

“We have a gap this year, we don’t offer anything for seventh- through ninth-graders, which is kind of tough. But we didn’t just want to stick kids into day camp or stick them into a program that really wasn’t going to work for them. We want it to be meaningful and excellent. So we’ll definitely expand our programming and expand our residential options for high schoolers as well next year."

d_irwin@ncnewsonline.com

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Editor

Dan Irwin is currently a reporter and page designer. He was most recently the editor. He started with The News in 1978 and spent 10 years as a sports writer. He's a '78 Slippery Rock University graduate with a B.A. in English.

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