Camp Ondessonk featured in The Messenger

Camp Ondessonk featured in The Messenger

Camp Ondessonk was recently featured the The Messenger–  The Belleville IL Diocese Official Newspaper.


Story and photos by LIZ QUIRIN
Messenger editor

The sun beats down on a group of 8- and 9-year-olds sitting in a semicircle around a young woman who draws their attention and holds it. Why? Because when she finishes, each youngster will mount his or her own horse, possibly for the very first time.

This happens all week long for young people at Camp Ondessonk, a 300-acre Catholic camp for young people adjacent to the Shawnee National Forest in far southern Illinois.

For some, like Bridget Coolican, being a camper is a legacy to be lived. Bridget’s parents met at Camp Ondessonk and later were married at the camp. She feels right at home there, in this her first official camping experience.

A week at camp usually begins on Sunday afternoon and ends on the following Saturday. Variations on that theme can include adventure camps that begin at Ondessonk and take campers outside for horse adventure, rock climbing or canoeing.

However at the beginning of July, an extended weekend is set aside for families to camp together at Ondessonk, and the end of that week is reserved as “mini camp” for 8- and 9-year-old youngsters not old enough to sign up for a week of camp yet. Of the 250 mini-campers that week, were they fearful of being away from their families? Not really. Some said they couldn’t wait to spend time at camp because of the stories they had heard from older siblings or even from their parents who had been campers or staff members in earlier years.

For more than 50 years Ondessonk has provided a place for special adventures, to make and renew friendships, to learn about God’s creation, to broaden knowledge and test skills of young people and the staff at the Belleville diocesan camp. 

Some of the staff began their life-long love of Ondessonk as campers, came back to train as counselors and joined the staff when they were able. “It’s a special place,” they say.

Staffer Gina DeMattei from West Frankfort is a good example. This year, her 11th year at camp, she works at the barn as a wrangler.

She began as a camper and kept coming back. She loves horses and she loves camp, she said. When Gina was a camper she remembers viewing staff members as mentors, people she admired. “I wanted to be someone campers looked up to (now),” she said.

Campers come from as near as “a few miles down the road” to dioceses in other parts of Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and beyond.

They all tell the same story: “I came with friends,” or “I’m meeting my camp friends this week.”

Equestrian director, Sara Oviatt, said the goal is to “give the kids a great first experience (with horses) so they want to come back.”

Camper Caroline Gogen of Freeburg learned about riding, the reins, parts of the horse, how to mount and dismount.
Caroline was riding a horse called C-Sweet Caroline. The experience was “not scary,” she said, and definitely wants to ride again.

Sometimes the camping experience itself draws them in and then back again.One young person may love horses but lives in an urban area where riding isn’t an option. A week at camp riding horses or going on a horse adventure, or this year on a two-week horse expedition pilot program can hardly be described with mere words. “It’s heaven,” they say.

Part of the adventure at Ondessonk for any camper has to be in the unit they call home for three days or a week. Campers can choose to stay in treehouses if they choose one of a number of units with A-frames tucked away in the trees.

Described as “the coolest spot in camp,” houses campers under a sandstone amphitheatre where they are cooled by the stone, and if it rains they enjoy a waterfall.

Some of the units are named for Jesuit missionaries who ministered to Native Americans in the mid-17th century in Canada.

So, the units Brébeuf, Chabanel, Daniel, Garnier, Goupil, Lalande and Lalemant are named for these martyrs while another is named Tekakwitha for Native American Kateri Tekakwitha, the daughter of a Mohawk chief and a Roman Catholic who has been beatified by the Catholic Church.

Campers learn about the martyrs and about the camp’s name, Ondessonk — Native American for bird of prey — at a special evening campfire with dances and a call for some of the campers to join the Lodge of Ondessonk (for boys) or the Lodge of Tekakwitha (for girls).

When they become lodge members, they remain members for life with continued opportunities to contribute to the camp and be involved in special projects developed for the lodges.

While days are spent learning crafts, swimming, boating, riding and the many activities available for youth, Ondessonk also pays attention to the spiritual side of life and teaching campers about their care of, and respect for one another and the earth.

A few of the area pastors take time to go to camp to celebrate liturgy with campers in the chapel and be part of campers’ lives during the week. Prayer, said staff members, is an important part of the day at camp.

Because camp staff is aware of the economic struggles families face, an effort has been and is being made to raise money to assist with “camperships.”

The staff doesn’t want one person who really wants to go to camp to miss out. Scholarships and assistance in paying fees is available.

To find out more about camp, other programs being offered throughout the year and how to become involved, please go to Ondessonk’s web site at www.ondessonk.com.

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