Draper • Bible school.
Those two words conjure up images of scripture-toting students confined to their desks, dissecting Deuteronomy, probing Proverbs and ripping into Romans.
But plop "vacation" in front of the phrase and you get grade-schoolers dancing to the lyrics "we're going to ride with Jesus yeehaw," instructors reading from the Good Book with a cowboy drawl and posters with the warning "Wanted by God Reward Awaits You in Heaven."
At least that's how it was at this summer's Vacation Bible School for Draper's St. John the Baptist Catholic Church.
The northeast corner of Juan Diego Catholic High School was transformed into the wild, wild West for the five-day SonWest Roundup as 120 grade-schoolers gathered to sing songs about God's love, pray before snacks and play games to build teamwork.
Fun, food and faith all with an Old West flavor.
"The faith is part of their moral development," said Monsignor Terence Moore, pastor at St. John the Baptist. "It's important that they know the love of the Lord in their lives."
Vacation Bible Schools (VBS, for short) began in New York in 1898, when Virginia Sinclair Hawes, a Southern Baptist, launched Everyday Bible School, a nondenominational summer program to keep children off the streets. Such schools then spread into the Midwest and moved south before crossing the Mississippi. Now, churches in Utah and across the country hold Vacation Bible Schools to entertain youngsters and enhance their faith.
"I love that my kids are getting a fun way of learning our faith," said Christa Aquilla, whose children attended SonWest. "VBS gets them a firm foundation in the faith we believe in."
At SonWest, the days began at 8:30 a.m. with VBS director Karin Hurley calling out, "Howdy, pardner," to get the kids' attention. After a morning prayer and a skit acting out a Bible story with a Western theme, the children moved through five activity stations with their cowboy-hat-clad group leaders. At the music station, the kids learned songs and dances to perform for their families on the last day of camp. At the snack station, campers built their own Western-themed treats out of cookies, candies and icing. Outside, at the games station, they learned teamwork by pretending to be horses and riders while trying to get water-soaked balls into tubs of water. Back inside, volunteer Judy Robins read Bible stories in a Western accent.
"We encourage all the volunteers to interact with the kids with unbridled enthusiasm," Hurley said. "Our motto is the cornier the better."
With almost 65 volunteers, enthusiasm ran wild. Adult and teen volunteers wore cowboy boots and bandannas. Some even dressed in full costume. Cowboy slang became part of the language.
"I'm having fun and I like it," said a kindergarten camper as he decorated a tote bag to look like a sheriff's vest at the craft station.
The idea for a Vacation Bible School came to St. John the Baptist Catholic Church when some parishioners came to Utah from the Midwest and the South.
"I moved from Kentucky where my kids had a VBS," said Kristen Mullen, director of religious education at St. John. "We wanted one here, but I needed someone to take it on."
Shelly Berget was that someone. Berget moved west from a parish in Illinois, where her children participated in a VBS she directed. When the family moved, her kids asked if there would be a VBS in Utah. Berget couldn't find one near Draper.
"My kids were sad to find out there wasn't any around," Berget said.
After her family members settled into their new home, Berget approached Mullen about starting a VBS at St. John and learned other parents wanted one as well. A few planning meetings later and St. John had its first VBS staged in 2009.
"It was very successful," Berget said. "We had 80 kids and 30 teen volunteers."
St. John's school was such a hit, in fact, that other parishes wanted in. So St. John opened up the event and had 120 campers in the second year.
After five years, it's still a rip-roarin' good time. Campers return year after year, and parents eagerly volunteer. Even teens give up a week of their summers to help.
"My kids have told me they want to come every year as a camper," Robins said. "They want to be junior helpers [when they get] in middle school, too."
For parishioners of all ages, St. John's Vacation Bible School is loads of fun, and the gospel theme keeps Jesus the life of the party.