Four years ago, in June 2018 the power of faith, the ideas of ambitious staff members, and a grant opportunity resulted in the launch of the first round of the Ark Camp, the largest equal opportunity-building program of the Reformed Church in Hungary. The EU-funded project lasted four years - 2021 being last year. However, in view of the great success and the huge demand, the Synod Office's Unit for Tender and Project Management has been working hard to ensure that the program is continued. The Church Weekly of RCH interviewed Mónika Kósa, the head of Unit, about the experiences of the past years and plans for the future.
Who came up with the idea of Project called Ark Camp?
Ark Camp was launched in 2017 as part of an EU funded program, but its roots go back much further. The series of camps build heavily on the church's longstanding work in the field of inclusion. First, we dreamt about starting twelve after-school programs, institutions for after-school learning and catching up, as well as for families, operating during the school months but outside school hours. Unfortunately, we found that the children who attended these schools were often on their own in the summer. I remember when my colleague, who runs an after-school herself, was happy to bring in this application because she wanted these children to be looked after in the summer. However, the idea of a small camp for a few hundred children quickly outgrew itself, because in addition to the after-school system, we also have a network of foster parents and a lot of Church schools, where there are also many disadvantaged children - we wanted to offer them an active and meaningful summer recreation. In the meantime, we were expecting more and more children, so by the time we got the approval to launch the application, we felt we were on the verge of a great opportunity. But when we won the funding, we got a bit scared.
That was the time you realised that the project had to be implemented?
Yes, because a year and a half had passed after we had presented the application. Circumstances had changed, prices had increased significantly. We realised that the funding was not at all sufficient to provide holidays for six or five hundred children. Then I went to the General Secretary, and I explained him the situation and asked him: what now? We were talking about millions in Hungarian currency. He replied that he was unable to answer that question at the moment, and he needed time. It was about three hours later when he came to me and said, ha started to pray in his office because he didn't know what to do, and then the scripture came to him, "If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them." (James 4:17) It was a defining moment, to dive head first into something with so many unanswered questions. But there was the certainty that we here now had the approval and the blessing to start on this journey. And shockingly the support did come: donations of millions and thousands of forints, medical check-ups, donations of medicines and clothes - everything we needed just appeared, added up and became the Ark Camp.
You mentioned that you made the commitment to organize summer camps for altogether six thousand five hundred children. But the pandemic intervened. How much was achieved?
We have received more than four thousand children in the summer camps. Initially we planned eighteen camps in the first two years – however, because of the Coronavirus epidemic last year’s and this year’s goal can’t be achieved, the most we could do is eleven.
What happens to children left out by the pandemic?
We want to make up for the missed camps, which is also important because of our application for the funding. Hopefully we will be able to organize the camps next year.
We understand that this year there will be a new group of campers.
We wanted to thank the National Ambulance Service for their sacrificial work during the current epidemic situation, so we offered the children of the workers the opportunity to participate. Twenty people signed up and we are very happy for them.
The Ark Camp uses a special method, experiential education, to change the life of children. Many people are skeptical about whether meaningful progress can be made in a week.
I was one of them. When we wrote the application and used the term 'experiential education', I had no idea what it meant. I did have some pedagogical knowledge, but I only experienced the power of this method when I went to one of these sessions.
Is seeing this method and its results first hand made you think differently about it than you did before the camps?
Yes. For one of these programs, the group leader brought twenty folding rulers. He handed them out, and when they got to the point where they could make flowers, boats, whatever, they were given the task for building a church together. And the group started to work: someone was the leader of the "construction", others helped to build the tower, the wall, the window. Two were stuck on the outside – and the kids started to think about how to invite them in. All this was done by children who previously had difficulties getting to know each other. They came from different social backgrounds, had never met before, and now they were together and had to complete a task together. This has an amazing power. The "game" was not the end of it, because then came the processing of the events: they began to articulate things about themselves and others that they had not thought about or talked about before. This method creates close connections and this is true integration. From session to session, friendships are formed that make them say goodbye sobbing to one another at the end of the camp.
When expressions we wrote in the application - like integration, cooperation, development, experiential education - come alive in the camp, this is true miracle.
The project was due to end this year, but last year the community funding was launched to ensure the future of Ark Camp. What have been the result so far? What are your plans?
We approached companies and other potential sponsors and made a documentary about the camp, which we plan to show in September. One of the main characters is a seventeen-year-old boy from a foster care network, who was a camper in the program last summer and is expected back as a volunteer this year. I hope that with new funding opportunities and the support of our church, we can organise many more Ark Camps in the years to come. We also have plans for how to make the Ark more than a series of summer camps. We would like to have our own venue where we can receive groups for experiential education sessions during the school year. We have a lot of dreams for which we are writing project applications. We hope that we will find supporters and that the program will continue.
The Ark Camp is the largest opportunity-building program of the Reformed Church in Hungary so far, which will allow six thousand five hundred children to camp free of charge in two locations near the lake Balaton - Balatonfenyves and Balatonszárszó - in five years instead of the originally planned four. The series of events, funded by an EU grant of 800 million HUF, will be open to children from disadvantaged and severely disadvantaged backgrounds, children with special educational needs and children with disabilities, among others. Thanks to RCH volunteers and the staff of the Adventures and Dreams Workshop, the children will be able to experience life-changing experiences through experiential education and well-organised leisure activities. The name, taken from the Bible, is also the framework for the program: participants are given roles related to it. Thus, the staff of the Synod Office, the main organiser, can be "shipwrights", the tour leaders "explorers", the experiential education leaders "captains", the leisure organisers "steersmen", the volunteers responsible for the children's needs "deckhands", the spiritual leaders "fishermen" and the children "sailors".
Translated by Réka Komáromi. Proofread by Claire Weihe