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Arts & crafts and Alzheimer’s prevention: It’s Vacation Bible School for senior citizens

Verbena Crowley, left, and Sarah Lanier, right, participate in a prayer walk during Camp Dynamite on Wednesday. (Amanda Voisard/For The Washington Post)

FALLING WATERS, W.Va. — On the first night of Vacation Bible School, the giggling campers lined up in a row for a relay race. Their task? Rub their faces in a plate of Vaseline, then stick their nose to a cotton ball and carry the cotton ball hands-free to the opposite wall.

“Ready, set, go!” They set off instantly, smearing their noses gooey with gusto. Intent on emptying her bowl of cotton balls first, every single competitor tore back and forth across the room — even if she had to use a cane or a motorized scooter to do so.

At Vacation Bible School for senior citizens, the games are the same even if the participants are quite a bit older than usual.

Forty-seven seniors, ages 57 to 92, are enjoying a week-long overnight camp in West Virginia — a retreat filled with camp activities and religious instruction just for them.

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For more than a dozen years, Pastor Bob Mathieu and his wife, Sharon, have been taking seniors to Camp Dynamite from Congress Heights, where the Mathieus lead Anacostia Gospel Chapel, and from other neighborhoods, mostly in Southeast Washington and Prince George’s County. Subsidized by donors, the trip costs $150 for the seniors and covers transportation to the quiet, leafy campground; a week of housing in motel-style rooms; cafeteria meals; and nonstop activity options.

It’s a respite for many from the stresses of getting older and any number of other challenges in their lives.

Evelyn Boseman, 77, used to come to Camp Dynamite with her husband. They met when she was 16 and spent 57 years together.

This is the first year she’s at camp alone since his death. She arrived toting plastic-and-yarn crosses that she made for every single one of her fellow campers. Sitting outside at a picnic table on a silent moonlit night at camp, she says the retreat is a chance to renew her faith.

People tell her “I’m sorry for your loss,” but her faith supplies a different viewpoint. “I don’t have any loss. I know where he is.”

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Iris Gibson has had a rough year since she attended Camp Dynamite last summer. Her house in Southeast Washington was foreclosed on, leading her to move in with her adult son, three hours west in Cumberland, Md. It’s been a rocky transition, and when camp came around this summer, she was awash in depression.

“Everyone’s so positive. It saved my life,” she said on the second day of camp, tearing up in the dining hall. “No matter what you’re going through, somebody else has been through something they can tell you. It makes all the difference.”

The Mathieus started taking children from Congress Heights to Camp Dynamite more than 30 years ago; today, their son Bobby runs the operation, at a retreat that Mathieu’s black church rents for two weeks each year from the Assemblies of God, an evangelical denomination that’s almost entirely white and Latino.

At some point, someone suggested a weekend for the senior citizens in the Mathieus’ neighborhood to go to camp, too. The seniors loved it so much that they insisted on a whole week at camp, just like the kids get.

In almost every community in the United States, churches of all different denominations have hosted Vacation Bible School for decades, devoting a week or two each summer to introducing children to Christianity along with the fun of summer camp. But VBS for seniors is rare; the Mathieus are not sure there is any program in the nation quite like Camp Dynamite.

A sign of summer: Vacation Bible School

The seniors’ schedule includes swimming, mini golf and a scavenger hunt, along with some activities that wouldn’t show up at children’s camp, like seminars on memory and on finances. Unlike some squirming children, the adult campers are eager to participate in the religious instruction. Every morning they get some gentle exercise by strolling from one Bible-based prompt to the next on a prayer walk around the campgrounds, then spend another hour or more every day listening to sermons and fervently participating in Bible study.

Over dinner the first night, the conversation naturally drifts from chatter about the seniors’ misadventures learning to swim, to a discussion of how to bring their faith to family members who have not found Jesus. “That’s something I want for everyone, especially my family members. Because we know He’s coming any minute. I don’t want them to be left behind,” Linda Huff says to the other women at the table, adding that it’s best to set a good example rather than browbeat relatives into converting.

It’s Huff’s first time at Camp Dynamite, and she’s delighted with the dinnertime conversation with fellow believers. “We come here, it’s like everybody’s on the same page,” she said.

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“I have a testimony,” Annette Lucas puts in. “Years ago I was on drugs.” She tells the story of the apparent miracle — an inexplicable clean drug test, a job she didn’t lose — that led her to faith, and then to sobriety. She does a “hallelujah” dance at the table, while the other women hum “amens” over their chicken fingers.

For some, Camp Dynamite is a chance to return to the sort of VBS they enjoyed as young children. For many, it’s their first opportunity to go to camp.

Like Maurice Word, who was getting arrested at sit-ins in North Carolina while he was still in his teens; now, at 75, he’s recounting his civil rights movement stories at camp. Or Linda Moody, a former member of the D.C. Board of Education for Ward 8, who sent her two children to Camp Dynamite years ago, then watched them send their children.

This year, for the first time, Moody got to go to camp herself — making the family matriarch a third-generation camper, her granddaughter Michaela Pratt said with a wry smile. “It’s kind of awkward” to have her grandmother at camp with her, said Pratt, 18. A longtime camper, she’s a counselor for the younger kids this summer before she starts college at the University of Rochester.

The youth campers and the senior citizens mostly stay apart from each other on the large, grassy campus, but they teamed up for a raucous game show together one night. Moody and Pratt were on the same team. Moody has limited mobility and speech (due to a stroke, Bobby Mathieu said), but three 11- and 12-year-old campers enthusiastically embraced her as a teammate, positing that she could win relay races in her motorized scooter.

When Pratt took on one of the challenges in the game — flipping more and more pencils off the back of her hand and catching them in the air — Moody was rapt. She leaned forward in her chair, whistled “oooh” in suspense and threw up a celebratory fist when Pratt pulled off the tricky move with flair.

It was just one of a constant string of happy moments for seniors reclaiming a corner of childhood.

Florence Hill, 83, can’t get enough of those moments. She has attended Camp Dynamite every  year. She always looks forward to the sun, the trees, the prayer, the quiet — especially the quiet. Such a change from her home on Alabama Avenue SE.

“I get here, something changes me,” she said. “I don’t hear no police cars going by. I don’t hear no ambulance. … It’s wordless. I can’t describe how I feel here.”

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