Mark Olliges, this summer’s camp nurse at Gasper River Catholic Youth Camp and Retreat Center in Bowling Green, assists with a rapelling activity on July 12, 2023. COURTESY OF GASPER RIVER
My summer 2023 as a camp nurse at Gasper River Catholic Youth Camp and Retreat Center
BY MARK OLLIGES, SPECIAL TO THE WESTERN KENTUCKY CATHOLIC
It may be best to start with my background. I am a registered nurse with 41 years of experience. This includes 15 years as an emergency room nurse, 7.5 years working in cardiology research and the last 20 years at a Veterans Administration Medical Center. I was in a MASH hospital during Desert Storm working in the trauma section of the Hospital.
I retired from the Veterans Administration Hospital in January 2023, but I knew two things: I wanted to keep working as a nurse and energize my Catholic faith. My nephew who lives with me and is a senior in high school had been to a Catholic camp (not Gasper) a few years ago. He returned from camp and told me “I am a changed boy.” The camp had enlivened and deepened his faith. I thought, why not be a camp nurse; even better, why not a Catholic camp?
By the grace of God, I stumbled across Gasper River Catholic Youth Camp and Retreat Center. Gasper River has operated for 16 years. It provides a spiritually stimulating environment with fun activities at down-to-earth fees. I was fortunate to be offered the position as camp nurse for the summer 2023 season.
The camps start in June and end in late July. The environment is safe with staff vetted through background checks and training. I was impressed that 80-90% of the campers return each year and many of the counselors are former campers. The camp integrates Catholic doctrine, bible study, Masses, confession and Eucharistic Adoration into the camp life. Fr. Jason McClure is the chaplain and does a fantastic job of communicating with the campers at their level. (I played the devil’s advocate one day and asked a middle school student if she was getting tired of going to Mass daily. She looked at me seriously and stated, “No, I love the Mass.”)
What did I do as a camp nurse? There were no major injuries. The camp staff are certified and supervise all activities. I am a first aid instructor and I trained the staff before camp started. They have taken great care to make the activities safe for the campers. I had more injuries with youngsters running down and falling – I took care of many skinned knees. Of course, there were some children with fevers, upset stomachs, and headaches. These were easily treated with over-the-counter medications. And yes, there were some youngsters who became homesick, but not as many as you would think. If needed, the child could call home, and I only witnessed a few campers go home.
Gasper River’s campers and staff are a diverse group who truly love Christ and want to help all campers grow in their Catholic faith. Did I inspire my faith at Gasper? I can honestly say I did. Was I rewarded as a nurse? I was choked up on more than one occasion when one of the youngsters gave me a hug and said, “Thank you for taking care of me.”
On a walk to Eucharistic Adoration one evening, camp director Ben Warrell looked over at me and said, “Watch and listen tonight; things are going to happen.” And they did. The Holy Spirit became evident. Can you ask for more than that?
I plan to return next year as camp nurse, God willing.
Mark Olliges belongs to St. Gregory the Great Parish in Samuels, Ky., in the Archdiocese of Louisville.
Originally printed in the October 2023 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.