Two decades and counting

by Joan Kurkowski-Gillen

North Texas Catholic

Emmaline Gappa and Eric Hernandez, youth minister at St. Bartholomew Church in Fort Worth, pray at Camp Fort Worth at Nolan Catholic High School on July 10, 2018. (NTC/Juan Guajardo) Check out the photo gallery!

When Becci Sheptock went to the very first Camp Fort Worth in 1998, she didn’t know what to expect. The large gathering of 70 young people and their adult leaders introduced her to a Church family that went beyond the parish.
“We were impressed,” said Sheptock, recalling the five-day mix of service projects, worship, camaraderie, and spiritual growth. “Being with other people our age, and having that experience together, really marked us.”

The camp motivated participants right from the beginning.

“And I can say that because I went to the camp so many times after that,” she pointed out. “There were small changes, but the essentials — service and small groups, praise and worship, meeting people who weren’t part of your own parish — always remained the same.”

As Camp Fort Worth celebrates its 20th anniversary, the 35-year-old credits the program for influencing her decision to become a consecrated woman of Regnum Christi. The international Catholic ecclesial movement helps members live their faith more deeply and perform acts of service in the hope of bringing people closer to Christ.

Sheptock, who took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, spent time as a missionary but now lives in Washington, D.C., where she works at an educational institute and evangelizes to a community that includes politicians and business executives.

“Our youth groups and retreats are specifically geared toward the population of D.C.,” she said. “It’s neat to see people realize they need God and they didn’t even know it.”

Sheptock discovered a love for helping people as a Camp Fort Worth volunteer.

“I lead a life of service,” she explained. “Camp Fort Worth definitely put me on the path I’m on today.”

Take It Home
Jeff Hedglen ends each Camp Fort Worth session with the same three words, “Take It Home.” It’s advice camp alumni take to heart.

“When we give kids their necklace at the end of camp, what we say to them is ‘take it home.’ That’s our mantra. We want them to live the service,” said the camp’s founder, describing the main objective of the combined mission trip, summer camp, and retreat. “Our tag line is Camp Fort Worth — Putting Faith Into Action. The idea is to urge them to put faith into action at home or wherever life takes them.” 

Camp Fort Worth youth played with the children at the Salvation Army day care center. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

Components of the summer ministry are rooted from the youth leader’s own life experiences. Before the start of his senior year in high school, Hedglen spent a week at a summer mission camp operated by Glenmary priests at a Vanceburg, Ky. farm. Along with other teenagers, the young Texan was assigned to a different worksite each day and sang songs around a campfire at night. 

“We went to a nursing home, installed a septic system, and put insulation in the attic of a house they were building for a family,” Hedglen remembered. “And we spent one day at the farm doing work.”

Performing simple chores at the camp’s base of operation is an element he adopted for Camp Fort Worth.

“We always do work around the home site,” Hedglen said. “It’s a way to give back to the place that is letting us stay there for free.”

Years later, when Hedglen became a youth minister at St. Bartholomew Parish in Fort Worth, a fellow parishioner told him about a poor, African-American Catholic school in Canton, Miss. that needed help.

“So we organized a youth trip out there to paint and do various things around the school during the day,” Hedglen continued. “In the evening, we’d have praise and worship and share the day’s experience.”

Those two events from his background came to mind when fellow youth minister Jeff Crumly suggested starting a Catholic mission camp for young people in the diocese. Hedglen was asked to shape the new ministry.

“We had the first one in 1998 at St. Thomas Parish [then] on Azle Avenue and the same idea has always been in place,” he explained. “Campers rotate to different worksites, giving them an opportunity to experience different types of ministry.” Over the years, the camp has been hosted by multiple parishes in the diocese.

But encouraging impressionable young Catholics to develop a heart for service is only part of the story. Camp Fort Worth also strives to initiate or strengthen a person’s relationship with God.

“Mother Teresa would always say ‘find Jesus in the eyes of the poor,’” Hedglen said. “We want to put youth in contact with serving the poor so they encounter this God they believe in, but may not have thought too deeply about.”

Receiving the sacraments reinforces the connection. Campers, who arrive Sunday evening and leave Friday afternoon, attend daily Mass, a Reconciliation service, and Adoration during the week. 

“The work stirs things up, then they spend time in prayer and community and their life of faith takes off,” Hedglen said.

Building Baby Cribs

A youth helps build a baby bed at Camp Fort Worth. (NTC/Katherine Hoffman)

Brandon Woolums wasn’t even born when Camp Fort Worth was launched 20 years ago. After attending his first camp as a 15-year-old, the recent Argyle High School graduate returned for three more years to serve as a student leader.

Although born into a Catholic family, the summer “mission trip at home” helped him choose the faith for himself. His favorite CFW service project: building baby cribs.

“I love the baby beds and the reason behind them,” Woolums explained, referring to one of the five service projects that are part of every CFW retreat.

In 2001, CFW campers began nailing together two by fours to make cribs using a design created by a former woodworking teacher. Most are donated to Gabriel Project — a diocesan pro-life ministry that assists women in crisis pregnancies. Eighteen baby beds are made every summer.

“We build beds for mothers who can’t afford to raise their kids,” Woolums said. “While sanding the wood, I put ear plugs in and listen to the drone of white noise. It lets you sink into your thoughts as you’re doing this service.”

Moments of quiet discernment led Woolums to a life-altering decision. This fall the 18-year-old will enter St. Joseph Seminary in Covington, La. Camp Fort Worth played a part in discerning his vocation.

“I probably wouldn’t be entering the seminary if it wasn’t for Camp Fort Worth,” he admitted. “So many people at CFW said I’d make a good priest. That really encouraged me.”

Prayers are powerful
When first-time camper Emmaline Gappa recites the Rosary, the faces of the children she met at the Salvation Army day care center come to mind.

“These kids live at the poverty level and sometimes they share their troubles,” she explained. “I’ve noticed how they don’t waste food.”

The 15-year-old, home-schooled teen is following in the footsteps of her parents, Jeannine and David Gappa, who attended mission trips that were the predecessors to Camp Fort Worth as St. Bartholomew youth group members. Two days after arriving at the July 8-13 camp at Nolan Catholic High School in Fort Worth, Gappa is already planning to return next year. A second camp was held July 22-27 at Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish in Wichita Falls.

“It’s been great fun meeting new friends and experiencing a little more of what’s out in the world,” she said.

Praying with other campers every morning prepared her for the day’s service project.

“Prayers are so powerful — especially the Rosary,” the teen said. “I prayed for the children at the day care center to have easier lives and find joy.”

From difficulty, opportunity
Married 24 years, Jeff Hedglen and his wife, Monika, were unable to have children.

Jeff Hedglen speaks to the youth at Camp Fort Worth on July 10, 2018. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

“I think to myself many times. What if we had kids? Would Camp Fort Worth have started?” the program’s creator asked. “I can’t answer that question 100 percent but it’s something I think about.” 

Personal achievement is measured by the many close friendships he’s made at the camp during the past 20 years.

“They’re all adults now having kids and living great lives,” Hedglen said. “They’re great Catholics making a big impact.”

After 20 years, Hedglen is hanging up his boots as director of the camp. With fast growth in the Catholic student population at the University of Texas at Arlington, Hedglen will maintain his focus there as campus minister. He will hand off his duties as diocesan director of young adult and campus ministry to Jason Spoolstra, current diocesan director of youth ministry. Spoolstra will also take over Camp Fort Worth.

Reflecting on the continuing success of Camp Fort Worth, the youth leader referenced Romans 8:28: “We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.”

“That verse always means to me, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. And God is the master lemonade maker,” Hedglen said thoughtfully.

“I know God didn’t want my wife and I not to have children. But out of that difficulty, He offered this new opportunity to serve.

When Becci Sheptock went to the very first Camp Fort Worth in 1998, she didn’t know what to expect. The large gathering of 70 young people and their adult leaders introduced her to a Church family that went beyond the parish.