50 years of Summerama
Kids have changed. Leaders have changed. Methods have changed. But the day camp’s ministry focus remains.
Jim Killam
July 26, 2023

In 1969, Associate Pastor Jim Forstrom came to First Free with lots of ideas, including expanding the church’s vacation Bible school into something new. He saw something in Jim Rosene, then a 16-year-old high school student, and asked him if he’d like to help.

“I don’t know,” Rosene remembers saying. “What would I do?”

“Well, you could lead games and make Kool-Aid.”

“I could do that.”

From the 1969 church directory: Associate Pastor Jim Forstrom (left) and Jim Rosene.

In those years, Discovery VBS was held at the old church in Midtown and also occasionally in local parks, factories and at the YMCA. Rosene spent his summers from 1969-72 thinking about a lot more than kickball and sugared water.

What is now Summerama was born in 1973. Rosene was a student at Trinity College, where Forstrom taught part-time.

“Jim asked me, ‘What do you think about coming back and heading up our summer programs?’ Rosene says. “I thought, wow, what an opportunity that would be.”

“I’d like to,” he told Forstrom, “but I also have a dream.”

“I told him about this vision I had about going to a farm and using a barn and having a day camp there. Up in the hayloft we would make a big puppet wall. It would be the town of Miracle.”

The two parted ways, agreeing to pray about it all. They met up again at Trinity, on the first day of classes after that conversation. Forstrom had just attended a Christian education meeting where committee member Chuck Salberg talked about a farm that he and his wife, Sara, had just bought on Beloit Road in Argyle.

“It’s got this big barn and we don’t know what to do with it, but we want to use it for the Lord’s work,” Chuck told the group. “Does anybody have any ideas?”

Did they ever.

Jim Rosene and friends, in the early days of First Free’s Day Camp. Photos: First Free archives

Innovating in a barn

Jim helped start the day camp in the barn that year, and by the late ’70s he and his wife, Denise, were running it. The church bus brought kids from pickup spots around Rockford. One thing they noticed in the barn was that a group of 50 kids brought many different personalities and interests. Some didn’t like doing crafts. Some didn’t like kickball or other games where kids could get rough.

“So we sat as the day camp staff and said how can we change that?” Jim says. “And we said, how about in the afternoons we let the kids choose what they want to do and give them several options?”

“Some kids just wanted to sit and build a Lego house. And they were good at it. And we recognized with them ‘You are of value. You don’t have to be a basketball star.’ And that gave the staff opportunities, too. We had kids with all different interests and abilities.”

It hardly seems a revolutionary idea today, but back then no other church day camp around Rockford was offering kids those kinds of choices. The format stuck. Through the 1970s, the camp grew. The barn was great—but in the summer, it was also hot.

In 1980, First Free moved from Midtown to its current campus. That same year, Jim joined the church staff full-time. The new building had a huge, unfinished lower level (air conditioned!) and acres of space outside for kids to run. Now it made sense to host the camp right on church grounds. With the venue change came a new name: Summerama.

Over the next decade, the creative ideas kept coming. With the church’s air conditioning proving to be too much of a draw, Senior Pastor John Aker suggested a facility for the kids out back, near the sports fields. How about a dedicated building out back that could serve as camp central and host a lot of the activities? Plans took shape, first for a bricks-and-mortar building. But Ruben Aldeen—who had funded Summerwood amphitheater and would also fund this project in memory of his wife, Astrid—favored something more like a tent. Summer Branch was built and dedicated in 1991.

Inside Summer Branch. Photo: Mindy Joy Photography

A generous approach

Summerama was always a lot more than daycare.

“We wanted to reach families for Christ,” Jim says. “We knew we had a great children’s and Christian education program. We knew we had beautiful facilities and we wanted to reach kids and families. The goal was to do the best program we could possibly do for the children. Invite the parents in on Friday to let them see what the kids have been doing all week, and then say, oh, by the way, we’ve got this (church) as well.

“We knew of many families who came into church through Summerama.”

They also knew that many other churches in town didn’t have these kinds of facilities.

“So there were times that we opened it up to churches that maybe only had five or six kids,” he says. “We said, ‘Bring them and they can be your group. We’re not looking to steal them.’ It was about being a blessing to other churches who couldn’t afford it for whatever reason. Not just the money aspect, but the time and talents, too.”

Teen-led table groups and Bible lessons were present from the beginning. Photo: First Free archives

Leaders in training

Summerama, then and now, has been a valuable training ground for future leaders—first as junior high volunteers, then sometimes as paid, teen staff. “It provided an opportunity for young people to be on a mission for the summer,” Jim says. “A lot of kids came out of there who work in full-time ministry or mission today.” 

Kari Heckler, First Free’s kids director today, sees the same thing happening as teen leaders are handed the reins. “It’s been a great place for our young people to start to minister,” she says. “It’s a comfortable place for them to get up on the stage and do the lesson in front of all the kids.”

After a pause during the pandemic, it took time for that confidence to redevelop. Kari’s leaders seemed hesitant last year, so she did a lot of the teaching from stage.

“Now this year, I haven’t even taught once,” she says. “Because the kids who were here last year are doing that. That’s been exciting.”

Watch: Video from 2020, when Summerama had to go virtual

Summerama in more recent times. Photos: Mindy Joy Photography

Changing times

Throughout these 50 years, the gospel has been front-and center every week at Summerama. Campers receive a Bible if they need one, and leaders help them one-to-one in processing what they’ve learned. That does look different in 2023, Kari says.

“The struggle I feel so strongly is, the kids who come from the community might say “yes” to Jesus that day, and they mean it, but there’s not a lot of opportunity for them to have discipleship because they don’t come to church anywhere,” she says. “So we’re really striving to make sure we get the word out for other things we have here at this church — whether it be Mom’s Day Out or Wednesday night programs, Sunday mornings. We invite them to those.”

Kids’ behavior, never a predictable thing, is especially challenging today, Kari adds. Difficult family and school situations, phones and social media, social and emotional damage from the pandemic … it all comes to Summerama on a weekly basis.

“So we are dealing with kids who come in and they might be acting out, but the heart for our leaders is to try and find out what is the crux of the matter?” she says. “Why are they acting out so much? Why are they looking for this attention? Sometimes kids are just the type that act up. But a lot of times, there is a lot more behind that.”

Camp numbers have been down this year. That worried Kari at first, but not anymore.

“It’s not bad at all because these kids are getting a lot more attention from the leaders,” she says. “I’ve been praying for more discipleship in the children’s ministry department, so here you go.” 

Kids Director Kari Heckler. Photo: Mindy Joy Photography.

Listening to kids

In the end, Summerama has always been about more than event-centered programs and certainly more than hit-and-run evangelism. Taking the time to disciple kids has been Priority One since the beginning, and through several generations of leaders.

“We shared Jesus with kids,” Jim says. “And we wanted the staff to just take time and sit and talk with kids and listen to kids. Make them feel important. The greatest need for children is discipleship and building relationships with them. And listening to them. Instead of ‘You listen to us,’ we want to listen to you.”

Jim Killam
Jim Killam is a journalist, author, teacher and terminal Cubs fan. He and his wife, Lauren, live in Rockford and work internationally with Wycliffe Bible Translators.

1 Comment

  1. Avatar

    What a great report!! Thoroughly enjoyed it. Blessings on Jim, Denise and the ongoing kid’s ministry at First Free.


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