Q&A: Despite the pandemic, Annunciation Heights continues to joyfully fulfill its mission

Aaron Lambert

The COVID-19 pandemic upended a lot of summer plans across multiple industries. The hit was felt especially hard at summer camps around the country, including our very own Annunciations Heights. 

The mission of Annunciation Heights is to serve the youth and family of the Archdiocese of Denver by offering its grounds as a beautiful refuge outside of the city for people to experience the beauty of God’s creation. The camp serves as home to several missionaries who serve on the camp full-time as part of the Altum Institute Missionary program.  

While Annunciation Heights was not able to host youth camps as they normally do in the spring and summer, they were still able to fulfill their mission in other ways. We chatted with Executive Director Kyle Mills about the challenges the pandemic brought, how the camp was able to adjust, and the exciting plans for the fall and beyond. 

Denver Catholic: How did COVID-19 affect the plans Annunciation Heights had for this year? 

Kyle Mills: It was a big impact. The first thing that went out the door was our JPII Outdoor lab program in the spring and then all the guest groups that we had scheduled for weekends during the spring months.  That was the big and immediate hit. Then the big question became, can we offer summer programs for youth camps? We had scheduled several boys’ and girls’ camps as well as family camps, and we spent a ton of time in dialogue amongst ourselves and with other camps around the state and the country and organizations to navigate this. The whole camping world was sort of turned up upside down, as were many industries. We came to the conclusion that it was not going to be feasible for us to have summer camps for youth. It was just too much of a risk with what we knew at the time, and there were too many variables that would make it nearly impossible to do it successfully.   Gratefully however, we were able to do a total of six family camps and other family-like programming in the summer.  We had an incredible summer with nearly 90 families altogether who were able to come up and—especially after coming out of quarantine—really have a special and blessed time with other families in a safe and controlled way, almost entirely outside. That was just a tremendous blessing, hopefully for those families, and it definitely was for us. 

DC: So you had to cancel the youth camps, but you were able still do the family camps. And then there was one other event that you had recently, the first annual Fiat Fest. 

Mills: Yes! As a new camp, we wanted to create an event where we could really celebrate and support our Altum Institute missionaries who give a year or two of their lives to serve in a volunteer missionary role here at the camp.  We wanted to honor their “Yes,” like the “Yes” that Mary gave to the Angel Gabriel for God’s plan in her life – her fiat.  And we wanted to do something fun and adventurous.  So in early August we had a wonderful time at our first annual Fiat Fest and adventure race.  The race was designed to fit any competitive or casual racer; we even had several kids do it with their parents.  It was just a really great time: the race itself, a wonderful Mexican meal, live bluegrass music and a celebratory time that was up here on a beautiful, warm Rocky Mountain high day.  We hope it will become an annual tradition and fundraiser for us.  Next year the Fiat Fest will be on July 31. 

DC: How were you able to “adjust the sails” and pivot so that Annunciation Heights could still carry out its mission? 

Mills:  During the spring, when we canceled the JPII Outdoor lab Spring program, we really made hay while the sun shined. We always have so many projects to do up here. We worked on land improvement projects, beautifying the camp, doing some forestry work, deep cleaning of lodges, landscaping, trailbuilding, development of our curriculum…all these things were going on while the whole world was in quarantine.  When our staff and missionaries are normally serving hundreds of guests, we were able to all these projects as well as complete our chapel renovation and expand our high ropes course to include a giant swing and a leap of faith.  We were also able to pray together, study the Gospel of John and prepare for our summer family camps.    

Family camp is not just an ancillary thing that we do here, but it’s a really important part of who we are. And while we couldn’t have the youth camps, we could still have a youth here with their moms and dads and siblings, and that was an awesome blessing throughout the summer for us to serve these families and to stay true to who God is calling us to be up here. 

Lastly, when we canceled our summer youth camps we had to tell an awaiting staff of 35 college students that they could not come to summer camp, after all.  Our summer staff are also a big part of our mission.  They come from all over the country to serve the Lord and work with the kids, but in the process they get an experience of daily pray, Catholic community, serving the Lord side-by-side, and great adventure in the Colorado Rocky Mountains.  All this makes a big spiritual impact on their lives and it was a loss to not have them come.  However, we did create a volunteer work crew and gave some of them an opportunity to help build some new trails at Camp St. Malo and work in the dining hall at Annunciation Heights for our family camps.  Twelve of them came and got to experience the community of Annunciation Heights while also helping build a perimeter trail for interpretive hikes at Malo as well as well as a new St. John Paul II Stations of the Cross trail that will open hopefully later this year after we raise the money to install the actual stations.   

DC: What are your plans for the fall? 

Mills: Fall is upon us. We have seven missionaries here: three returning missionaries and four new missionaries. And we have pivoted our program for the JPII Outdoor lab program to primarily serve Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese. It was a great accomplishment for Catholic schools to get kids back to in-school learning this fall.   So in order to adapt to Covid-19 changes in schools we actually are going to the some of the schools instead of them coming to us and doing some of our lessons with them onsite at their schools or in nearby parks. We have a number of schools that have taken us up on this, and so far we have received great feedback!  

We are also still open on the weekends for guest groups and parish retreats and college group retreats, and we’re hosting a number of guest groups on the weekends. That is still very much in motion, which has been great.  We’re also offering a new program for family outdoor lab opportunities here at camp. For families that are unable for their kids to be back in school, we’ve offered an opportunity for them to camp with their family and basically do the outdoor lab program as a family.  

Lastly, in line with the archdiocese’s great initiative to become intentional disciples of Jesus and to move from maintenance to mission, we are starting an effort to bring parish staffs and school staffs to camp for a day of team building with our high ropes and our low ropes course.  The goal is to give these committed staffs a shot in the arm, get out of the office for a day and become more closely united with each other on their shared mission to serve Christ in the Church. 

DC: For those who aren’t familiar, what is the JPII Outdoor Lab? 

Mills: The JPII Outdoor lab originally opened in 2008 as a stand-alone entity. The essence of the program is based on the encyclical letter of Pope John Paul II when he wrote the encyclical Fides et ratio, Faith and Reason, highlighting the beautiful marriage between our faith and science, often misunderstood as being contradictory.  The program gives mostly middle school students as opportunity to study subjects like astronomy, human survival, orienteering, geology, forestry…all of these classes, which are intrinsically interesting and great for kids to learn, but they’re doing it in the context of how God is the creator of all of it. The underpinning of this comes from Sacred Scripture, Genesis 3, during the fall of mankind, when four central relationships were lost: between God and man, man and himself, man and others and man and creation. The purpose of the JPII Outdoor lab program is to bring about a restoration of these four relationships through a relationship with Christ, who is the Redeemer – in the context of creation. That’s the focal point of the lessons and how we teach it. The courses are taught outside by our missionaries, there are tons of fun activities, and it’s not meant to be sort of strictly didactic but an engaging way of teaching so that the kids really enjoy it as well as learn a lot and get an experience of community with their classmates outside of the classroom and experience the beauty and intimacy of God’s creation with each other.  

DC: How can people support the mission of Annunciation Heights, especially after such a difficult year? 

Mills: We want people to know that we’re open and we want to invite them to come to camp. We have a variety of ways they can come and enjoy being here. Especially as we are in a COVID-19 environment, it’s so good for the soul to get outside and to breathe the high elevation areas of the Rocky Mountains and to take in its beauty. So please come to camp! Talk to your pastor about coming on a retreat. Sign your kids up for summer camp in 2021. We’re going to be back, God willing, to a normal summer camp this next summer.  

Lastly, for those people who are interested in a financial donation or are planning their end of year giving, because we have a childcare license, the state of Colorado has a childcare tax credit that we want people to know about. For any donation between three hundred dollars and one hundred thousand dollars, they can get a 50 percent tax credit on their Colorado state income tax. That’s a huge reduction in their Colorado income tax. We’d be so grateful if people would be able to give to the mission of Annunciation Heights.  

Learn more 

To learn more about Annunciation Heights and to make a contribution to its mission, visit annunciatonheights.org 

COMING UP: Preparing your Home and Heart for the Advent Season

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

The Advent season is a time of preparation for our hearts and minds for the Lord’s birth on Christmas.  It extends over the four Sundays before Christmas.  Try some of these Ideas to celebrate Advent in your home by decorating, cooking, singing, and reading your way to Christmas. Some of the best ideas are the simplest.

Special thanks to Patty Lunder for putting this together!

Advent Crafts

Handprint Advent Wreath for Children 
Bring the meaning of Advent into your home by having your kids make this fun and easy Advent wreath.

Materials
Pink and purple construction paper
– Yellow tissue or construction paper (to make a flame)
– One piece of red construction paper cut into 15 small circles
– Scissors
– Glue
– Two colors of green construction paper
– One paper plate
– 2 empty paper towel tubes

1. Take the two shades of green construction paper and cut out several of your child’s (Children’s) handprints. Glue the handprints to the rim of a paper plate with the center cut out.

2. Roll one of the paper towels tubes in purple construction paper and glue in place.

3. Take the second paper towel and roll half in pink construction paper and half in purple construction and glue in place.

4. Cut the covered paper towel tubes in half.

5. Cut 15 small circles from the red construction paper. Take three circles and glue two next to each other and a third below to make berries. Do this next to each candle until all circles are used.

6. Cut 4 rain drop shapes (to make a flame) from the yellow construction paper. Each week glue the yellow construction paper to the candle to make a flame. On the first week light the purple candle, the second week light the second purple candle, the third week light the pink candle and on the fourth week light the final purple candle.

A Meal to Share during the Advent Season

Slow-Cooker Barley & Bean Soup 

Make Sunday dinner during Advent into a special family gathering with a simple, easy dinner. Growing up in a large family, we knew everyone would be together for a family dinner after Mass on Sunday. Let the smells and aromas of a slow stress-free dinner fill your house and heart during the Advent Season. Choose a member of the family to lead grace and enjoy an evening together. This is the perfect setting to light the candles on your Advent wreath and invite all to join in a special prayer for that week.

Ingredients:
– 1 cup dried multi-bean mix or Great Northern beans, picked over and rinsed
– 1/2 cup pearl barley (Instant works great, I cook separate and add at end when soup is done)
– 3 cloves garlic, smashed
– 2 medium carrots, roughly chopped
– 2 ribs celery, roughly chopped
– 1/2 medium onion, roughly chopped
– 1 bay leaf
– Salt to taste
– 2 teaspoons dried Italian herb blend (basil, oregano)
– Freshly ground black pepper
– One 14-ounce can whole tomatoes, with juice
– 3 cups cleaned baby spinach leaves (about 3 ounces)
– 1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese, extra for garnish

1. Put 6 cups water, the beans, barley, garlic, carrots, celery, onions, bay leaf, 1 tablespoons salt, herb blend, some pepper in a slow cooker. Squeeze the tomatoes through your hands over the pot to break them down and add their juices. Cover and cook on high until the beans are quite tender and the soup is thick, about 8 hours. 

2. Add the spinach and cheese, and stir until the spinach wilts, about 5 minutes. Remove the bay leaf and season with salt and pepper. 

3. Ladle the soup into warmed bowls and serve with a baguette.