Peace the theme at one-of-a-kind camp in New Kensington

| Saturday, June 28, 2014, 1:21 a.m.

Sister Valerie Zottola's students may not know John Lennon's music, but they learned one of its messages: give peace a chance. Zottola, a nun at Mount St. Peter Church in New Kensington, sent 38 children — in first through eighth grades — out into the world on Friday with that message at the conclusion of the weeklong Peace Camp.

“Peace Camp is an attempt to give kids alternative ways to meet violence and conflict in their lives,“ Zottola said about the 5-year-old camp, sponsored by Mount St. Peter Church and The United Presbyterian Church of New Kensington. “This is the only camp of its kind in Western Pennsylvania.”

The nondenominational camp is built on seven principals, Zottola said: respect for one's self, others and nature, courage, forgiveness, good communication and creativity.

Campers participate in daily sessions that teach them how to overcome conflicts in their daily lives, as well as internal conflicts, Zottola said.

For 7-year-old Rainlyn King of New Kensington, Peace Camp was an enlightening experience.

“I learned that if you want to be respected, you have to show respect,” Rainlyn said, proudly holding her Peace Camp certificate of completion. “I had a lot of fun and learned a lot.”

Rainlyn's aunt, Terrilyn Cheatham, said the camp was the right fit for Rainlyn for a couple of reasons.

“Like any camp, it gives a child the ability to build social skills and interact with other kids,” Cheatham said, sitting next to her mother, Carmella. “But what makes this camp great is it teaches them love and respect.

“She's already a really good kid, but this just reaffirms it.”

At Friday's closing ceremony, inside Mount St. Peter Church, campers made pledges for the year, ranging from loving their parents, to picking up liter, to including those who are left out.

Campers wrote their pledges on origami “peace cranes” and hung them on a tree.

The cranes were a tribute to a young Japanese girl, Sadako Sasaki, who while ill with cancer — caused by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima during World War II —pledged to make 1,000 origami cranes.

Legend has it Sasaki made 644 cranes before succumbing to cancer.

In her honor, people from around the world make the cranes as a symbol of a hope for peace.

Growing camp

According to Zottola, the 38 campers and 12 volunteer staffers made Peace Camp 2014 the biggest so far.

“We actually have three counselors who started as campers and have been with us for all our camps,” Zottola said.

Zottola said that scholarships were given to campers who couldn't afford the $100 cost.

Monsignor Michael Begolly, the pastor of Mount St. Peter, said he hopes that the camp will continue to grow.

“It's a wonderful way for kids to learn about putting peace into action,” Begolly said. “Hopefully, they take what they learn and use it in their lives to make good choices.”

Zottola said the lessons taught at Peace Camp have been used in children's lives.

“I heard a story that one of our campers was being bullied at school, and he decided he was going to end it through violence,” Zottola said. “But, when he went to fight, he saw some children he went to Peace Camp with and decided not to fight.

“I wouldn't have believed it, but it came from so many different sources, including the children.

“It's what we hope all the campers learn.”

R.A. Monti is a freelance reporter for Trib Total Media.

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