Every year in the Southern Kucaj mountains of Serbia, the sisters of Novi Stjenik monastery host the Holy Prince Lazar Orthodox Youth Camp. During these precious ten days, youth from around Serbia and abroad take a break from the pressures of the world to experience the freedom of the mountain wilderness and the joy of community with children of like mind.
Over the past five years, SPOK has grown from one small clearing in the woods with a few tents and a dozen young children to four separate camping areas for campers and volunteers, a large central gathering place for activities, meals and the evening bonfire, and a large playing field. Through the generosity of many donors around the world, the sisters of Novi Stjenik have been able to provide the camp with enough good quality tents and supplies to comfortably feed and house up to 40 campers plus volunteers.
A month in advance of camp, the Novi Stjenik sisters with the help of the STOC community began the enormous effort of preparing the infrastructure of the camp. After the harsh winter and a stormy spring and summer, the campsite was overgrown and covered with leaves and fallen branches which all had to be cleared away before the main set up was possible. Meanwhile, in the city, the purchase and transportation of food and other supplies had to be arranged. Finally, in the last days before camp begins, the sisters and friends of the monastery drive the caravan of jeeps safely transporting the campers up the mountain roads.
For one day the peace of the monastery was shattered by a torrent of childish shouts, laughter, and the joy of rekindled friendship after a long separation. Together the campers attended the Sunday liturgy and ate a hearty monastery lunch in preparation for their hike into the wilderness.
In camp, the sisters and volunteers rushed to pound in the last tent stakes and put the finishing touches on the camp kitchen just in time. As they approached the camp, the children began to sing their two favorite songs Christe Boze and the SPOK hymn, and at the sound of their voices, SPOK 2018 began. In minutes the camp was alive with all the familiar sounds, the zip of tent flaps, the leaders' whistles, and the excited chatter of the children blending with the ever-present music of the creek.
Many of this year’s campers have been there since the beginning, so for them coming to camp is like coming home and their comfort and love quickly pulled in all of the newcomers. Because of the growing size of the camp and the experience of the older campers, the camp organizers decided to make a few changes to the structure and program giving the campers a little more responsibility in the basic running of the camp day. To the staff's surprise and delight, the campers immediately began enthusiastically volunteering to serve at meals and wash dishes, and asking when their day to help in the kitchen would be. This enthusiasm to help did not slacken even on the last day of camp!
One of the key changes was to introduce the position of Assistant Leader which our two senior campers took on with natural confidence they had known they were training for it the past five years.
This year’s SPOK session was dedicated to the memory of the Royal New Martyrs Tsar Nicholas and his family in honor of the 100th anniversary of their martyrdom. Therefore the first all-camp lesson was a lecture from his Grace Bishop Akakije on the life and martyrdom of the Romanovs and the significance for us as contemporary Orthodox Christians of the end of the last Orthodox empire. Throughout this year’s session, the Holy Royal Martyrs’ icon stood in the camp iconostas and their photos hung in the camp center, constant reminders of their heroic example.
By their prayers, SPOK had the most focused, productive and fun session to date. Activities included the usual basic camping skills, setting up tents, making a campfire, and gathering wild teas and edible plants, as well as introducing some new arts and handcrafts, basic sewing, calligraphy, and an introduction to traditional hand weaving.
For the first time this year, the campers tested their basic camping skills. They had to put up and take down a basic tent, and set up a campfire and boil water, all in teams. All the teams showed amazing speed and capability. Working together, each team completed their tent test in less than five minutes and the fire test in less than 20, from building their fire ring and gathering kindling to bringing their two cups of water to a full boil.
Every year SPOK receives a few guest instructors. This year there were two lectures in history from Mr. Andrej Fajgel and Mr. Zoran Buljugic and lessons in health and nutrition with Mr. Lazar R. as well as some basic martial arts.
The old favorites, of course, remain the same. Every year the campers look forward to their hike into the beautiful Mikulj canyon and a night under the stars. Each year they become more independent, setting up their bivouacs and building the bonfire for the night.
The climax of every year is the contest on the rope walk and obstacle course. As the campers grow, every year reveals a new talent. This year’s obstacle course was especially exciting, in a new location with an added level of complication. For these activities, the whole camp gathered to watch, cheer and shout encouragement. It was incredibly gratifying at the end of our camp session to see such a clear display of the love, support, and joyful community spirit which had grown and blossomed over those ten days.
At its heart, the enduring purpose of SPOK is the spiritual growth and development of our Lazarites. Their day is framed with the reading of morning and evening prayers and inspired throughout by the constant encouragement, love, and occasional admonitions of their dear camp spiritual father and SPOK's monastic volunteers and supporters. Through the active practice of daily Christian life together, the campers and volunteers grew into a true spiritual family. In the last days of camp, all the campers and volunteers had the opportunity to confess and to receive communion together at the Holy Liturgy.
Every Lazarite, no matter when they come or how long they stay, receives the same welcome and the same send-off as those who are there from beginning to end. Each hello and goodbye is full of embraces, laughter, and tears. Even guest campers who could only stay a day were joyfully pulled into the life of the Lazarites and sadly let go with the salute of all their fellow campers and the singing of the SPOK hymn.
Hardest of all is the final farewell. Having said goodbye to the volunteers and staff left behind, the campers must pile onto the monastery tractor and drive away from their dear piece of wilderness home. But each carries with them a new treasure of spiritual strength and Christian joy to guard and nourish them through the next year until they can return to this piece of freedom in the beauty and peace of the Serbian mountains.