East Lyme - Campers hoping to spend Memorial Day weekend roughing it at Rocky Neck State Park's camp sites should plan to reserve them 11 months beforehand, when the state starts taking reservations.
But chances are they'll be competing with members of the Valley Bible Evangelical Free Church, based in Haddam, who have a traditon of getting there first.
Church members have camped here over the long weekend for the past 24 years. The trip started with six families. Now, about 230 members spread over a quarter of the campground. They have a friendly competition with other return visitors to grab enough camp space.
The group's trip was organized this year by Theresa Kegley (Cietek), who grew up nearby in Waterford. She describes Valley Bible as “your basic Bible-thumping church.”
She values the holiday weekend for “having a chance to be with each other, to pray with each other, to just enjoy each others' company” in a space where kids are free to roam and adults to mingle.
Members of all ages biked and snacked in the tentative bursts of sunshine Saturday afternoon, weaving between tents and trailers. Children hung on new friends as though they'd been cradle mates.
They also gravitated toward Kegley (Cietek). She has taught in the church's children's ministry for seven years and said she considers all her pupils partially her own. Their signed, multicolored handprints decorate her minivan. They flock to her family's camping area to reveal all things great and small gathered on a scavenger hunt - a seashell, a pair of socks, a Bible verse printed on orange paper.
At a camp site across a field, three New York City natives who never before slept in a tent were excited to spend a couple of nights camping and star-gazing.
”The s'mores - I can't wait,” said 20-year-old Sandra Segura. “I've only had two s'mores in my life, and one of them didn't have chocolate.”
The three New Yorkers came with Debby Minell, a Campus Crusade for Christ International employee who has fostered connections with Valley Bible. Minell works with New York high school students interested in Bible study or Christian-themed after-school clubs, she said.
Segura and fellow Howard University junior, Oneka Kelly, taught their new Valley Bible friends to jump rope double dutch-style. And in return, Segura learned how to ride a bike.
”I almost ran into a truck,” she said, laughing.
Minell has known the pair since they were in high school. She also mentors Kelly's younger sister, Calah, who sat cradling Minell's cockatiel. The bird sometimes says “Praise the Lord.”
The Lord is so intertwined in their lives that Kegley (Cietek) described him as a friend that, like all her other friends, she's eager to introduce to others. He's even the reason Bible Valley is holding a “bond-fire” during the trip.
”I originally misspelled it,” Kegley (Cietek) explained, “and then I said, 'No, that's another one of those God things.' “(link)