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Church mixes sports with faith to reach 125 kids
• VBS at Valley Christian Center
Emma Carne returns the volleyball
Emma Carne returns the volleyball during Friday’s final day of Vacation Bible School held at Whitmore Park in downtown Ceres. At left are participants Trinity Henry and Raelynn Ruger. Genevieve Wofford is partially obscured behind Emma. Coaches Shelby Smith and Sara Thornberry are at right. - photo by Jeff Benziger

Occasionally reporters have to hit the streets and pound the shoe leather to find stories – especially in the summer when news is slow with school out and families on vacation.

I spied a story as I passed by Whitmore Park Friday morning with kids spread out having fun in lime green T-shirts.

Greeting me was Chris Henry, pastor of the Valley Christian Church located across the street from the park. This wasn’t a city activity in a city park; it was a faith- and sports-based Vacation Bible School – commonly known as VBS in the church world.

A smile spread across my face. I remember being a kid and enjoying the relaxing days of summers without a care in the world. I had attended a VBS or two as a kid. Seeing and hearing the kids having fun with flag football, soccer, volleyball, baseball and softball reminded me of days long ago when my own children attended church camp.

“They just like the idea that it’s a free sports camp,” said Pastor Henry of the parents of the approximately 120 kids at play. “Most sports camps will cost you money.”

In this post pandemic lockdown world, it was pleasing to see a host of adults – who really care about kids – donating part of their summer, willing to sweat in the summer sun and engaging with youngsters in other ways. Pastor Henry noted that his church is incredibly blessed with families who are connected to sports in the Ceres community.

“Our church has ‘sports DNA’ built in,” he said.

Coach Brandon Moring, a football coach and PE teacher from Ceres High School, helped with flag football. Chuck Freeman has taught softball for over 30 years. Ed and Derek Cowell, grandfather and uncle to soccer sensation Cade Cowell, were busy teaching soccer against the backdrop of trucks hauling goods down Highway 99.

“We’ve got soccer royalty for Ceres here,” said Henry. “We’ve got a lot of people who come to our church who are very sports minded so that’s why we’re doing the sports camp.”

Jordan Brizendine who has taught cheerleading with six years’ experience at the high school and junior high school level, gave pointers to girls. Sara Thornberry, a volleyball coach at Modesto High School, helped the VBS group play better. And Tim Shook – termed by the pastor as maybe the “most underrated ball coach in the county” – gave of his time with coaching baseball.

Nearly 50 volunteers helped the coaches throughout the week.

As I focused on shooting pictures, a sudden war of water balloons erupted between the kids and adults. One eager boy in search for his next adult victim to ambush and unfamiliar with the bounds of propriety with visitors, was poised to lob one at me until one of the lady volunteers informed him that I and my expensive camera gear were off limits. It’s been years since I’ve been hit with a water balloon.

The group of about 125 kids took a break and walked back to the church for indoor sessions led by Beverly Henry, the pastor’s wife who spent several months preparing for this one-week event. She had about 30 students in her first VBS 12 years ago to over 125 this year. 

Gathered in the the sanctuary, the wiggly youth were entertained by the antics of “Mega,” a silly costumed character played by Amanda Henry, sister of the pastor. The children – likely 40 percent who don’t regularly attend church – watched a video message proclaiming that Jesus was a hero for dying for the sins of mankind. The theme of the VBS was “Heart of a Champion.”

Cade Cowell of the San Jose Earthquakes and Ceres native, sent a video message to encourage the kids in their faith; and from Cameron Butler, a Big Valley Grace grad who is a player for the Chicago White Sox’s minor league team.

When the session was over, the kids were back outside to play street hockey, attend cheerleading class and enjoy crafts and cooking classes in the church’s Family Center.

As I watched the kids enjoying snacks like ice pops, I was reminded of all the nameless church members who gave generously to support the cause.

I left nearly two hours later with the reminder of what makes Ceres such a great town – great people.