HAMILTON, ON - A decade-and-a-half worth of commitment is paying spiritual dividends for Orthodox parishes in Hamilton, Ontario.

Each summer, during the last week of July, Orthodox clergy and faithful from across the city team up to sponsor a week-long Vacation Church School (VCS), providing students from ages 5 to 15 practical spiritual teaching and worship to help them live as Orthodox Christians today.

"It is remarkable to see Orthodox Christians from so many cultural backgrounds bound together by a commitment to our shared faith. Placing Orthodox Christianity as our first priority has held this work together all these years," said Father Geoffrey Korz, Co-ordinator of the VCS.

Each day begins with a Typica service, a sermon, and lessons in various methods of Orthodox chant. A variety of themes and workshops over the years have prepared students for church care, prosphora making, and iconography. Two favorite workshops have been training acolytes for the altar, and preparing students to make floral icons for feast days.

"In some communities, there has been a break in passing on the practical skills of church life," said Father Geoffrey.

"If a young person has nothing they can contribute to parish life, and if they don't understand how to read an icon, how to pray at home each day, or how to confess, why would we expect them to retain their faith? We must not set up Orthodox young people to fail; we must prepare them to win, spiritually speaking."

The lives and examples of the saints have played a central part in many years of the VCS program, including the saints of North America. This year, the theme focuses on the varied miraculous icons of the Mother of God, and the aspects of her life which provide an example of holy living for Christians to emulate.

Classroom instruction on the annual theme provides academic knowledge, through the devotion of a team of experienced volunteer teachers, several of whom were once VCS students in the early years of the program.

From thirty to sixty students enroll in the annual program, which is operated entirely on donations from local parishes and faithful, as well as community members: school supplies are often donated by a local office supply store, food is donated and prepared by volunteers, and a local funeral home sponsors the tshirts. No students are turned away for reasons of cost. Each year, the program operates with a surplus that goes straight into preparing for the next year.

"We draw inspiration from many sources, including other parish initiatives like those in BC, Alberta, and Québec," said Father Geoffrey. "Our biggest inspiration comes from the everyday life of the Church: learning to pray, learning to repent and to struggle spiritually, guarding the senses, and receiving our strength from God, not ourselves," he said.

"Really, that is what it means to pass on Orthodox Christianity to other people."

- Canadian Orthodox Messenger

"Ours must be an orthodoxy of the heart, not just the mind."

-St.Tikhon of Zadonsk