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GEMS and Cadets Adjust to COVID-19

October 14, 2020
Photo provided by GEMS Girls’ Clubs
Photo by GEMS Girls’ Clubs

When the COVID-19 pandemic put a hold on gatherings of any kind over six months ago, GEMS and Cadets groups were among the many organizations that had to adapt quickly. The clubs for girls (GEMS) and boys (Cadets) in their upper-elementary and middle-school years normally gather each week at churches across the continent and beyond. With gatherings restricted, club leaders and organizational staff had to find new ways to stay connected while staying safe and healthy.

The clubs aim to bring children into and to build on a relationship with Jesus. Through teaching, mentorship, and fellowship, club leaders and counselors try to show young people what a Christian life looks like as a woman or a man. In a time of global pandemic, “The mission hasn’t changed, but our methods certainly have,” said Cindy Bultema, executive director of GEMS Girls’ Clubs.

Early in the pandemic, there was a lot of uncertainty as everyone adjusted to new rules and routines. Different areas around the continent had different rules, and guidelines changed frequently. Clubs adjusted as they could, with some taking a break, others moving to online conferencing apps to meet virtually, and some doing quick porch visits or dropping off books and craft supplies to stay connected. Organizational leadership had to make some difficult decisions, with Cadets postponing its triennial camporee to 2021, and with GEMS holding its annual counselors conference online only.

Staff in the central offices of GEMS and Cadets could not keep up with the COVID-related rules and restrictions for each club’s area, so they created other ways to help every club.

Steve Bootsma, executive director of the Calvinist Cadet Corps, recognized that what worked for one club, where they could meet outside or in groups of up to ten persons, might not work for another club, where the weather might be less inviting or restrictions on gathering could be tighter. “So we’ve given information through our Cadets blog and Facebook posts about how to set up virtual meetings,” he said.

The organization also introduced “Cadets at Home” kits for counselors to bring to their boys. Each kit consisted of a bag with the 2020 theme on it — “Dive into the Word” — filled with craft kits, the materials to complete three to five badges, and 11 Bible lessons.

Bootsma noted that in a church using the kits, each age group of boys would be working on the same three badges, so their leaders (counselors) could connect with them on a Zoom call or by another method once a week “as a tool to keep the relationship going between the counselors and the boys.”

GEMS created a similar resource called “GEMS on the Go.” It’s an activity box, said Bultema, that counselors can bring to their girls, and it includes a badge and a craft — “all the things that girls love about GEMS, right in a box.”

Relationships are an important part of both ministries, normally built through spending time in club meetings studying the Bible, doing crafts, and working on badges. However, said Bultema, “We are so blessed to have nearly 5,000 mentors who were not going to let a pandemic get in the way” of their working with girls to meet the Savior.

Bultema noted that one counselor made a posterboard sign that simply said, “You are LOVED.” The GEMS theme this past season was “LOVED.” And that counselor “would just go to the different homes of her girls, knock on the door, stand back, and just hold up the sign,” said Bultema. Some of the girls found ways to show love as well, using window signs, gifts, and sidewalk chalk.

In addition, GEMS worked to serve clubs that might be operating in one of five scenarios: in person, online, at a distance (porch visits, etc., where meeting in person or online is not possible), a hybrid solution, or activities led by parents or guardians in the home.

For both GEMS and Cadets, if clubs can meet in person in a legal and responsible way, they can continue on with a fairly regular curriculum, keeping within guidelines for physical distancing, mask wearing, and hand hygiene.

For clubs meeting online, the organizations are providing guidance for club counselors and kids about online etiquette, internet safety, tech instructions, and curriculum that works well online.

The GEMS “Friended” theme this year has a 1950s look to it, so one club had a 1950s-themed, physically distanced club kit pick-up party in order to distribute the resources to the kids — and from there they will continue to gather virtually.

Robert Vandermeer, head counselor of the Wheaton [Ill.] Christian Reformed Church Cadets club, said that when COVID-19 restrictions began, their club quickly went to an online conferencing platform.

At the first virtual meeting, Vandermeer led a Bible lesson, using the state’s guidelines about COVID-19 safety as a real-time example of obeying God and obeying authorities. There were many opinions about the guidelines, and Vandermeer said he wanted to lay a groundwork describing how they would deal with this from a biblical perspective as a club.

They continued with a trivia game, and the format engaged the boys and worked well, so the club continued with monthly online meetings for three months. Vandermeer led most of the Bible lessons, and various counselors led trivia games, Bible-knowledge events, and a popular scavenger hunt. Because of continuing restrictions around the pandemic, though, they closed their season with an online closing ceremony.

As their club starts up again this fall, said Vandermeer, they plan to continue meeting virtually biweekly for Bible study, badge work, and a quick activity during at least September and October. They also had planned some outside activities so that they could gather in person to clean up trails, have a barbecue, and launch model rockets. Vandermeer hopes they will be able to meet more regularly by November, but the plans remain flexible, he said.

Christina Toland, GEMS Club coordinator at CrossPoint CRC in Chino, Calif., had a different experience with the pandemic. “When everything shut down [in mid-March], our club shut down too,” she said. “[Then] we didn’t have a Zoom leaders meeting until probably the middle of April. I was pretty shut down too.”

Caring for nine family members, studying, grieving the loss of “normal,” and affected by some of the fear surrounding the early days of the pandemic, Toland said she felt overwhelmed.

One of her counselors called the first online leaders’ meeting, where she was reminded of the girls they served through GEMS, and of the need to continue to move forward to reach them with the love of Jesus in these difficult times. Together, the leaders created a plan to meet with the girls online.

Over the course of the next few weeks, the CrossPoint counselors and GEMS worked out technical issues and started sharing more, doing Bible study, giving testimonies. And they finished the year with an online closing ceremony, including a skit filmed through online interaction.

To stay in touch during the summer months, Toland and the other counselors kept meeting virtually with their girls. They created and delivered kits with craft supplies, play dough, and handouts. Toland arranged speakers and virtual field trips, and she connected with counselors to make sure they were equipped, feeling comfortable, and finding ways to help the girls feel loved and connected. Learning to do all of this online was out of her comfort zone, Toland said — but sometimes, she added, “We just need to show up and ask for help.”

Through the games, craft show-and-tell, and “just showing up,” Toland and the club continued all summer to connect and grow in their relationships. One girl accepted Christ during a virtual meeting. “It was a really powerful summer for me,” said Toland.

The GEMS organization, hearing about the success of Toland’s club at staying connected and growing in relationship even while meeting only online, asked her to write a short resource book for other counselors with tips and suggestions. The book became available to counselors in September.

In September the club started meeting in person again, with some girls and counselors tuning in virtually. To allow physical distancing for the almost 70 girls who came in person, said Toland, they had evening and afternoon groups — and no large group gatherings. At the same time, so many new leaders came forward to help that there is now a waiting list to be able to serve, and some are helping in behind-the-scenes ways such as cutting out craft kits, decorating bulletin boards, or calling to connect with the girls.

“It was a struggle to get here,” said Toland, “but now I feel so supported. We put out the call, and God provided.”