It is a typical camp setting. LakeWhatcom sparkles in the background; tall fir trees drop pine cones on cabin roofs while happy campers swim, tie-dye T-shirts, and shop in the camp store. The daily schedule includes games, crafts, a carnival, magic shows, counselors’ skits and, of course, the all-camp talent show. Just another normal camp designed to give kids a memorable week of new experiences.
From outward appearances, this camp is like any other residential camp across the country. It's the behind-the-scenes work that sets Royal Family Kids' Camp apart from “regular” camps. In 1985, Wayne and Diane Tesch started a free camp based on Christian principles for abused and neglected children. Today, 140 camps are established in the United States, with 15 international camps in South Africa, Kenya, Australia, Peru and Japan. So far, over 46,000 children ages 7 through 11 have been able to attend a Royal Family Kids' Camp, where they experience a week of safe, positive relationships with adults--and a big dose of fun!
Each camp is sponsored by a local faith-based agency, usually a church, raising funds and recruiting volunteers. Eight thousand adults so far have given their time to volunteer for a week at the camps. When my husband Allan and I volunteered at one of the camps in Bellingham, Wash., it was easy to see why this camp was so successful. Each counselor has only two campers in his or her care, allowing the counselor to create a strong relationship. The majority of children come from group homes or foster homes. Some arrive at camp without a toothbrush.
One 10-year-old came to camp at the last minute because his caseworker couldn't find a foster placement for him. He spent the week not knowing where he would live at the end of the time. My heart ached for him as I thought back to our daughter, whom we adopted when she was eight. Because of “the system,” we were not allowed to tell her we were in the process of adopting. Instead, we were simply her “special friends.” One day she thoughtfully asked, “When I'm legally free to be adopted, will they put an ad in the paper like they do for dogs, and ask if anyone wants to adopt me?”
Consider The Facts
Each child attending Royal Family Kids' Camp comes with individual stories of abuse and neglect. At 6 years old, Steven's mother dropped him off in a parking lot and drove away, saying she didn't want him anymore. When caseworkers interviewed him, they found burn scars on his body. Steven went on to live with six foster families in one year. Attending Royal Family for three summers provided him with skills and resources to understand that not all adults will reject him. Today, Steven is living happily with his adopted family and working hard to pass his driving test. I know because his grandmother lives next door, and lets him practice repeatedly pulling her car in and out of the driveway!
The facts of abuse and neglect are horrendous--three million cases are reported annually. Yet Royal Family Kids' Camp is filled with joy and laughter. Here are a few highlights I observed at the Bellingham camp:
* Upon arriving, each child receives a colorful fleece blanket. Throughout the week, many campers spent the day with the blanket wrapped around their shoulders.
* Can you imagine turning 9 years old and not having anyone wish you a happy birthday? Not at Royal Family Kid's Camp! One afternoon is set aside for “Everyone's Birthday Party.” There's a raucous party with cake, noisy blow-out streamers and, of course, presents.
* Because many campers arrive with only the barest clothing essentials, a room is available to pick out underwear, shorts and T-shirts. I was amazed how Royal Family eliminated any obstacle preventing a child from having a great week at camp. This summer, the non-profit agency, Soles4souls, has donated one pair of flip flops and one pair of tennis shoes for every camper. Distributing the shoes was chaotic as we tried to fit children who didn't know their shoe sizes. Some staff had tears in their eyes as kids asked, "Do we get NEW shoes?" Some campers exclaimed, "These are cool shoes!" One girl, walking back to her cabin, decided to carry her shoes so they wouldn't get dusty.
* During the day, campers can earn purple CampBucks for positive behavior, which can be redeemed at the camp store. The maximum amount a camper can earn per day is $10, and many campers accomplished that. For some children it was their first experience having money and being empowered to spend it how they wanted. I watched as they struggled whether to spend the $10 that night, or save up to buy a major item, such as an electric guitar for $20. On the final night of camp, an 11-year-old boy came in with his last $8 and spent a long time looking at an assortment of jewelry. Finally, in a low voice, he said to my husband, "I want to buy my mom this necklace for $10, but I only have $8." (Don't tell the store manager, but at that moment Allan reduced all the jewelry by $2!) As we wrapped the necklace, the boy's smile was priceless.
* Each camp has a resident Grandma and Grandpa who volunteer for the week. This couple is available to give an extra hug, listen to a lengthy description about the funny water fight at the lake, discuss a skit for the talent show, or step in when a child needs extra attention. The couple also stops by cabins at bedtime to tuck in young campers and pray with them. These kind adults give their full attention to children who normally don't establish wholesome relationships with grown-ups.
* As the campers leave, they receive a memory bag, filled with such items as notes from counselors, a Royal Family Kids' CampT-shirt, a children's Bible, a CD of songs sung at camp, etc. Local camp supporters also contribute gifts to include in the memory bags. I watched as campers were reunited with parents, relatives and foster parents, eager to show them the goodies. For many campers, just receiving a new bag was a treat.
Having worked with traditional camps for over 14 years, I know how important they can be in the lives of children. They return home with sun tans, new skills and self-confidence. Yet at Royal Family Kids' Camp, children also leave with a valuable lesson--there are adults who can be trusted, adults who care, and adults who bring joy--not pain--to young lives.
For more information on Royal Family Kids' Camps, call (714) 438-2494, or visit www.rfkc.org.
Silvana Clark has over 20 years experience helping thousands of children create arts and crafts projects. She presents keynotes and workshops on a variety of recreation-related subjects. She can be reached at (615) 662-7432 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
(Names changed to protect children)