Children of incarcerated find unconditional love at summer camp

June 27, 2007

Children of parents in prison "are invisible. No government entity is responsible for them," says a U.S. Senate report.

The president says there are 1.5 million of them. The Bureau of Justice statistics say they have a 70 percent chance of going to prison just like their parents.

In the hope of doing something about that, dioceses all over the country are sending the littlest victims of crime to summer camp for a week of love, learning and fun.

"If we can give them a week of unconditional love, there is hope," says the now-retired director of prison ministry for the national church, the Rev. Jackie Means.

Before she retired, she started another camp in the Diocese of Southwest Florida. Now there are camps in 20 dioceses of the Episcopal Church.

These children bring to camp "anger, fear, insecurity, suspicion and shame," said Means. "They need to know that Jesus loves them as they are. They need a safe place to deal with hard stuff and to be shown respect."

"To our utter amazement, attitudes and behaviors do get altered in that brief time," wrote the Rev. Stephen R. Caldwell. He started the first of these Episcopal camps in Sante Fe, New Mexico. "Campers are surprised to discover that our love for them is unconditional."

Gay Yerger, a staffer at Mississippi's ecumenical Camp Caritas, said: "They sing songs, they beat drums, they dance, they cut and paste and draw, they write, they imagine, they listen and they speak. They run and they rest ... In a safe and loving environment, children discover self-worth, broaden their horizons, make positive choices and develop leadership skills ... Children and adults are transformed."

A few of the children who attended a camp in Oklahoma for children 8-12 were getting into trouble once they turned 13, said Deacon Judy Gann. So a second -- Camp Start -- was created for children 12-15.

"We taught them leadership skills," she said. "It has been so successful, since then none has gotten into trouble." Those children then come back as counselors-in-training and counselors, she added. "Four of them, now 16, have been with us since they were 8 years old."

Year-long mentors for the children have been provided to some of the camps by Amachi of Big Brothers Big Sisters and Volunteers of America.

The camps have names like Promise Camp, Grace Camp, Camp Good News, Camp Caritas and Camp New Hope, Camp Amazing Grace and Camp New Horizons.

The dioceses sponsoring them are: Rio Grande, Oklahoma, Northern Michigan, Mississippi, Texas, West Texas, Nevada, East Carolina, Montana, Maryland, Florida, Southwest Florida, Arkansas, Vermont, Wisconsin, Easton, Md., Connecticut, Northern Indiana, Alaska, Louisiana.

A resolution adopted by General Convention in 2006 set aside $65,000 for a three-year commitment to camps for children of prisoners.

"We hope to break the cycle of incarceration tearing apart Maryland families with a week of healing and emotional support," said the Rev. Eddie Blue, last year's director of Camp Amazing Grace in Maryland.

Churches are urged to sponsor a child, who often arrive with only the clothes on their backs. Last year, the guardian of one little girl said she could not go to camp "because she does not have the right clothes." She will go to camp this year.

"Children at risk and children with special needs are especially important to us," said retired Bishop Robert W. Ihloff of the Diocese of Maryland.

"All these children present a challenge, face great obstacles in life, and give us special opportunity to lavish love on them for Christ's sake. Who knows how it will enhance and change lives?"