“Episcopalians know how to do camp,” the Rev. Jackie Means tells anyone who will listen. “Why don’t we do camp for children of prisoners?”
The director of prison ministry for the church says that a child with a parent in prison has a 70 percent chance of going to prison, too. Children with two parents in prison have a 90 percent chance of incarceration. “If we can give them a week of unconditional love, there is hope,” says Means.
Means’ challenges have resulted in seven camps in six dioceses last year; another five dioceses are planning for camps this year; and a 12th diocese – Easton -- hopes to have one in 2007. Current camps are in the Dioceses of Montana, Oklahoma, Texas, North West Texas, Rio Grande, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, Connecticut and Maryland.
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.”
Other church leaders have witnessed the results of this ministry. “To our utter amazement, attitudes and behaviors do get altered in that brief time,” said the Rev. Stephen R. Caldwell, who started the first of these Episcopal camps in Montana. “Campers are surprised to discover that our love for them is unconditional.”
Children discover self-worth
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 wait … 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 youngsters ages 8 to 12 were getting into trouble once they turned 13, said Deacon Judy Gann. So a second venture -- Camp Start -- was created for children 12 to15.
“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.”
Long-term mentors that stay involved with the children for up to a year 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, and in Maryland’s new venture, Camp Amazing Grace, scheduled for July.
“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, camp director.
Many of the camp committees ask churches to sponsor one of the children, who often arrive with only the clothes on their backs. “Children are an important part of the ministry of the Diocese of Maryland,” said Bishop Robert Ihloff. “Children at risk and children with special needs are especially important to us.
“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?”