Magazine Features

Happy Campers

Chirping crickets, one of nature’s very own lullabies, resonate through the woods at Salvation Army summer camps, blanketing children in their soothing song before “lights out.” But surprisingly, they don’t always induce sleep, says Major Susan Kelly, a former divisional youth secretary (DYS) who ran Salvation Army camps Tecumseh and Star Lake.

Kelly found, time and again, that after the sun went down, crickets triggered insomnia—and even raw fear—among inner city children who were first–time campers. More than once, a scared or even aggressive child was brought to her camp director office in the middle of the night because of them.

“We dealt with behavioral issues, because they were acting out a lot at night. We discovered that they were not used to the quiet, to the crickets chirping. For them, sirens, horn honking, and screaming neighbors are the backdrop when they go to sleep every night. The change was scary to them,” Kelly recalls, adding that camp staff members had to be trained that children who were “acting out” were not being bad or rebellious.

“It’s a way of thinking. Most of us wouldn’t think twice about chirping bugs. But they’re scared to death of them.”

Summer camping is about a lot more than pitching a tent or grabbing some marshmallows for a gooey campfire treat.  Sure, those fun activities are cozy memories of the camping experience. But nowadays, The Salvation Army is serving youngsters who bring a lot of physical, emotional and spiritual “baggage” into their camp cabins. The fear of crickets is just one example of hurdles that must be overcome while they are fed and nurtured, body, heart and soul. Staff members receive training that some campers may be dealing with situations that no child should ever face, Kelly says. For example, they may be neighborhood targets for drug dealers, gang bangers, and even prostitution rings. Others deal with neglect or abuse. Some come from homes where going to bed hungry is a regular occurrence.

Whatever the challenge, however, The Salvation Army’s camping programs offer a steady diet of physical exercise, nutritious food, loving and kind emotional support, and, most importantly, an introduction to Jesus Christ. The goal is that after a week at camp, they’ll spread the love they’ve learned in their own communities, while also continuing to receive support from local officers and programs.

“We never make any money on it. We always go into debt with summer camping programs. But the return on ushering these children into the Kingdom of Heaven is worth it,” says Major Tonie Cameron, communications secretary at Eastern Territorial Headquarters. She went from being a kid camper to DYS to  director of Camp Long Point in Penn Yan, N.Y.

Happy Campers

Every summer nationwide, about 200,000 children attend a Salvation Army camp. If you have any doubt about the positive effects of camping on children, just take a look at the research. The American Camp Association, which gives the Army camps their accreditation stamps of approval, did a study in 2014 on the emotional effects of camping on children.  Some findings: Parents reported “significant positive change” in their children’s social skills after attending two weeks of camp. And they said their kids were happier when they got home. Children also reported positive changes in their happiness levels because of camp.

Camp programs help kids to learn get–to–know–you skills and how to get along with other people, the ACA says. “Many camp practices and traditions – singing, dancing, telling stories and jokes and playing outdoors – increase positive emotion, which lead campers to feel what they describe as ‘happiness,’” the ACA wrote.

In essence, by the time kids finish their stay at a Salvation Army camp, they literally are “happy campers.”

Unplugging: the technology hurdle

But before kids can fully immerse themselves into the camping experience, they have to unplug from technology first.

“Everything is electronic today,” says Kelly. “It’s not their fault, but they don’t know how else to stimulate their minds, except to have their face in some kind of a screen. When they go outside, they don’t even see what’s around them.” Kelly, currently the Area Coordinator and Corps Officer in Toledo, Ohio, says her corps will send about 110 children to Camp NEOSA in Carrollton, Ohio, this summer.

Brittany Parks is the Eastern Territorial Children’s Outreach Ministries Coordinator, and as such, she oversees key programs like Sunbeams, Girl Guards, Adventure Corps and Boy Scouts. She regularly travels to different camps all over the Eastern Territory. In 2016, Parks was at a national “jamboree” for teenagers in Missouri. She noticed that hundreds of them were engaged in the outdoor activities, and none of them seemed to be missing their phones or electronic devices.

“They were having the time of their lives!” she recalls.

What was the difference? It’s something that eventually happens with every camper who is dependent on technology, Parks says. Eventually, they relax and begin to sink into their surroundings. Rough emotions become calmer, and eventually, they’re connected – body, mind, heart and soul – to beautiful trees, birds, breezes and water. The “gaming” becomes an afterthought, as does any stress they brought to the camp.

“I feel like there is this natural inclination that children have – and you don’t have to lose it in adulthood – to enjoy nature and God’s creation,” Parks says. She was introduced to Salvation Army camping at age 13, when she and her mother had just moved to Flemington, N.J., after being homeless. She attended Camp Tecumseh in Pittstown, N.J., and it changed her life.

Parks notes that technology has robbed children of a vital skill – but it is reawakened in them at camp. “When a kid plays with an iPad, their minds aren’t being challenged to create or imagine. Everything is already done for them,” Parks says. “But at camp, there is a point where they don’t know what to do with their devices. Then you see this ‘shift.’ That innate nature comes to life, and they make up a game or start telling stories. Once that shift starts for them, they’re not thinking anymore that they don’t have the gaming system.”

unconditional love

After camp staff break through barriers that kids put up, it’s time to reach hearts. But helping a child with any emotional or spiritual challenges is not automatic, and sometimes, it requires a great deal of patience and unconditional love.

Kelly recalls a little boy at one camp, about age 9, who had been brought to her office a few times for disciplinary issues. She was on the brink of sending him home. He had been angry for days. “He wouldn’t speak; he wouldn’t make friends. He wasn’t fitting in,” she says.

One night before the evening program, the child started throwing rocks. His counselor sent the rest of the cabin on ahead while he stayed behind with the child. They went to the waterfront, where they threw one rock after another into the lake. As each rock plunked and splashed in the water, they stood side by side in comfortable silence.

Finally, the counselor cleared his throat. “Why are you so angry?” he asked. The child broke down. “He poured his heart out. He had a lot going on at home. His parents were separated. Boyfriends of the mom were in and out. He didn’t feel he had Mom’s time or love,” Kelly says. “He changed 100 percent after that. It was a complete turnaround. He just needed to get it off his chest.”

Cameron has a story, too—her very own. When she attended camp at age eight, no one knew she was being abused at home in the projects. “But having a safe environment—just having that—and a place where you can be yourself, is huge,” she says.

Staff members are trained to notice bruises and to report when children reveal that they are being hurt at home. “When I was a DYS, one word we used all the time was, ‘respect.’ You don’t touch anybody. They don’t touch you. That means counselors and campers. So if someone touches you, they come and tell me. That prevents counselors from doing anything as well. Camp is a safe place and a good place to be. It was the only vacation I ever had as a child,” she says.

Three square meals, a Bedtime snack, and a boatload of fun

For the most part, kids are amazed at the variety of food at camp, Kelly says. Menus must meet standards of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Camp Ladore in Waymart, Pa., for example, participates in the Summer Food Service Program offered by the state of Pennsylvania. Mealtimes, meal content, supervision at meals and proper recording is crucial to the continuance of the contract. All families complete a form that includes information on food stamps, TANF or their FDPIR case number. The camp serves three meals per day, two snack periods in the late afternoon (at the ice cream truck at the pool) and a bedtime snack. Staff helps campers make healthy choices so that they are getting enough food at each meal and ensure that they are eating a balanced diet. In America, many take their meals for granted, but many kids at camp are not accustomed to such nutritious fare, Kelly says.

“Part of my job was to create the menu,” she says. “Some campers are hesitant to try something like a breakfast burrito. We’d try to think of creative meals, and they were hungry, and they ate it. They weren’t used to three square meals a day and a snack at bedtime.”

As childhood obesity is on the rise nationally, the outdoor activities at camp also do much to encourage physical activity and wellness. At Star Lake Camp in Bloomingdale, N.J., for example, a ropes course teaches group unity. Kids learn how to stay connected and cooperate, as they hold hands to get to the end of the course.

And of course, nothing beats swimming – a favorite at all camps.

“Some kids have never gone swimming. They’re scared to death of it,” Cameron says.

Staff members work hard to make sure each child pushes past his or her comfort zone.

“Camp challenges kids in a different way. They have a sense of achievement, whether they climb a wall or get their swim band, and that’s a big deal for these kids,” Parks says.

Touching the stars

During a camp session, opportunities abound to awaken children to the majesty of God’s creation – and the way He loves them. One of Parks’s favorite memories from her days as a camp counselor was “wilderness night.” Kids go to a small “wilderness camp,” where they sleep in tents, are taught to make a campfire and take a group walk to a field under a canopy of stars. Because most are from inner cities, where starlight is blocked by city lights or towering buildings, this is a profound experience, she says.

“When you see their faces at how bright the stars are, it’s amazing. To see the wonder and awe in their eyes and that moment when they recognize, ‘God made that, and he also made you,’ brings things into perspective,” Parks says.

Genesis 1:2 discusses how “the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.” That verse means a lot to Parks when she recalls those starry nights.

“Recently, it really struck me why we have a peace from being outside. His presence is over the land,” Parks says. “Even if you’re not a believer, people who are adventurous and are driven to being outside still feel this peace. And that’s the presence of God.”

Experiencing Jesus

Every day at camp involves some small introduction to Jesus. Each morning, campers have a “gathering,” where they sing worship songs. They have cabin devotions every evening after they’ve showered and are getting ready for bed. Grace at meals is sometimes sung to the tune of “The Flintstones” theme song.

“William Booth did that,” Kelly says, referring to the Salvation Army’s founder. “Catching their attention is the way we introduce the Gospel.”

The message of Christ peppers the day’s activities. Rather than just discussing a boating lesson, a counselor may say, “We get to go into these boats and learn about Jesus and His miracles on the Sea of Galilee!”

“In most activities, there is some sort of spiritual application,” Parks notes. “When you’re a child, you believe with all your heart. Even if you have a crazy life at home, you still have the ability to believe.”

The week culminates with salvation–message–focused activities on the last day. “Jesus Theater” is presented on the final evening. It’s a Gospel story portrayed through drama and music. In this setting, children are invited to accept Jesus as their personal Savior.

The Salvation Army’s approach has been effective. During the last four years, 28,000 children have accepted Jesus as their Savior at summer camps across the Eastern Territory. Kelly estimates that two–thirds of campers are unchurched when they arrive at camp (those who do not have church homes or have not heard the story of Jesus.) Additionally, a survey by the Barna Group in 2004 found that 43 percent of all Americans who accept Jesus do so before age 13. That’s a stark contrast to earlier claims that nine out of 10 become Christians before age 18. In short, the window to reach lost souls of children is closing, says Barna, a research and resource company located in Ventura, Calif.

“Jesus Theater is very powerful,” Parks says. “We underestimate our kids in what they can understand and comprehend. We really do. Kids ask questions about God and who He is. They want to know more.”

Lifelong Effects of Camping

For those who have experienced God’s love personally at camp, the effects have been life–long.

Cameron still remembers meeting Jesus at Camp SWONEKY in Oregonia, Ohio. She still envisions staff members who showed her who Jesus was by their actions and by their lives.

“During that week, it was a different world for me,” she recalls. “I was seeing people who didn’t fight. People were nice to each other. It was beautiful. They told you about the love of God. It was a safe place for me. People loved you right into the Kingdom.”

Those who have worked at camp agree there’s no better feeling than knowing they introduced a child to God’s love. Kelly will never forget the day a U.S. soldier showed up at Camp Tecumseh with his fiancée.

“He was about to get married and wanted to show her places that had made an impact on his life,” she says, adding the memory still makes her cry. He even remembered the cabin where he stayed and the location of his bed.

“I believe children will remember what they learned … They should be able to say, ‘Camp changed my life.’ It impacts everyone who’s there. In every job I’ve had as an officer, I’ve pushed camp. I have seen first–hand how it changes kids.” 

by Heidi Lynn Russell 

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