As a young married woman, Tanya Cameron had suffered two miscarriages and wondered if she would ever be a mother.
Today, Cameron has two children of her own and recently became a foster parent. She also is the director of the Bridging the Gap (BTG) program at the Salvation Army Corps in Lowell, Mass., where she counsels and helps at–risk youth who consider her a mother.
“To have kids in my life who call me ‘Mom,’ who aren’t even mine, or who say ‘you are my second mom’ to me—that is a gift like no other. Some days, it’s just kind of overwhelming,” Cameron says through tears.
“It’s amazing that God would think enough of me to let me be the tool to work in their lives. To think that my mess and my brokenness can help somebody not be so messy or so broken, it’s just indescribable. Some days, I still don’t feel I’m worthy.”
Cameron has overcome years of adversity—and she uses her personal experiences to help others. As a child of U.S. Air Force personnel, she dropped out of high school when her parents divorced.
“At that time, I became extremely angry and started to rebel and kind of do my own thing,” she said. “I started hanging out with the wrong crowd and making bad choices.”
Cameron later earned a GED and found success in the working world. She moved quickly through the ranks at Olive Garden, where she started as a waitress. She was promoted to management and traveled the Northeast, training staff and opening restaurants.
Her career was going well, but what Cameron really wanted was to be a mother. She had suffered a few miscarriages, so she quit working to concentrate on having a family.
Two daughters, Alivia and Savannah, soon followed.
However, Cameron’s happy life was interrupted by several horrific episodes of domestic violence, including one that left her with a double–fractured eye socket. She ended up in a safe house and later in Lowell, Mass., through a domestic violence program.
Cameron moved to Lowell not knowing anyone in the entire city. Her daughters were only 5 and 3 years old.
“I was broken and lost,” she recalls.
For two or three months, she rarely left the house.
“But I felt something calling me and I knew I wanted to go back to church,” Cameron said.
“For a while, I was going sporadically, but the girls were going every week because the bus was picking them up and bringing them home,” Cameron said. “They loved it and would come home and talk about it.”
Cameron was diagnosed with post–traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When she did attend church, she was there only physically.
“A lot of times I would come here and just sit,” she said. “I can’t tell you I remember a whole lot from that beginning. It was a safe place for me where the kids could go to the nursery and I had an hour to myself.”
“One of the things that kept me coming back was that continual love. It was consistent. It was judgment–free. No matter how broken I felt, nobody judged me. They loved me the same every day. My girls absolutely loved it here, and they did amazing things with my kids that I felt I couldn’t do.”
The corps supported Cameron as she earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts in Lowell (UMass–Lowell). She wanted to go back to work, but found it hard with two youngsters. Then someone mentioned using her restaurant experience. During the summer of 2013, Cameron took a job as an assistant cook, somewhat reluctantly, at Camp Wonderland.
“I was miserable,” she said. “I hated it. But during that time, I also knew that God was trying to talk to me, but I wasn’t ready to hear. I think a lot of that was the struggle of just not being ready to receive what God was trying to give.”
The next summer, Cameron went back. In 2015, as she prepared for a third tour of duty, someone asked her to be the head cook. She didn’t think she was “worthy” or “good enough,” but the camp staff persuaded her.
It all clicks
“They believed in me, and loved me, and I finally said, ‘yes,’” Cameron said. “That year was the big turnaround for me. I took that time while I was working in the kitchen and at camp to listen to what God had for me and for my life.
“I also had begun to see the ministry of the kitchen.”
No one had ever told her about the “soup, soap, and salvation” philosophy of William Booth. Once she heard the story, Cameron realized she was doing more than cooking food. She passed that idea on to the staff—as they toiled in 100–degree heat.
“I started working on them, telling them we’re a family and we need each other,” she said. “I told them we need to feed the kids’ bellies in order for their hearts to be fed.”
During that summer, Cameron strengthened her prayer life, Bible reading, and quiet time.
“I opened my heart to God. I took that summer to silence myself and just listen. I have found so much peace in walking with God,” she said.
“I don’t know why I kept going back to camp. Looking on it now, I feel it was the pull of God and the Holy Spirit. Something in me knew that was where I was supposed to be.”
Cameron soon earned a master’s degree from UMass–Lowell in community social psychology, even with her children often in tow. She also worked with homeless people while earning her degree. She didn’t go to her graduation, but spent the day cooking at camp.
“I was where I needed to be that day,” Cameron says. “It was a big year of transitioning.”
In late 2015, Cameron heard that the corps might get funded for BTG. She applied and was hired March 1, 2016.
“I love the youth,” she said. “It seems like a cliché, but they are our future. I look at the youth in our church and think, they’re going to be making the changes in our community.”
Cameron sees a lot of herself in the young people she counsels.
“A lot of the challenges my kids face, I’ve kind of gone through myself,” she said. “I try to work with them and talk to them about what’s truly important. That’s the love of God and how God loves us and how we should love others. That’s what Jesus tells us to do.”
As an advocate, she attends court hearings and school meetings.
“Even if it’s just my presence, even if the judge or the lawyer don’t want to talk to me, the kid knows that I’m always going to be there,” she said. “What you find is, many of these kids have had adults, even their own parents, who have failed them. I try to be the one consistent person in their life who they can count on.”
While Cameron isn’t allowed to talk about faith issues at BTG meetings, she lets everyone know about the Friday night youth group at the corps, led by Josh Henry, ministries coordinator. Recently, five of her BTG youth attended a weekend retreat.
Cameron said one of her recent BTG grads didn’t want to attend at first. He would sit in silence and ignore everyone, but he eventually came around. Cameron later got a card from the boy’s mother. It read, “Thank you for believing in him when no one else would.”
“It’s one thing when I see the change in them, but when the family around them sees the changes, it’s amazing and encouraging and leaves me speechless,” Cameron said.
Rolling up her sleeves
“I see a lot of generational brokenness within families. I try to break the cycle for the kids who come into my life. I tell them, ‘Life doesn’t have to be like that.’”
Cameron likes to lead by example. She was a Sunbeam leader for four years, serves on the EDS truck, and volunteers to cook for many of the potlucks at the corps. She wants to show her daughters, who are now 16 and 14, the love of Christ.
“I want to show them that you always have to give back,” Cameron said. “When we help the homeless, I tell my kids, ‘The homeless are worthy of God’s love the same way we’re worthy of God’s love.’ How do we look if we take God’s love, but we don’t give it back?”
by Robert Mitchell