The Agony and Ecstasy of Church Camp

(Ninth in a series on reaching out to urban kids.)

9902990_orig   For years, summer camp was a reliably idyllic experience for the kids at our church. We always went to some awesome facility where kids could swim, boat, run around, eat s’mores around campfires, have raucous worship and animated teaching, sleep in cabins and practice minimal personal hygiene.

Then we started inviting kids from the local school and surrounding neighborhood, reaching beyond the crowd we’d all raised to share the same values and good behavior.

The first year we did this, it was rough. We took on more needy kids than we could supervise well. We had fights, we had kids refusing to do activities, we had kids from tough home environments acting out like crazy, especially on the last day of camp.

My personal low point came on our last morning, helplessly watching an eight year old leap into one of the camp staff’s golf carts and drive it erratically around the cars of parents who had come to pick up their kids.  It was one of those moments when seconds felt like minutes.

We felt pretty beat up after that camp – physically, emotionally, spiritually. What had always been a high point of the year for adult volunteers became something that some of us needed to recover from.

But Jesus didn’t say, “Go create wonderful experiences for your children in safe and sheltered environments.” He said, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel,… teaching them to observe everything I’ve commanded you.” Summer camp is a superb opportunity to carry out that commission with children and teenagers. So we didn’t give up. We pulled back and regrouped, but we didn’t give up.

5345345_origHere’s what we do differently to make camp a good experience for children from different backgrounds:

  1. Set up high staff to camper ratios that ensure activities can go on while other leaders are free to trouble shoot rebellious behavior and emotional melt-downs. In the past, we had two teenagers in cabins with eight or ten kids. Now we have an experienced and spiritually mature adult in every cabin too. We also have an extra staff person in any cabin with a kid who has a disability like autism or a history of behavior issues. We have always had a nurse on site, now we have a mental health counselor too. Even if it means turning some kids away, we are committed to keeping enough staff per camper to ensure that all kids are well supervised and cared for.
  2. We offer summer camp as a privilege for those who have behaved well during the school year. and reserve the right to refuse children who have been repeatedly defiant or destructive.
  3. We have few rules, but they are clear and consistently enforced.  We require parents or guardians to come to meetings before camp so they understand the rules too. Even families who get scholarships have to pay at least $10, and if a child has to be driven home early, they lose their money. If the child behaves well enough to stay at camp all week, they get their money back.

Last summer, camp went really well. These changes kept the atmosphere positive most of the time. The healthiest environment is a mix of rich and poor kids of different races with enough loving, mature leaders to set the tone. Put that together with worship, fun things to do and the beauty of nature, and camp is as close to heaven as it gets.