By Sharon Milton
“My mother doesn’t like me. She talks down to me, she never has anything nice to say to me, all because I remind her of my dad. He is incarcerated.”
“My mother just came home from prison, she has been gone since I was 3. I am now 14-years-old. I don’t know how to feel, because I do not know my mother.”
These are just a few of the stories you hear from Camp Hope.
Camp Hope was started years ago by the Rev. Timothy Warner and his partner churches for kids whose parents are incarcerated or in re-entry. He invited me last year to be a counselor, and I was amazed at what the Holy Spirit was doing. This year, the invitation came to be the director for Camp Hope. I said yes, knowing that God was going to move in a mighty way.
Held at West River Camp, from June 30 to July 5, the camp provides young people with an opportunity to forget about their lives’ struggles and go swimming, wall climbing, canoeing and more. Best of all, they got to dig into the Word of God and have life application Bible studies. They got to see the love of Jesus and learn who and whose they are. They would find hope when everything seems hopeless.
The Theme for Camp Hope that week was “Never let anything stop you from dreaming. Keep Dreaming.” Each day we explored a different topic.
- Sunday: What are you dreaming about? Keep Dreaming! (Genesis 37:1-11)
- Monday: Dreaming may cost you. Keep dreaming! (Genesis 37:12-28)
- Tuesday: Don’t let anything distract you from your dreams. Keep dreaming! (Genesis 39:7-18)
- Wednesday: God’s favor is on you, no matter your situation. Keep Dreaming!
- Thursday & Friday: Everything will work for your good. Keep Dreaming! (Genesis 50:19-21).
It was my prayer that these kids would leave camp discovering and believing every dream God had given them.
The week started out with some tears from those who had never been away from home. A few were returning to Camp Hope. Most seemed uncertain about what to expect. One of the things they all had in common is that they were the innocent victims of the trickle-down effects of incarceration.
Some of the youth lived in neighborhoods where they are afraid to go outside, afraid of being the next victim of gun violence, or afraid of being coerced into something that may send them down the wrong path.
Many of the young men came with so much misplaced anger and were not sure how to deal with it. Many of the young ladies were looking for love and to be accepted. We set up Camp Hope to be a judgement free zone. Every child is a gift from God, every child has a big dream inside, every child has a God-given destiny. Every child was encouraged to walk in their dreams and through God’s Word to start the healing and revealing process. Transformation always takes place at Camp Hope.
The first day, many of the campers were unsure if they even had a dream. By the second day the tears of homesickness had gone away, they were now curious to see what these big dreams were about.
At 11 a.m. and 8 p.m. each day, we gathered to talk and learn. The kids shared how people doubted who they were, their pain at being abandon by some family members and being left alone, being so young and having to take on the burdens of so much, being away from their mom or dad, facing issues and temptations at school and trying to be strong, and sometimes feeling like a foreigner in a strange land.
We cried, we encouraged, we listened, we let the Holy Spirit lead. This is when breakthrough happens. They were bold and shared their stories and their painful testimonies. In the midst of all of this, it’s hard for them to understand God is still in the midst. But, each day, it seemed a layer was moved; each day you could tell they were a little lighter. They were so excited to scream out the theme and topic of the day and share their dreams.
One of their assignments was to make dream boards. On these boards, they told their stories anyway they wanted. Through drawings, writing and pictures, the Holy Spirit led.
A 14-year-old young lady wrote the word “shy,” with a X crossing it out, there was a light coming through it and a cross next to it. She explained what it meant: “I came to camp shy, not knowing who I was, but the light of Jesus has touched me, and I now know whose I am.
The week of Camp Hope was not all easy, we had some late nights of some anger bursts, rebellion, panic attacks, but this was all part of the process. Those late nights are worth the transformation that happens. These kids have seen things that are traumatizing. They are innocent victims of the effects of our prison system.
By Thursday, they are asking, “why can’t we stay longer,” and saying they weren’t ready to go home.
I watched a 9-year-old pack his stuff to leave and he said, “Ms. Sharon, I am going to miss all of you. I will miss talking about Jesus and God. Bible study was my favorite part of camp. We don’t talk about God at my house. But it makes me so happy to talk about Jesus.”
I had to pause to take in what he said and asked the Holy Spirit to speak through me. I saw his eyes get big and his smile get wide when I said to him, “You know, you can talk to Jesus anywhere you are. You can pray to God everywhere.” He was in shock, “really?” he asked.
See, he thought Jesus was only at Camp Hope. Transformation always happens here.
We sat and talked and followed up with his parents. But my heart knows there is more we need to do.
Our next goal for Camp Hope is to get mentors from all over the Conference who can commit to help these young people on their journeys and churches who can commit to serve as a supportive church home.
At our last Bible study session, every young person stood up on a table, shouted their dreams with authority, and proclaimed, “I trust God!”
A 13-year-old stood up and said, “I know some people don’t believe me, but I will be an NFL player!” And yet another said, “I will be a business woman because I trust God!”
They believed everything will work out for their good, that their circumstances don’t count them out.
Some of the kids who had come to camp not knowing Jesus, left knowing Jesus. At Camp Hope, we keep dreaming.