Our campers come from all walks of life and various hardships. Some may have parents imprisoned, have been abused, or can only get food at school. Others may be facing challenges such as that their best friend won’t talk to them, or they are struggling in school. No matter what hardships our campers face, they all have this in common: they are in desperate need of God’s love.
Many people make the mistake of assuming that children don’t have their own burdens, fears, anxieties, or pain. Adults often find it hard to understand how a child facing a bully at school, struggling in math, or whose parents are going through a divorce can find themselves in an identity-shattering crisis. When these feelings remain unaddressed, they often come to the surface in negative ways such as cursing, punching out windows, screaming at others, not participating in games, sabotaging team efforts, etc. In our fifteen years at Camp Hope, we’ve seen it all. And one of the first things you will observe on a day of camp is that unless our campers are in immediate danger, we don’t address this negative behavior. But why? Our mission is to teach each camper that they are loved, valued, and created for purpose.
Each Camper Is Loved, Valued, and Created For Purpose
Many years ago we experienced our first broken window. The young man who broke the window (we’ll call him Danny) had many other negative outbursts that day, and it was clear to everyone that he was angry, and he was hurting. After Danny was given space to cool off, Mr. Louie found him at the picnic tables and asked for his help to clean up the broken glass. They cleaned the glass in silence, and it was clear that Danny was waiting for the shoe to drop. He was preparing to be sent home, and putting his walls up. But instead of addressing the negative behavior, Danny and Mr. Louie started a game of pool where Mr. Louie simply said, “Thank you for helping me Danny, I love you.” Soon after, Danny apologized for breaking the window, and we could all see the hope in his eyes after he was told, “I forgive you.”
Instead of being sent home, Danny was forgiven. Instead of being scolded, Danny was shown God’s unconditional love. And instead of Danny never coming back to camp, he realized he was loved and returned to camp every chance he could.
We love our campers. We spend endless time and resources preparing for each camp season to be sure that we can spend as much quality time as possible with each camper. This includes keeping a 1:1 or a 1:2 ratio of staff to campers to be sure that each camper has a trusted adult to confide in. Because we spend so much time pouring into our relationship with each camper, it is so important to keep that trust.
When a camper acts out it is often because they are finally in a space they feel safe to express their emotions. Imagine how devastating it would be to be sent home after their Kingdom Buddy told them that they are loved and valued. In the minds of our campers, if we really loved and valued them, then why would we send them home? And after spending so much effort preparing to spend time with our campers, imagine how disappointing it would be to have no campers to spend time with. Oftentimes, it is the very reasons why a camper needs to go to camp that are the reasons why some camps may want to send them home – But not Camp Hope.
Just as God forgives and loves us unconditionally, we aim to model that same love to our campers. When we make mistakes, God doesn’t revoke His love. He forgives us and moves on.
We Want Our Campers To Feel Safe
This generation of children and youth is in desperate need of connection, direction, and a place to safely unpack their emotions. Most children are learning to cope with these emotions by numbing their thoughts within social media, but Camp Hope gives our campers another alternative.
Most children don’t lash out or break windows just because it looks fun. Behind every negative action or behavior is a child attempting to communicate their feelings.
Camp Hope offers campers a safe atmosphere to escape the hardships of everyday life, and instead learn that they are loved, valued, and created for purpose. We believe it is more important to address the heart issues behind each negative action, rather than the action itself. And in doing so, we not only help to reduce future life-altering negative actions, but we help the camper themselves. If you take the thorn out of the flesh, it better helps to relieve uncomfort in the long run rather than just smothering it in itch cream.
Our Kingdom Buddies and Camp Staff spend each moment with our campers letting them know that their thoughts and feelings are safe to share and that we care. If our campers don’t show up with their best behaviors, it is up to us to show that they are loved and valued regardless of what they do.
The intentional safe atmosphere of Camp Hope allows campers to unpack and understand their emotions without fear of rejection, and to find love and hope. If our staff scolded or corrected our campers for every cuss word or every bad table habit, it would create a critical environment rather than one where our campers feel comfortable being vulnerable.
We Focus on What Matters
When we don’t spend every moment of camp addressing negative behavior, it leaves us with more room to address positive behavior. We focus on what matters, which for our campers means letting them know when we see that they did the right thing.
Positive reinforcement is more impactful and more meaningful to our campers than they could ever express. Seeing a camper glow after being told how appreciated they are for something as simple as holding the door open for others is one of the most precious moments at camp.
So does that mean that we don’t address any camper who isn’t behaving well? Of course not! Instead of addressing the bad behavior however, we choose to refocus the attention on campers who are being kind to others.
For example, we’ll be standing in line, and a camper will interrupt while we are talking to another camper. We can tell the camper who is interrupting that we will be right with them, but 9/10 times they keep going. Instead of telling that camper they are being rude, or to wait their turn, we’ll pause and turn to the kid who is patiently waiting and say,“Thank you for being patient. I am sorry we are being interrupted. I appreciate your patience.”
When a kid is banging on the table to get attention, we may address the rest of the kids with, “ I really appreciate your table manners.” Or when someone cleans up their mess at the table we’ll make sure that everyone knows how much we appreciate the actions of the campers who are being helpful.
Our campers will remember kindness. And we want them to remember that no matter what they do or say, they are loved.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if a camper leaves with better table manners. What matters is that we have shown our campers that they are loved, valued, and created for purpose. Kids often don’t learn these when they are being criticized. Instead, they learn these values best when they are shown.
We know that God can change hearts, minds, and actions when someone decides to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. Our job is not to try to do God’s job. Instead, our job is simply to point our campers to Jesus, by showing them His unconditional love.