I sit at my computer and, in a rare moment, find myself speechless. Last night concluded six days of serving alongside 123 other volunteers to give hope and love to 96 of our county’s abused and neglected youth, ranging in ages from 6 to 11. These kids are otherwise known as foster children, and at Royal Family Kids Camp, we live out the Gospel; we are the church. We are the hands of Jesus. How do I summarize a week that had such hope, such love, such heartbreak, and so much God?
Throughout today, in trying to explain what I experienced this past week, I found myself at a loss. Blaming this on needing to “decompress,” I tried to ease back into my normal routine, in hopes that the words would come. They do – in brief, unexpected flashes through my mind.
The laughter from the television brought back the smile of a child who shared that she would smile only for me.
My dog running into my leg, a reminder of the young boy who grabbed onto me in the same fashion – and wouldn’t let go.
My sister beaming with the same sparkle in her eyes as a little girl showing me a painting she completed, hanging it on our cabin wall with pride.
I think of the little girl who shared, “I want to live here when I grow up!” and the boy who said he found hope at camp for the first time in his life. The little girl whom counselor Jessica lead to the Lord. The boy who wanted to dress up like a carrot and decided he was a superhero.
I sat down to watch a baseball game with my Dad, and couldn’t help but remembering watching a friend lob slow pitches to a boy with a whiffle bat. A little boy who in one moment was screaming bad words at a counselor on the field, the next day only to run into her arms; happy, smiling, and full of love.
My mom’s making tea in the kitchen brings me back to the little boy who, at our camp tea party, remarked: “I am filled with joy!” It reminds me of the girl who, when asked to make a toast, toasted the women who made the event possible – recognizing how much they cared for her.
The silly camp songs stuck in my head all day today bring back the story of the young girl who recognized our camp songs on the very first day as they were played through a counselor’s iPod. She even asked, “Is that TJ [the lead singer]? How did he get in the iPod??”
I am reminded throughout the day of the resilience I saw this week. As small difficulties come up throughout the day, they feel insignificant when compared to the hardships in the young lives I encountered. One of our boys wanted nothing more than to achieve a purple wristband at the pool. This was done by swimming the entire length of the pool without coming up for air. Upon his first try, Lifeguard Pete recognized that the boy did not have much technique. The task at hand would be a difficult one for our camper, who was ready to give up after the first try – he exclaimed, “I just can’t do it!” Pete promised to work with the camper so that he would be able to swim the entire length underwater. However, he would need to learn technique with his dive and his swimming stroke; there would be a lot to learn. To encourage him, Pete made him a deal: if Pete could swim down the entire length of the pool and back, the boy would need to bring him and his wife coffee each morning at breakfast. If our camper could achieve his purple wristband, he would not need to bring him coffee.
This ended up being the motivation our camper needed – by Wednesday morning, after two days of practicing, he achieved his purple wristband! Even though he won, he continued bringing Pete and his wife, Bonnie, coffee each morning. Bonnie told him, “You don’t need to – you reached your goal!” Yet, the camper continued bringing coffee. He explained that he said he needed to, because he promised; he chose to honor his commitment.
Our kids weren’t only told stories and about God’s love this week; they demonstrated that they truly learned from them. They learned about love, about sacrifice, and how to care for one another. Taking turns, showing acts of kindness, choosing to do the right thing. Being loved on gave our kids real ways to demonstrate acts of love: a boy who chose to perform a kind act to another boy who had been bullying him. A girl who cleaned up for the girls around her at arts and crafts without being asked. Another girl who insisted on sharing her stickers with me simply because I said I liked them.
This past week at camp feels so close that I could touch it, yet infinitely far away. It is filled with small hands and embraces I yearn to reach for and now come up empty. There is a hope in my heart that after this week, these kids know they are loved. That they remember they are royalty; children of the King. That we will never forget the simple stories of kids who lead anything but simple lives. Kids who were made to feel special, loved, and normal within five far-too-short days at camp. Knowledge that they will be remembered every day until next year’s camp, when I pray to see their smiles again.