National child abuse statistics have become staggering. Defenseless children are being preyed upon by others — beaten, burned, isolated, starved, molested, neglected or simply abandoned — at an alarming rate. The estimated number of sexually abused children rose 83% between 1986 and 1993, with physically abused children increasing 103% over a similar period of time.
In the San Diego area, for the year 2001, there were 90,493 calls of suspected child abuse to the Child Abuse hotline. Of these nearly 40,000 became substantiated cases.
Statistics, however, are numbers. Children are not. Once the numbers have done their job of demanding intervention, the children remain with questions unanswered: Who will hug them when they’ve only known physical contact of another sort, or very little contact at all? Who will gain their trust when others have shown them only violation? Who will feed them with others have left them to fend for themselves?
More Than Camp
In San Diego, and at sites around the country, the men and women of Royal Family Kids Camp are trying to answer these questions — one child at a time.
Royal Family Kids Camp, or RFKC, is a one-week overnight camp held in the nearby Palomar Mountains. Abused and neglected children from county facilities and foster homes are able to experience a carefree week of one-on-one attention and unconditional love. Caring counselors and surrogate “aunts and uncles,” and “grandpas and grandmas” show them what it feels like to belong to a loving family. The children spend time being just kids — playing games, swimming, crafts, woodshop, and fun group activities.
RFKC is more than camp, however. “We get a week — five days, really — to show these kids the way it’s supposed to be,” explains one staff member, who serves as both the camp lifeguard and coach. “They can goof off, learn to swim, shoot arrows, make stuff or eat seconds at lunch if they want. Those are all commonplace things for you and me, but an extraordinary adventure for a child that may have very little he or she can call their own, have to change where they live without notice, and have to face each day wondering if the next adult they see will be nice, or something else.”
Safety is a top priority at RFKC. All the volunteers associated with the camp, staff and counselors, are subjected to a thorough background check, fingerprinted, and personally interviewed by members of the executive staff.
“The majority of our people come from our home church,” said Debbie Smith, who has directed the camp — affiliated with San Diego First Assembly — for several years. “Still, we fingerprint and check everyone. We want to be able to guarantee the social workers, group home and foster caregivers that their children will be well cared for and safe during our week at camp.”
Concern for the children continues once camp begins, where everyone is given an orientation to such essentials as identifying poison oak, what to do if a snake decides to wiggle through, and camp boundaries. Everyone at camp, whether camper, staff or visitor, is also required to wear a colorful nametag, and only those with such identification are considered safe.
“Returning campers, especially, are quick to tell anyone who has forgotten to wear their nametag that they’re missing something very important,” added the camp director.
RFKC truly is a family camp. Volunteers refer to “our kids” as if they were relatives, or talk about what Jimmy did and what Mary made as if they were their child.
Campers are found and recommended for participation by social services, child and family placement coordinators, and group home facilitators. The San Diego camp is held each July, and is open to boys and girls age 7 through 11. A nominal registration fee of $15 is requested to hold a spot, but is not required. Other camps are coordinated by other churches, and information can be obtained at www.rfkcsandiego.org.
Even with the extraordinary effort made to make campers feel at home, the kids are cautious. “You can see the apprehension on the faces of the first year campers,” said Counselor Zach. “They are not sure what to make of it all. As the week goes on, though, and they begin to know that everything is there for them to have fun, they really get into it.”
Fun, Fun, Fun
From a child’s perspective, everything at Royal Family Kids Camp is about them having a good time. From a morning breakfast that will range from eggs to pancakes to cereal, to evening activities that include a talent show, water balloon games, and special guest performers — every day at camp is filled with things to do.
For the braver participants, and this year every camper felt brave, Tuesday morning offers the challenging Polar Bear Swim! Staffers load a thousand pounds of block ice into the shallow end of the camp’s swimming pool and campers swim, walk, float or do whatever they can to traverse from side to side through the “ice bergs.” In addition to a standing ovation from the boisterous crowd (pretty loud for 6:30 in the morning) swimmers receive a custom-designed T-shirt declaring their achievement.
Campers even get a birthday party, including special treats, Astro jumps, pony rides, a petting zoo, and presents that have been specially selected and gift wrapped by a participating church in the area. This year it was Rancho Bernardo Presbyterian’s pre-schoolers that sent the presents, and their quilting group created a uniquely design, colorful quilt that every camper took home with them. Custom pillow cases were made by San Diego First Assembly’s women’s ministry members.
“Our mission,” said Debbie Smith, “and the mission of Royal Family in general, is to create positive memories for our campers. We give them things to take home, a memory book with photographs of them at camp, a Bible, and various items in a special bag. Everything, though, is to support their personal remembrance of what this week has been, and what it means to their lives. Ultimately, we want them to remember that we love them, and that Jesus loves them wherever they are.”
Tell Me About Jesus
Although RFKC is sponsored by local churches, it is not what many would call a “church camp.” There are more than a few opportunities to talk about Jesus, however, whether it is at bed time, during story time, or in the midst of a game.
“I was playing badminton with my camper,” recalls one counselor, “when all of a sudden he stopped and wanted to talk about Jesus — who He is, what He does, and everything I knew about Him. We talked for a long time, and I told him who Jesus is and why I believe in Him. He smiled and said ‘cool’ and then asked if we could go to the woodshop.”
Such “teachable moments” are a big part of Royal Family Kids Camp and the lessons can be learned by the adult volunteers as much as the campers. One former staff member tells the story of accompanying a camper, and older boy who had been in foster care for several years, to the nurse’s station. While waiting, the camper challenged the staff member as to why adults would take a whole week to put on such a camp. “It’s the money, isn’t it,” said the camper, suggested that everyone was being paid to be at camp. When the child learned that everyone at camp was a volunteer, and that most had taken vacation time from their jobs so they could be there, “his whole countenance changed. It had never occurred to him that adults would do something like this just because they cared.”
The camper, although too old to return, continues to stay in touch with RFKC and is “looking forward” to being on staff as soon as he turns 18.
The 51-Week World
In everyone’s life there are tears — good tears and bad tears. Few people understand the difference between the two better than a Royal Family camper. Fortunately, there are very few tears at RFKC. Instead there are smiles and laughter and screams of excitement and encouragement. There’s nothing quite like an eight-year-old little girl hurling a water balloon with all her might, or a little boy who has just learned to dog paddle calling out “watch me!”
The tears that flow, for adults and children alike, come on Friday when the campers’ magical week is over and they return to what has been called their 51-week world — where once again they will move through the system, with its good points as well as not-so-good, and they will add to the statistical base of a national epidemic.
“Our child placement coordinator stays in touch with the various group homes and programs,” says Debbie Smith, “but, for the most part, all we can do is pray for our campers and hope we’ll see them again next year. We influence them for a week and it has to last the whole year.”
It’s tough on both adult and child. As the bus pulled out of camp, taking the campers back to San Diego First Assembly, one camper held his ever-present nametag up to the window and mouthed the words, “don’t forget me.”
The Starfish Story
The symbol of Royal Family Kids Camp is a starfish. It refers to the story of a small boy tossing sea stars back into the surf after a storm had washed them onto the beach. A passerby questioned the apparent futility of the boy’s efforts, noting “you can’t save them all – what does it matter?”
As the boy selected one of the thousands of star fish scattered about him, and returned it to the life-giving water, he looked at the man and said: “It matters to that one.”
As the final camper left the church at week’s end, and exhausted adults sat talking softly, sharing stories of camp with one another — possibly entertaining the thought of their first good shower in a week — somewhere that small boy would be proud.