Foster kids get royal treatment at Merrillville camp

Thanks to the Post-Tribune for this article published on July 14, 2016.

For some kids, summer camp is an opportunity to spend a week roughing it. But one summer camp in Merrillville offers children who may have had a rougher time an opportunity to get the royal treatment.

The Royal Family Kids’ Camp, now in its fifth year, offers summer camp opportunities to children ages 7 to 11 who are in foster care. Organizers hope the campers, often children who have bounced from home to home, leave with more than just an outdoor experience.

“A child who is withdrawn and angry is able to connect with a volunteer and see their self-worth,” said Jill Calder, director of the Merrillville camp. “A child who thought they were destined to continue the cycle of abuse and poverty they are familiar with realizes they can break that cycle.”

Founded over 25 years ago in California by Wayne and Diane Tesch, RFKC has become an international program with over 7,700 children served in 40 states and four countries.

Calder, of Hobart, is a laboratory information system assistant with Methodist Hospitals. She founded the local camp in 2012 with friends Grace Kellett of Crown Point, Jeanine Scott of Griffith, Tom Richards of Merrillville, and Steve Horvath of Chesterton, who replaced Richards after the first year.

“I had volunteered as a counselor for a camp in Orland Park, IL,” Calder said. “When I returned home, I knew RFKC was something that was needed in Lake County.”

Regular summer camp activities are included, like swimming, crafts, woodworking, fishing, canoeing, and archery with a focus on building self-esteem and hope for children who feel abandoned and cast aside.

“We have a small ratio of campers to counselors, in order to ensure that each camper is given undivided attention to better allow hope and healing to begin. Generally we have 32 campers and 48 volunteers. We have a camp grandma and grandpa, and aunt and uncle to help complete the feeling of family. It is a week of treating them like royalty,” she said.

Stephen Green of Schneider, Ind., is one of those counselors. He is a gas mechanic with Peoples Gas Chicago, and a youth pastor with Journey Church in Lowell.

“RFKC to me is an opportunity to be a positive influence in a child’s life,” he said. “It’s a chance, for one week, for them to just be a kid. RFKC is a much-needed outlet for the foster community and the far-too-many abused and/or neglected children that are part of it.”

Camp week begins on Monday, when the children arrive in stretch limos, provided by All Around Limousine Service of Merrillville, and are greeted by all the volunteers, he said.

“We hold signs decorated with the kids’ names and we clap and cheer for them, as they are the guests of honor for the week,” Green said.

Each day is filled with lunch, swimming, crafts, and various other activities such as fishing, dinner, chapel, then prepping for bed.

“We have a birthday party for everyone where each kid can showcase their talent, whatever it may be — no talent is too small and all are given the same response of clapping and cheering, because they are the best. Friday is generally a very somber day because it’s departure day.”

As a counselor, Green said he’s there to make sure that all campers are safe throughout the week, not just the two that are under his care.

“We serve them first in all we do, from getting them their food and ensuring they are number two in our lives for the week – the No. 1 spot is always God’s spot.”

Green’s most memorable experience during camp occurred two years ago, when he said one of the boys became physically violent.

“To keep him from involving other kids, I put myself in his sights and, for lack of a better term, became his punching bag. With the help of other amazing staff, we were able to keep him calm during activities and most of the day, until nighttime when it was back to me. As Friday approached, I was able to find out through talks with him that everyone he had ever loved hurt him — he was trying to hurt me before I could hurt him. When we arrived back at (Living Hope Church in Merrillville) for them to go home, I carried his luggage to the car and as I walked away, he yelled for me. I turned and saw he was running toward me. He jumped into my arms and said, ‘Stephen, I love you. Thank you for not quitting on me.’ That, to me, is a success and will forever stay with me and be a driving force.”

He said RFKC has impacted him so much that he and his wife are now foster parents and one of their sons just completed his second year as a camp counselor.

Interested volunteers must be age 16 (18+ for counseling), go through an application and interview process and three background checks, and attend two days of mandatory training, according to Calder. The application process for 2017 begins in January.

“It is hard to measure the success of building a child’s self-esteem and giving them hope for a better future,” Calder said. “We see it in the change in attitude through the week. To see the realization in their eyes that they are valued and loved, I think we will continue to see our ‘success’ stories as our campers become a successful part of society as adults.”

More information on the camp is with Calder at