By Steve Hanlon
Daylight is dimming at a quickening pace. The winds out of the north bring a chill to the spine and the soul for some. Yes, it’s autumn in Northwest Indiana. For some this is great news, fully embracing the winter that is right around the corner. Those who enjoy skiing, ice fishing or a walk along a frozen shore. But for the 99 percent of others, the coming cold can be an internal struggle. Lord, how do I survive the icy roads, the wind chill in the single digits, the sun setting just after lunch, the collective gray that seems to own the skies for several months, the bitter winds that cut like a machete?
The flannel shirts instead of a pair of Speedos?
Well, one way to warm up is to recall memories that occurred under the summer sun. They can be from 30 years ago or just a few months. The following tale happened in the first days of June. A large number of youth were at a local campground walking around signing T-shirts of fellow campers and the volunteer staff. There were tears. Loud laughter. Hugs. And even more embraces. Stories of the previous week were exchanged with the full gambit of emotions.
One lad sat on a golf cart with one of his leaders. The adult could tell there was some sadness in the boy’s being. “So what did you like best about this week?” the boy was asked. Deep thought landed on his face. He took a deep breath then spoke volumes. “Everything,” he said. He was one of 16 youngsters between the ages of 7 and 11 who attended Royal Family Kid’s Camp, which was being sponsored by Living Hope Church for the 10th straight summer. And for the first time, there were 14 campers who were 12 through 16 in age.
It took 45 volunteers to show love and direction to the children in the camp that was started in 1985 by Wayne and Diane Tesch for children in the foster care system who’ve been abused, abandoned or neglected in the system.
There are an estimated 159 RFCKs in the United States and around the world. “We just want to do what’s best for kids,” said Jill Calder, who has directed the camp for LHC for a decade. “The kids come from a lot of different situations. Some have come from horrible situations and some have come from good homes. We want to provide the same thing for all the kids. “We want them to see God’s love and allow them to leave with a smile on their faces.”
LHC pastor Rick Cochran gave a pep-talk, a sort of sermon on the paramount, the Sunday night before the camp began. It was simple and profound. His words flowed like a stream of life. He talked about moments – whether subtle or extreme – that can change a life forever. A kind word. A smile without words. A spirit of solace shared with children who’ve seen the opposite in their days.
“It’s amazing to see how much kids can change in one week,” said Steve Horvath, the Dean of Men at the camp the last decade. “Some will be afraid to get in the water at first. Then, in a couple days, they’re in the middle of a belly flop tournament jumping all over each other. “Everything we do is for the kids. It is such a blessing to see.”
There is little down time at RFKC. The kids are running from one activity to another from Monday through Friday. They are allowed to fish. They are taught archery. They get to take part in boating and rowing. They swim. They are given projects in the arts and crafts tent. Some were taught how to write a good story and they penned a group fictional article filled with color and punch lines. All of the campers are given a birthday party with gifts, cake and ice cream, allowing the children to feel special for a few moments. “That’s what it’s all about,” said Grace Kellett, who has been the assistant camp director the last 10 years.
“The Princess Tea party is a highlight of the week. It means so much to the girls. It really does. ” Nice dresses are donated or obtained for the young girls so they can have a party. Pretty shoes are as well. A celebration of each child in this modern-day Cinderella saga brings smiles to them all. That is the intention anyway.
This past summer a gal was so upset and feeling out of place in this new place that she refused to go into the Monday morning chapel. Her screams and tears could be heard in the hallway as she sat there. Three days later, everything changed. To say the least. She was the emcee of the Talent Show, where singing and dance numbers brought down the house. She was a hit. A pint-sized Whoopi Goldberg without the political baggage. What a moment indeed.
“It was amazing,” Calder said. “Just a few days before she wouldn’t come into the chapel at all. But with a lot of love from a lot of people she was in there, up on the stage, doing an incredible job in front of everyone.”
Kellett recalled a girl from several years ago. She was in a room with her sister when an evil man beat and killed the child’s mother. Cognitive issues and emotional pain followed this poor young baby girl.
Deep prayer and loving counsel surrounded this gal, but it did not start well. She refused to get out of the car she was in, screaming and crying as a volunteer opened the door. The girl went into the fetal position, refusing to go into the campground. She didn’t want anyone near her. Then, the love of God surrounded her in the events at the camp.
“By the end of the week she was walking into the Tea Party with a great big smile on her face,” Kellett added. “When the week started she didn’t have any friends. But she was part of the party in a few days.
“Seeing change like that is why we keep doing what we do.”
A eureka moment like this happens quite often at RFKC. Some are subtle and others are extreme. One of the morning fishing groups found a little girl catching the biggest fish on back to back days. Seeing her with pigtails and all, holding the fish and slipping a worm on the hook, brought smiles to many. Watching the kids jumping into the pool filled with ice for a Polar Bear Plunge made the event seem like a toothpaste commercial.
The Royal Race took place early in the week when adults and campers raced golf carts on a course engineered by Horvath. Yep, smiles. Plenty of them. Another boy held on to his tray in the cafeteria like it was gold. He didn’t want anyone near his grub. Why? “He wasn’t sure if he was going to be able to eat again,” Horvath said.
One of the teenagers went to Zao Island with the other campers for a pizza party. He was thrilled by the social gathering. With a smile on his face he said the following. “This is the first birthday party I’ve ever had in my life.”
Calder has seen RFKC grow in the last 10 years. She wants to continue to see it blossom. The only way next year’s camp can increase the number of campers is if more adults volunteer to help out. Calder hopes more church members will lend a hand showing God’s love to those in need. There were four former campers who volunteered as adults this year. “It’s like a family reunion,” Calder said. “The reason we started the camp for older kids is so many of them were sad once they aged out at 11. We know what this means to so many kids and we want to make it available to as many as we can.”
The song “One Moment in Time” can’t compare with the warmth that emanated from this camp, this summer fun. Children in tough surroundings can look back at what transpired at the camp and understand that people love them, just like God. And these thoughts will warm them this winter like a hot cup of tea and an Afghan blanket. “I loved everything about this camp,” the young boy continued. “Just everything.”