Children, struggling families get ‘fresh start’ at camp

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Children, struggling families get ‘fresh start’ at camp

Aug. 22, 2007  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0725}

NOTE: See related story, “Community groups, churches join forces to help local families,” at

An e-Review Feature
By Jenna De Marco**

The Rev. Dan Campbell of Community United Methodist Church in Holiday knows his church sits amidst a real-life mission field, and ministering to children is at the heart of that mission.
“I’m on the Coalition for the Homeless,” Campbell said. “We did a one-day count — (there were) 2,200 homeless and 39 camps, groups of homeless people sleeping outside (in the community). Fifty-five percent of those that we counted that day are under 18.”

Children sing songs during the fiesta-themed chapel time at the Fresh Start day camp held at Community United Methodist Church in Holiday. Photo by Caryl Kelley. Photo #07-0650.

Reaching those children and their families became a pressing goal of Campbell’s and members of his church, as well as other nearby United Methodist churches and community organizations.

From that goal, the “Fresh Start” one-week day camp for children experiencing homelessness or financial hardship was born this summer.
“The kids that we are reaching at this camp are on the edge of the abyss,” Campbell said. “They are about to fall into the dark hole that is off the radar screen.”
The target age group for the camp was upcoming kindergarteners through rising fifth-graders — like Tonya McLean’s children.

McLean is a resident of nearby Hudson. She and her family of five children were homeless at the time of the camp, living with a friend. McLean sent her 9- and 10-year-old children to the camp

“They love it — it’s really taken their minds off things because, you know, it’s very stressful for them,” McLean said.

After surviving an abusive relationship, McLean said she and her children have been on a long road to recovery. She said she hopes her family will be living in a rental home soon.

“This day camp could not have come at a better time for my family,” McLean said. “They did give them some new clothing … I was stressing about how I was going to buy clothes for them before school started. Only by the grace of God have I had the strength to pursue on and make things happen.”

A community effort

The church found the children who attended the camp through a variety of ways, according to Nancy Dougherty, the church’s education director.

Volunteers were an integral part of the success of Community United Methodist's Church's recent day camp for the neighborhood's children, according to the Rev. Dan Campbell, pastor of the church. He said a total of about 175 volunteers from 40 different churches and community groups worked a combined total of nearly 4,500 hours, making the camp a true community-wide effort. Photo by Caryl Kelley. Photo #07-0651.

She said information was sent to public schools with after-school child-care programs, food pantries, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, thrift stores and children’s consignment shops.
“One of the biggest questions for us was how do we qualify a child,” Dougherty said. “If the families qualified for free or reduced lunch programs, they undoubtedly made it into our program.”
The camp, which ran from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the last week of July, served about 90 children, who were led by more than 120 volunteers each day. The volunteers came from 40 different churches and agencies. Campbell said the challenges in the children’s lives necessitated a large number of volunteers and excellent organization.
“And we do not have enough volunteers because … what we are dealing with is so complex,” Campbell said.
During the planning stages for this brand-new ministry, Dougherty and her volunteers brainstormed 12 teams that were necessary to run the camp. Those teams included such special areas as recreation, nursing, security, transportation and even behavioral experts.

Without help in those crucial areas, the camp would not have happened, Dougherty said, adding, “God provided leadership for all 12 ministry teams.”
The camp experience

The camp schedule began each day with the children checking in with registration volunteers. Some campers arrived by free bus transportation provided by volunteers, while others were dropped off by parents. Children wore photo identification nametags, and parents and guardians’ photo identifications were carefully checked to ensure the children always went home with the right people.
“It obviously had to be well-planned because of the logistics of it with children coming from many different areas of the community,” said registration volunteer Tom Schaub, a member of nearby Hope United Methodist Church in Trinity.
Schaub said he and his wife Joan seized the opportunity to serve at the camp and were blessed themselves throughout the week.
“The impact it’s had on my wife and I — the volunteers are receiving more than you are giving,” Schaub said.
After checking in, the children received a hot breakfast and then rotated in small groups through “Fiesta” themed activities, such as “hot Bible adventures,” “cactus crafts,” “grande games,” line dancing, movies, drama, clowns, scrapbooking, art, puppetry and chapel time with music and stories. Two snacks and a hot lunch were included in the daily routine.

Like any summer camp, the day camp at Community United Methodist Church in Holiday for children of families experiencing homelessness or financial hardship included plenty of fun outdoor activities. Photo by Caryl Kelley. Photo #07-0652.

“In (Pasco) county, there is no (summer) food program for kids who qualify for school lunches — they are not getting fed during the summer,” Campbell said. “Some of the kids have come up to us saying, ‘I don’t want to eat so I can take this food home to my family.’ ”
On Friday evening, the families ate a barbeque dinner together, and the children performed songs learned during the week. Families were also sent home with food. Camp organizers told the families they would continue to minister to the families in the future, Dougherty said.
In addition, every child finished the week with a brand-new pair of shoes, about three new outfits from the church thrift store, a backpack filled with school supplies, and some toiletries from the local health department.
“We have a big thrift shop where everybody has donated all these clothes, and they get to go through and pick out their clothes,” Campbell said.

And with the permission of the parents, children who wanted a haircut also left camp with freshly cut hair, courtesy of volunteer hair stylists.

New clothes, new haircuts, new beginnings for families like the McLeans — it all fit well with the “Fresh Start” theme.

“(Campers) were welcomed to that effect,” Schaub said. “ … It has an upbeat way of treating the situation.”

This article relates to Outreach.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a freelance writer based in Viera, Fla.

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