When Gary Marcelin was in middle school, Category-5 Hurricane Andrew ravaged through his hometown of Homestead. He remembers fleeing with his family to the shelter at South Dade Haitian United Methodist Church. He remembers hearing the roaring wind and seeing the fear in everyone’s eyes.
And he’ll never forget what he witnessed the next day.
“Our house and our neighborhood were about a two-minute drive away … and it was all gone,’’ Marcelin said. “As a kid, to experience that much pain and trauma, you either buckle underneath it, or you grow from it.’’
That was in 1992. The following July, fearing that many hurricane-fatigued South Florida kids couldn’t attend the UMC summer camp, the Southeast District staged its own event.
|Oasis Camp offers woodworking skills to participants.|
By 1994, while partnering with faith-based nonprofit organization Branches, Inc., the UMC’s Southeast District began calling it the Oasis Camp and moved it to spring break, giving it a special spot on the calendar.
The Oasis Camp just celebrated its 25th anniversary with a mid-March event that involved 230 kids and adults.
“The concept has been geared toward urban kids who may not be that engaged in the church being served by adults who look like them,’’ said Branches director of student services Kim Torres, an Oasis Camp originator who once worked for the UMC’s Miami District Disaster Response team.
“The camp experience meets them where they are with people speaking their language and playing their music. They get to encounter Christ in a real way.’’
It has a following.
It has tradition.
Marcelin was a camper and became a camp leader. Now he is the pastor of Fulford UMC. He looks forward to bringing kids to the camp, traveling on the bus to Central Florida and spending a few days with fun, bonding and worship.
“From being a kid and a camper at Oasis, my biggest takeaway was getting to unplug from that city urban environment and going somewhere where you could be more open and reflective,’’ Marcelin said. “I was once a camper, and three years ago I was the camp speaker.
|Some participants hope to hit the bulls eye.|
“That’s different. At a lot of camps, you can’t say you grew up in the context where these kids are from. The (adults) are outsiders. Kids would say, ‘You don’t know my struggle.’ But this camp is different.’’
It is positive messages through skits, music and the spoken word.
It is canoeing, fishing, swimming, woodworking and archery.
It is a review of suicide awareness, finding your voice and understanding community violence.
Twice a day, it is worship.
“The energy level of those kids is absolutely through the roof,’’ said Billy Thompson, a staff member at Central Florida’s Warren Willis Camp and Conference Center, where the Oasis Camp has been held for the past decade. “They take care of their space and respect it. They clean up after themselves.
“They get to discover their identity and who loves them, meaning Jesus loves them. Some of them come from pretty tough circumstances, and they’re shown how to get a firm foundation and told they can have a good future. They learn where they can go if they walk with the Lord.’’
That message got through for former camper and North Miami resident Faniel Pradel, now youth director at St. Petersburg’s Allendale UMC.
|Oasis campers prepare to climb the high ropes.|
“Usually when you think about adults at a camp, they are the facilitators, the people telling you to be quiet or go here and there,’’ Pradel said. “This was a chance to see an older but still young person who loved Jesus, who was all about Jesus. But they were still cool enough to play basketball with you or roast marshmallows with you.
“When I became a camp counselor at Oasis, I wanted to be that same kind of adult presence. I remembered all those adults who came before me. I just wanted to be a good example.’’For a quarter-century, the Oasis Camp has been nothing but a good example. Twenty-five years of anything—a business, a marriage, a shared experience—is a tribute to consistency and endurance.
“It means so much to the people we serve,’’ Torres said. “It’s important in the community to have traditions and things to look forward to. I believe we have found our niche. Without a doubt, we have seen lives change. Any kind of camp experience is a great way for kids to experience God.
“They can make decisions about the role God plays in their lives. The world has changed in 25 years—or even five years—so it’s our responsibility to remain relevant. It’s important for campers to see committed compassionate adults who look like them to live out their faith. That remains the key to everything that happens.’’
—Joey Johnston is a freelance writer in Tampa.