Wednesday, June 23, 2010

One Woman's Experience at RFKC

In the following post from Terri Hooker, Terri shares her heart and experience of volunteering at the Royal Familiy Kids Camp.

I had such an incredible time volunteering at Royal Family Kids Camp (RFKC) that I wanted to take a few minutes to share with all of you about my week.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Royal Family Kids Camp, it is a week long non-therapeutic, Christian camp for seven to eleven year olds that is provided free of charge to kids in the DCFS foster care system in Lake and Cook counties who have been physically, sexually, or emotionally abused. Although, it is affiliated with a group from Willow , it is 100% privately funded, and everyone that helps out at the camp is a volunteer. For the volunteers, it is pretty much a domestic mission trip. Because of our involvement with Safe Families, I have become increasingly more sensitive to the issues that kids in foster care face. For these kids, this week at camp may be the only time that they get to have a “normal” experience in a safe, encouraging environment. For many of them, this is their first introduction to God and Bible teaching. They have a short chapel time each morning at camp and a little longer chapel in the afternoons or evenings.

Originally, I had looked into being a counselor at camp. One of the special things about RFKC is that there is a 2 to 1 or 1 to 1 camper to counselor ratio. The kids get one on one or two on one time all week long with a loving, Christian role model of the same sex who spends the entire week with them. One of the things that inspired me the most was watching these young, middle aged, or older counselors interact with the kids. Many of them give up a week of vacation time to pour the love of God into these very needy and often difficult kids. Because I don’t work, it didn’t seem like much of a sacrifice for me to give up a week to be at RFKC, but many of the counselors have full-time jobs and families of their own. So, instead of vacationing or relaxing at home during their time off work, they were serving the poor and needy. To me, that is truly heroic!! Because I needed to be back home on Wednesday night for the dance recital, I couldn’t be a counselor, so the directors asked me if I would like to be a camp photographer. I’ve had a growing interest in photography, and it turned out to be the perfect fit.

Along with three other photographers, my job for the week was to create a photo book for each of the 91 campers. It was a very challenging project, but I felt a huge sense of accomplishment when the books were completed and passed out. What made things difficult was that because of confidentiality laws related to the abuse backgrounds, no camper could have pictures of any other kids besides their siblings in their photo books. (Many of the siblings lived in different foster homes and rarely got to see each other.) The goal was to have 12-17 individual pictures of each camper doing a variety of different activities throughout the week. Here are some examples of the different activities: woodshop, arts and crafts, morning exercises, fishing, swimming, boat rides, dress-up, worship, archery, sports, bunk shots, and counselor shots. Then, the campers had to be identified, and the pictures had to be filed into the appropriate folders, printed, and placed into the correct photo books. Because these kids rarely have pictures of themselves and almost never actually have their pictures up on a wall in a home, the photo books are truly treasured. Interspersed with the pictures are key concepts and verses taught during chapel time. Not only are the books a tangible reminder of what they learned and felt at camp, it can also provide the kids with a sense of belonging and accomplishment. It was a huge task that required us to work from before seven in the morning to any where from 10:30 to midnight in the evenings, but watching the kids look through their books at the end of the week made it all so much fun that the long hours didn’t even seem like work.

Many of the kids, especially the older ones, came to camp the first day or two with folded arms and stern faces that seemed to challenge anyone to even try to make them have a good time. By the end of the week, they had all come full circle, and many of even the toughest kids were either sobbing or choking back tears on the last day because they knew what they were returning home to and had been given a glimpse of what life should be like. It was very emotional for all the kids, counselors, and staff on Thursday night and Friday. There just weren’t very many dry eyes. On Tuesday, I overheard one of the directors saying that she just really wished that someone would start a junior high camp because many of the eleven year olds had already asked her if she could make an exception and let them come back next year. Twenty-two kids of the 91 were aging out and would not be able to return next year. Because this was the fourth year of this particular RFKC, many of these kids had been to camp several years in a row. As I had been tossing around the whole idea of a jr. high camp all week, I really felt God tugging at my heart. After Thursday night’s chapel, I was feeling really convicted as I cleared off my last memory card and stepped out of headquarters. Right outside the door were two brothers quietly sitting on a bench with very sad faces. I sat down between them and said that they looked very sad, which was okay because I was, too. I asked them if they were sad because they had to go home the next day. The younger one just nodded his head, and the older one said, “I’m not sad because I have to go home tomorrow, I’m sad because I never get to come back again.” Well, that conversation pretty much confirmed for me that I had to at least try to get the jr. high camp and mentoring program off the ground.

One of my friends from camp has already agreed to partner with me in this whole, huge project. I have recruited some of the other staff to help, as well, but it will require a lot of fundraising on top of the many hours of planning and organization. We’re thinking the first year will cost around $50,000. I don’t know if it is even possible, but I’m going to at least start looking into what it would take to get things started. Larry is on board, too, so that helps a lot. For now, I’m just going to try to take things one step at a time.

The whole week at camp was emotional and bittersweet---knowing that we had planted a seed in each and every child that would hopefully be watered by others over time was very rewarding, but sending them all back to very troubled homes was very difficult. It really put things in perspective for me and made me realize how truly blessed we all are and, especially, how we should never take for granted the privileged life that all of our kids lead. I am very excited about the challenges that lie ahead and will certainly keep you posted on our progress. Have a wonderful summer! I hope to see you soon.

Terri Hooker

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