Metro DetroitSeptember 5, 2012
Local camp focuses on the abused and abandoned
By Sara Kandel
C & G Staff Writer
It’s 7:30 a.m. and a group of campers hurries off to breakfast. In the background, a man and a woman in red T-shirts watch from a distance. The campers don’t notice them.
When the doors to the dining hall close, the man and the woman sneak out from their vantage point and slip into the cabins unnoticed.
They work quickly, moving from bed to bed, removing soiled linens. An hour later they return just as discreetly, with clean sheets. The 60 or so campers, ages 7-12, will never know they were there.
It’s to protect the campers’ integrity, the camp directors say. Bedwetting is not uncommon here.
“I better go to the bathroom, because we all know I poop the bed,” one girl says at the end of the day. She’s brave to admit it. Not all the campers here would. They are all brave, though.
This isn’t an ordinary camp, and the kids who are lucky enough to come here each summer haven’t lived ordinary lives. For them, this camp is the closest experience to a normal childhood that they’ve ever had.
This is a camp for kids who’ve lived through trauma and torture.
This is CFL camp, Champions for Life Kids’ Camp, a weeklong program designed for children in foster or dependency care who have been severely abused. Kids from anywhere in the state may attend the camp, the location of which organizers prefer to keep unknown for the kids’ safety.
There’s the little boy who was forced to bathe in bleach and locked in closets for days at a time.
The 10-year-old girl with night terrors, who’s horrified by doors, because the person who was supposed to protect her walked into her room as a predator each night.
The boy whose father repeatedly hung him with a noose around his neck, refusing to cut him free until he was on the brink of losing consciousness.
The girl who saw her father brutally beat and murder her mother.
Each kid here has a story. Most of them are like transcripts to nightmares.
“They are here because something horrific has happened in their life,” says camp co-director Beth Molloy. “It goes from sexual abuse to physical and mental torture. These kids have all been through something, and they all have issues because of it. They cut themselves or pull out their hair and other things that are a sign of them not being able to deal with the pain, not being able to process the abuse that has happened to them.”
The goal of the camp is to help them find proactive ways of dealing with the trauma they’ve encountered at a young age so that it doesn’t define their adult life.
It’s not an easy task. It takes hundreds of volunteers. The camper-to-counselor ratio has a 2-to-1 ceiling. But the counselors, or “camp buddies” as they’re called here, make up just a fraction of the volunteers it takes to run the camp each summer.
“We call them ‘camp buddies,’” says Sue Pace, the camp’s director of community relations. “We figure they have enough counselors in their life already, so when they come to camp they have buddies. Their buddies are with them every day, through every activity. Their job is just to love the kids and be with them. The staff does all the setting up and taking down, the meal preparation, the cleaning up, everything else.”
Carol Corrie, of Eastpointe, a former East Detroit Public Schools Board of Education president, volunteers at the camp each summer. She’s the dean of women. She and the “camp grandma” are there to provide support for girl campers. There’s a dean of men and “camp grandpa” for the boys.
“Last night, I held a little girl’s hand until 12 o’clock at night because she couldn’t go to sleep,” Corrie says. “Fear. There is a tremendous amount of fear in the kids that come here. I had one that was in eight foster homes in a year. We help them get through it.”
“We just love on them and hug them and hold them,” she says before moving her attention to a little girl waiting patiently at her side.
“Oh my, you look beautiful,” she tells the girl, who’s dressed in a pink gown that flows to her feet and has a tiara crowning an up-do. The girl blushes a little and looks away. But she doesn’t leave. She holds out her hand for Corrie to see.
“Your nails look lovely,” Corrie exclaims. The girl’s eyes light up, and she smiles up at Corrie before joining her friends making necklaces on the patio.
It’s the last full day of camp, and while the boys are out on a mud walk, dozens of volunteers help give the girls something many of them have never experienced before — the sense of feeling pretty.
Another girl walks up, and there’s a white veil hanging over part of her face. She keeps her head down, but her eyes peek up to look at Corrie and the other adults gathered near the patio doors.
“You look so pretty,” someone says.
The happiness that briefly danced on her cheeks is replaced with confusion.
With wide, somewhat fearful eyes, she looks up. “I do?”
The volunteers look saddened by her response, but aren’t surprised.
“A lot of the girls here have never been told they were beautiful,” Pace says. “Many of them were told they are ugly. We really emphasize a lot of self-esteem here at the camp. We tell them they are awesome, and they are beautiful. We make sure they know that they are gorgeous inside and out. And just look at them right now. You can tell by their smiles — right now they feel beautiful, for many of them for the first time in their lives.”
Later in the evening, after the boys run through an obstacle course at mock boot camp, the girls get a lesson in etiquette and manners at a princess party. Once all the kids are asleep for the night, volunteers clad in red shirts will once again sneak out from their vantage point and quietly pack everything up.
For kids like the ones here, kids who have been terrorized and tortured, the packing process is painful to witness. This is the place where they feel safe. The place where they feel loved. For many of them, camp is more of a home than anything they’ve ever experienced. And the staff doesn’t want them to see any of that taken away, even if only for a night.
To contact Vision HOPE, the St. Clair Shores organization behind the camp, visit www.vision hope.org.
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