Breaking the Chains: Camps that Mentor Children of Prisoners

by Teresa Nicodemus

By the time Angulus D. Wilson was seventeen, he had been in jail at least a dozen times for petty misdemeanors and hard-core crimes such as assault with a deadly weapon. It was then, when he was incarcerated and attended a Bible study taught by a former Hells Angels gang member, that he started to turn his life around. The passage that made Wilson take a new direction in his life dealt with a farmer and the different soils he used to grow his seeds. Only the good soils, not the rough, hard, or thorny ground, could nourish the seed through its growth. And Wilson wanted to be good soil . . . (excerpt from the biography of Angulus D. Wilson)

Today, Rev. Wilson is the director of the Institute for Prison Ministries at the Billy Graham Center of Wheaton College and has spent the last fourteen years of his life inspiring youth, who are at risk, and those who mentor them to stand on good soil. Recently a featured speaker at THE OAKS Christian Camp and Conference Center in Lake Hughes, California, Rev. Wilson recognizes the amazing capacity for the camp experience to change the lives of inner-city youth in powerful ways. "Camp counselors and staff are doing such a great service to this under-privileged population, exposing them to another way of life instead of the urban jungles they come from," says Rev. Wilson. "It's phenomenal. Most kids in the inner city have never been out of the inner city. I read that most youth from the inner city live their lives in a ten-mile radius, never venturing anywhere else. At camp, there are no sirens, no drive-by shootings, no helicopters. Camp helps them to relax, rewind, and see the bigger picture."

Children of Prisoners: The Forgotten Victims of Crime

An estimated 2 million children across the U.S. know what it's like to have a parent behind bars. By every measure, prisoners' children are the most severely at-risk children and youth in America. Studies show that children of prisoners are five times more likely to end up in prison themselves (U.S. News & World Report, April 2002).

In a positive effort to stop the cycle of incarceration among children of prisoners, the camp experience has become a safe harbor. Prison Fellowship, a prison outreach and criminal justice reform organization founded in 1976 by Chuck Colson and former Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley, has been serving prisoners and their families through a unique program, Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree® Camping.

The Angel Tree Program

Angel Tree is a nationwide effort of Prison Fellowship designed to reach out to children whose parent or parents are incarcerated. Angel Tree is a year-round program that provides Christmas care, camp programs, and mentoring to the children of prisoners. In 2003, more than 525,000 children received Christmas gifts on behalf of their incarcerated parent through Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree®.

Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree® Camping is a ministry, stretching across the U.S., which helps connect a local church with the children of prisoners, as the church provides a summertime Christian camping experience. Local church volunteers sponsor children to attend a week of Christian camp and provide a backpack of helpful camp supplies for each child. All camp costs are covered by the participating churches and a special scholarship fund.

Shelley Hayes, Angel Tree Camping manager, helps design and implement the ministry, working with field offices and churches across the country. "Three years ago when the program began 7,300 children participated. This year the program has grown to 9,000 participating campers," states Hayes. "Providing an Angel Tree child a camp experience opens their world to new experiences. Often children affected by incarceration must step up to the plate and be primary caregivers to younger brothers and sisters. Camp offers them an opportunity to experience what typical kids might experience."

Angel Tree Camp: THE OAKS Christian Camp and Conference Center
THE OAKS serves urban and at-risk youth and families primarily from Los Angeles; the camp also serves families from Oakland, San Francisco, Fresno, and San Diego, California. The year-round interdenominational Christian camp ministry provides 25 percent of its services to the urban and at-risk youth population and 75 percent to year-round rental groups, serving 600 at-risk youth annually through five, one-week resident camp sessions. The camp offers a variety of other programs: family vacation camps for inner-city and urban families, teen retreats, an outdoor science camp, adventure and high ropes elements, and a Leaders-in-Training program for the "cream-of-the-crop" inner-city teens.

"Our camp became involved three years ago with Angel Tree Camping. The organization offers a $195 scholarship to churches to send a child of a prisoner to camp," says Sean McFeely, program director. "We were the first camps on the West Coast to participate."

The camp reached out into the community through church networks to find these special children in need. "This camp experience gives the youth a chance to be among people where they are not the odd one out — where they are surrounded by other Angel Tree kids — all of them have a brother, sister, mother, or father who has done time. It's a part of life in the inner city," says McFeely.

Cross-Cultural Training
The camp mainly caters to three inner-city populations: Hispanic, African American, and Asian American. According to McFeely, his camp requires specialized staff training targeted to inner-city youth and these specific populations. Over half of the camp's thirty-nine staff members are White Anglo-Saxon from upper-middle-class, suburban backgrounds. Offering two-and a-half weeks of intensive training, the camp stipulates that every staff member gets an "urban plunge" experience where the staff member spends a week in the inner city, including one night living with a host family in an inner-city neighborhood. Anger management, conflict resolution, empathy, and listening skills are also encouraged and enhanced during staff training. "We want to stretch their thinking — to think outside of their own cultural box," comments McFeely.

Rev. Wilson agrees with the importance of cross-cultural training for camp staff. "Realize the urban kid is coming into the camp counselor's classroom. Most inner-city kids are fearful of authority, the new camp environment, they are not trusting, and may appear to have attitudes, but those are external survival mechanisms that they have in place to survive in the city. If the camp counselor can break through those defense mechanisms, they can really reach the heart of the camper."

Camp Voorhis Viking Addresses the Need

Web Resources
· Prison Fellowship
· The Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents
· The Child Welfare League of America
· Institute of Prison Ministries
· Youth Direct Ministries

Camp Voorhis Viking in Mammoth Lakes, California, an agency camp sponsored by the Boys and Girls Clubs of San Gabriel Valley, is meeting the needs of children with incarcerated parents or family members in the local area. "Our general agency focus has been to serve our community by reaching youth who have family members in prison," says Clay Hollopeter, director. "We continue to work with these children and be supportive of their unique needs. They often have feelings of discrimination and loss. All of those feelings that come when you don't have a parent."

Every summer, Camp Voorhis Viking offers camp experiences free of charge to Boys and Girls Club members through agency funds. The camp provides fifteen, six-day resident camp sessions — each session can accommodate forty campers: ten sessions for boys, three sessions for girls, and two sessions are coed. Campers can choose to attend more than one camp session.

The Healing Power of the Outdoor Setting
Adventure within reason is the mantra for Camp Voorhis Viking. Camp staff's main objective is to get to know the campers and bond with them, encouraging the youth to have expectations greater than that of their parent who is imprisoned. Through adventure trips to Yosemite Park and Mono Lake, ghost town explorations, and hiking, campers begin to relate to the natural world. "In the outdoor setting they become typical kids. I have seen hard-core street gang members, who spend two to three days in the forest, become fascinated with the things they see, deer, squirrels, and stars," says Hollopeter. "It is amazing to watch them lose the ‘tough-guy attitude.' We remind them that we prefer they act the way they really are when they return to the community, instead of putting on false fronts."

Becoming Who You Really Are
For one ex-camper of Camp Voorhis Viking, camp was the impetus for his career. Now a world-class nature photographer and full-time teacher of landscape and nature photography workshops, Don Gale equates his success with that fateful day when Camp Director Clay Hollopeter gave him a state-of-the-art 35 millimeter camera in 1967 when he was barely a teenager. "Clay gave me my first camera on a six-day backpacking trip, way before 35 millimeter cameras were widely available. When you are a kid, you don't know what to do or where you're going. But when someone tells you that you are good at something, it was a springboard to satisfy my creativity," says Gale. "The real connection I still have with the camp and with Clay is that I remember him letting me use this really expensive camera, and I lost it. I could never tell my Dad about it. But, Clay never made me pay it back."

Planting Seeds in Good Soil

It may seem to be an insurmountable task to reach the 2 million at-risk youth who suffer the painful burden of having a family member or parent in prison. With camp programs like THE OAKS Christian Camp and Conference Center, Camp Voorhis Viking, and Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree® Camping, the camp experience continues to produce good soil, and as a result, strong seeds. "We must recognize that these kids are kids with problems and not problem kids. These are normal and resilient kids. With care, service, and patience, there is great hope for them," states Hollopeter.

Important Insights for Working With Children of Prisoners

  • Treat the campers the same as you would any other camper. Try to avoid the natural tendency to label them internally or externally. Be aware of your biases ahead of time and deal with them.
  • Realize it will typically take three or more days, even seasons, for the campers to learn they can decompress at camp. Many are the secondary or primary caregivers for their siblings, and it takes time for them to let their hair down and allow themselves to be kids again.
  • Love casts out fear. Counselors, more than ever, need to show they are reliable, consistent, and trustworthy. Many of these campers have been in and out of the foster care system and are not quick to trust or accept love from a person until that person proves to be dependable.
  • Many campers will fear the police and social service system. From a child's perspective, they are the ones who took their parent away or took them away from their parents. Try to understand that this view is their reality and work from their perspective. Avoid statements that try to whitewash their situation and feelings.
  • Place your best staff in these cabins — ones you expect to return for a second year or who you know will write the campers after the summer.
  • For about a third to half of our campers, the first year will be their test of you. Don't expect a real impact until the second or third year of attendance.
  • Find ways to provide follow up after camp through mentoring programs, local churches, or youth clubs. These children have fewer trustworthy assets in their lives that can provide guidance and resources for coping. Help them find new sources.
  • Their families may not look and be like your family, but it is still their family to them. Respect and try to understand their context.
  • They don't need a counselor's pity; they need their compassion.
  • They don't need their counselor to be their best friend; they need them to be an adult who gives them direction and loving discipline.
  • Give them choices and teach them to problem solve. This gives them the control they need and allows them to learn wisdom.
  • Be prepared to provide washing facilities and access to ironing boards, irons, toiletry items, and supplemental clothing. They also might not know what to pack or how to get help. Frequently they will not have multiple pairs of shoes or specialty outdoor attire for the elements.

Contributed by Sean McFeely, program director of THE OAKS Christian Camp and Conference Center,


Success Stories

Andrew, fourteen, has a father in prison and lives with his grandparents. In July, he joined with a dozen boys and girls like himself to experience a week of fun and fellowship as a "mainstreamed" Angel Tree camper. Only senior staff could identify them amid more than 100 campers at California's Wolf Mountain Conference Association, a Christian facility located in the mountains north of Sacramento. "I thought it would be boring," Andrew admitted in the midst of his exploits. "But it isn't. It's really a lot of fun."

Chantelle chickened out on the Zip Line. A tiny, slender little girl of nine years with a wraparound smile, she had clamored to be the first to ride the cable 650 feet down the mountain. But she wasn't smiling now, and the other campers looked like ants far below. She relaxed her hold on the belay line and began slowly feeling with her foot for the ladder behind her.

The other kids encouraged her to go for it: "Go ahead, girl. You can do it!" But Chantelle was on the ladder now, edging her way downward, past the other kids waiting their turn. Then she watched as one-by-one, the girls from her cabin at the Angel Tree Camp in the San Gabriel Mountains (THE OAKS Christian Camp and Conference Center) stood at the top of the platform, grasped the pulley tether line, and set sail down the mountain. As each got off at the bottom, the pulley was pulled back to the top for the next rider.

Then there were no more kids, just Chantelle and the platform instructor. She looked at him. "Could I try it again, please?" she begged. He nodded for her to get back up on the platform.

She grasped the pulley tether with both hands until the knuckles of her little hands turned white; she gritted her teeth and clamped her eyes shut. Then she slid off the platform into space and went sailing down the line where the others waited. Seconds later, the catchers had her and released her from the harness. Then, the other girls pounced on her—howling, high-fiving, and hugging. Little Chantelle had just conquered her Fear of the Week. Chantelle has already begun to grow because of her slide for life down the Zip Line; she will be just a little less likely to back away from the next challenge life hands her.

(Reprinted by permission of Prison Fellowship, Merrifield, Virginia)


Teresa Nicodemus is the assistant editor of Camping Magazine.

Originally published in the 2004 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.