It’s still a few days until spring, and mild temperatures have only teased Oklahomans, but volunteers already are working to raise funds to host 80 foster children this summer during the 2014 Harvest Foster Kids Camp.
So, expect there to be lots of laughter, singing, playing and splashing in the pool.
The camp began in 2006 when a small group of members from Church of the Harvest, 6800 N Bryant Ave., wanted to reach out to foster children in the community.
Since its beginning, the camp has served 538 foster children from Oklahoma County and other parts of the state.
“We have a huge fundraising effort because our budget is a goal of $30,000 to put camp on,” camp Director Allison Morris said. “Of course, the more we raise, the more we can do for the kids.”
Individuals and businesses donate goods and services, too, to help make the campers’ experiences ones they will remember.
“Our point of camp is to make the children feel like they are royalty and to create these positive memories for children who — their lives so far have just been full of anger and hurt and abuse and low self-esteem. So, everything we do, we do with extreme excellence, so that they feel so valued,” Morris said.
The campground is on the church grounds and includes a junior Olympic-size pool, gymnasium, cafeteria with a stage, volleyball area, paintball course, rock-climbing wall and more.
One of the big events during camp is a massive Disney-themed birthday party for all of the campers.
When the kids enter the party, they don’t realize they’re walking into a surprise birthday party just for them, complete with people in full costume and balloons dropping from the ceiling.
“The thought behind it is …a lot of times in foster care, either the kids’ birthdays aren’t really celebrated or, in some cases, we’ve had kids that didn’t even know when their birthday was,” Morris said. “So, every child gets this wrapped birthday gift, cake and ice cream, and there’s like a production, and we tell them, ‘This is your birthday party.’”
Other special events include a princess gala for the girls and a chuck wagon meal for the boys.
Every day of camp is full of crafts, hiking, swimming, playing inflatable pool games, confidence-building activities and more — as well as laughing, singing and smiling.
“They just giggle and laugh and play and have the best time,” Morris said.
‘They get to be kids’
A team of camp counselors, Department of Human Services workers, nurses and many other volunteers make the very structured four-day overnight camping experience possible. And, for every two campers, there is one camp counselor.
It takes more than 100 volunteers to serve the camp, from lifeguards and art teachers to people who help with food service, activities, special dinners and more.
“It’s just huge,” Morris said.
Harvest Foster Kids Camp is a program under Acts Community Development with primary support from Church of the Harvest.
Social workers with the DHS help make the connections between the foster children and the camp organizers.
Morris said many foster children have been forced to grow up, but at camp they don’t have to worry about anything.
“They get to be kids.”
‘Faces of hope’
On the last day of camp each year, a tree-planting ceremony is held.
Children are asked to write down their bad memories. Then they are told to bury the memories in the hole, and that the tree represents their lives.
Morris said the children are told: “This tree represents your life. And your life isn’t going to shrink and get smaller, and it’s not going to shrivel up and die. It’s going to grow.”
Camp sponsors talk about the previous years’ trees and how the trees have grown, and they tell the children, “Your life is bright, and it’s going to grow and flourish and thrive.”
Morris, who has been involved with the camp for seven years, started helping as a counselor and has been director for four years.
She said she has seen positive changes in children in the short time they spend at the camp.
“I just think about the smiles. I think about the kids, even the transformation you see in just a couple of days,” she said. “From when they come up the first day, a lot of them are timid, they’re holding back, they’re looking down, their body language is very withdrawn, and by the end of it, just how they really just kind of come out of that shell. And you just see like their head up, their confidence rises, just their face — the faces of hope.”
At a glance
Harvest Foster Kids Camp
•Children ages 7 to 11 who are in the Oklahoma foster care system are eligible to apply to attend the four-day camp.
•To learn more or donate to Harvest Foster Kids Camp, go to http://harvestfosterkidsoutreach.com.
What is needed?
•Monetary donations (it costs at least $350 to support a camper).
•Products (toys, sporting equipment, swimming accessories, etc.).
•Services (equipment rental, food, etc.).
•T-shirts for event.