Summer camp means a little something different to the kids at one of the thirty-four Camp Hope sites around the U.S. In addition to staples like canoeing and horseback riding, Camp Hope delves into something deeper. It’s a week where kids from 7 to 12 who have lived through childhood domestic violence can make new friends, or reunite with ones they met the year prior, whose trauma matches their own.
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The camps are a program of Alliance for HOPE International, a nonprofit focused on ending violence against women in the U.S. and around the world.
“When you live in crisis, you often forget to celebrate the joys in life,” says Catherine Johnson, a licensed family therapist who oversees Camp Hope in Guilford County, North Carolina. She remembers one particular camper last year—a 9-year-old girl who remarkably found joy after living through something horrendous.
“Her mom had died of a drug overdose a few weeks prior to camp. There had been domestic violence in the home. She was in foster care, working toward adoption by a family member, but she had been through a lot of transition,” tells Johnson.
The little girl set a goal to pass the swim test at camp and receive a coveted green band. On the day of her test, all the other campers and counselors stood by the water, cheering for her. She passed.
Later that night, Johnson was called to her cabin where the girl sat on the front porch crying. She told Johnson her mom loved swimming, too.
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“She said, ‘You know what? My mom was working with me today and that’s why I got the green band.’ And she looked up and said, ‘Thank you, mom,’ and went back inside. It hits you in the gut, moments like that,” says Johnson.
Showing Kids They Aren’t Alone
Studies show that boys exposed to domestic violence are more than twice as likely to become abusers as adults, whereas girls who witness domestic violence as kids are more likely to become victims when they grow up. Childhood domestic violence can also cause a range of behavior and health issues in kids, such as aggressive and antisocial behavior, depression and anxiety, slower cognitive development.
The Childhood Domestic Violence Association estimates 5 million children witness domestic violence every year. This year, Camp Hope gave 1,500 of those kids a summer away from their trauma, a number that’s been growing steadily since the camp began in 2003.
Johnson says something “transformational and magical” happens at camp when kids get to know other kids who are going through similar situations to their own.
“Often, kids who live in homes with domestic violence think they’re the only person on the planet who this has happened to, or feel like they’re responsible for the other kids in their family,” she says.
Like the little boy who worriedly confessed to Johnson before camp that his dad was in jail, a fact Johnson already knew thanks to the extensive background checks organizers do on campers to make sure it’s both safe and the right time, emotionally, for them to attend. Johnson told him she knew, and that it was OK.
“I said, ‘Other kids’ dads are in jail,’ and he looked at me like, ‘Yeah, right,’” says Johnson. But on the first day, Johnson spotted the little boy sitting at a table with another camper, a young boy whose father was also incarcerated.
“They had found each other, and these two children were eating chocolate chip cookies and telling jokes. They just had this mutual connection where they knew what it felt like,” she remembers.
Only One of Its Kind
Camp Hope is the only summer camp to focus on children exposed to domestic violence. Counselors undergo at least a year of trauma-specific training to work with the kids, conducting team-building and self-esteem-building exercises, while college students—also trained in child trauma and domestic violence—volunteer to fill in the gaps, helping kids with the “high-adventure activities” like the ropes course, rock climbing, tubing and canoeing.
The camp is offered at no charge to those campers selected to attend—all costs are covered by fundraising efforts. By 2019, Camp HOPE will be in 20 states, says the program’s founder Casey Gwinn, president of Alliance for HOPE International.
“Our goal within five years is to have 20,000 children impacted by domestic violence going to camp every summer. This is how you change the ending for children exposed to trauma,” says Gwinn, a survivor herself of childhood trauma.“Childhood trauma does not have to be a destiny,”
But perhaps the best part for the kids is that the week-long overnight camp doesn’t end when the last day rolls around. Explains Johnson, it’s just the beginning.
“We do on-going connections and reunions with campers. We’ve done a reunion every six to eight weeks since camp and some 22 of the 28 kids will show up to each one, even when it was freezing and snowing this past winter.”
The Alliance says kids who attend the camp have shown high rates of high school graduation and low rates of disciplinary action, like detention, while in school.
Gwinn says Camp HOPE in San Diego has been tracking kids’ success for the past three years and what they’ve seen is remarkable.
“We have a 100 percent college enrollment rate. Our average ACE Score—Adverse Childhood Experiences Study—for our kids is 6. This dramatically increases the likelihood of criminal activity, violent abuse of women, and a host of other long-term adverse impacts but our kids are not going to mental health facilities, jail, or prison—they are going to college. And we can now prove it.”
And according to Gwinn, the reason why is a no-brainer: Support.
“We can love them at 7, 8, or 9 or we can wait and lock them at 17 or 18 and say we are tough on crime. It is our choice … and we have chosen to love them. Our primary goal should be sending them on a pathway toward healthy goals, dreams, and respectful relationships with girls and women long before we ever need to lock them up.”
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