I am a volunteer—an ordinary member of the night staff. Comparatively, I look unimportant amid the dozens of full-time counselors devoting an entire week of service.
60 miles separate me and the summer camp sheltered in Utah’s rambling mountains. My husband clocks in at 4:45pm to assume watch over our two-year-old son, and I’m on the road after a quick kiss and thank you. I’ll only be driving this way a total of four times this year, but the over hour-long commute is tremendous for this stay-at-home mom.
There’s an edge to my energy which is smoothed every now and then by the landscape’s uncomplicated aesthetic. Ripe farmlands are freckled with grazing horses and cows. Union Pacific trains present bloated middles but no defining beginning or end. The mountains sustain this everlasting theme; their ridges act as cupped hands holding everything together.
I arrive at the camp in time to see some children playing soccer in a field and a few finishing their last bites of supper. We were trained not to call them foster kids but rather kids in foster care as a reminder that even the poorest of circumstances are irrelevant in matters of identity. This reminder is necessary for me. I repeat the phrase in my head to build courage and make my way toward the barn for introductions.
I’m not sure what I expected from this first encounter, but my anxiety suggests it isn’t anything positive. As if they know how I feel, the children greet me warmly, excitedly—true to their nature as completely normal kids. Suddenly I feel stupid. I’m relieved, too. We sing four silly songs complete with even sillier motions. The day is re-capped, and a man is introduced to a respectful and attentive audience. He tells them they are wanted and then reads a verse about God being a father to the fatherless. I look around quietly, hoping to see an indication of understanding or peace, but their blank faces don’t give anything away.
At 7:00, the entire camp receives an hour of free time before bed, and I’m paired with a seasoned counselor who needs help entertaining two cheerful, eight-year-old girls. We spend our free time on a serious hunt for grasshoppers, spiders, and dragonflies to occupy freshly-made bug houses. I suppress my girl-like squeamishness and coerce a menacing daddy longlegs into its new home. Do it for the children, I tell myself. We cover a respectable distance on our search while we take in the tranquility of the evening and laugh at the wild hotdogs growing heartily in the swamp. 8:00 arrives quickly, and before I even bring up the subject of goodbyes, the girls say, "Please don't go,” in forlorn unison. These are the same girls I’d met just an hour earlier. I’m almost certain they don’t even know my name. Really, though, I shouldn’t be surprised. How could I forget that bug-catching expeditions have the power to bind people for life? From that moment on, I refer to those girls as mine.
I’m assigned to the Dream Team for the rest of the night. It’s an elite force tasked with a grueling objective: lulling rambunctious and homesick children to sleep. There are three of us to a team—a reader of bedtime stories and two bouncers to keep order. My petite stature and soft-spoken nature makes me wholly unfit for the role of bouncer, but play it I must; the counselors are taking a well-deserved break. I am unable to keep order on my side of the room, but I don’t really want to anyway. I don’t want to tell them to stop having fun. I don’t want to be an obstacle to their budding friendships, to this rare type of camaraderie formed only through the sharing of bunk beds. I want them to be kids, plain and simple, because many don’t have the luxury of acting their age outside of camp.
The do-gooder’s high I bring home after my first successful night vanishes the next morning when my son rises hours earlier than normal. His neediness burns through all my coping mechanisms, and I have to give myself several timeouts before breakfast. I grumble through babysitting duty for a friend, sigh while running errands for my husband during lunch, and scream internally when my son refuses to nap. My self-pity is palpable; first world problems run amuck in my head throughout the entire drive. I call my husband to unload the day’s troubles and request my favorite ice cream before I don my red volunteer shirt for the second time.
My misplaced gloom isn’t corrected until I see them: my girls. They run to me, full of stories about all I had missed. I am wanted here—truly wanted. I am welcomed without question and with such intensity I hardly know how to react. It’s an odd and exhilarating feeling. I can’t get enough of it.
Our little time together is well spent. We practice piano for the upcoming talent show, play Ga-ga Ball (a more terrifying version of dodgeball), and sing songs by campfire as a prelude to the setting sun. Best of all, I’m granted permission to be part of their room’s Dream Team. When I surprised them that first night, the celebration lasts much longer than it probably should have.
I’m thrilled to be the reader this time. The books I pick out are dear to my heart and read with vigor. After the third book, I notice the requests to see pictures have stopped. My girls are asleep: one sighs contentedly and the other laughs at a funny dream. Maybe the secret to a good night’s sleep is as simple as hearing a story read by someone who cares. I’m grateful they seem to consider me as someone who does.
During Wednesday’s talent show, I cheer the loudest when my girls play two different renditions of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. The campers are supportive of each performance, but one in particular stirs something inside every person in attendance. A trio of young girls sing "Fight Song" by Rachel Platten, a piece about overcoming adversity. When you know all that can and does happen in the foster care system, there is something tragically beautiful about hearing a girl of eight sing the words: "This is my fight song. Take back my life song. Prove I'm alright song." Every child sang along, the lyrics an unintentional but perfect anthem for their unique connection. The scene moves me beyond pity. I become fully conscious of their strength; I’m overcome by their goodness. These kids would easily be loved by anyone who took the time to look closer.
It grieves me to know, in half a day’s time, they’ll resume lives touched by poverty, incarceration, and abuse of all kinds. They will face problems beyond their understanding and ability to change.
There is a terrible disparity between what I’d like to do and what I can do for my girls. Under normal circumstances, I’d probe for more information, listen carefully to their troubles, and offer words of encouragement, or on a good day: wisdom. At the very least, I’d wrap them in my arms. None of it is applicable within this setting. I know nothing about them because I’m not supposed to; security measures exist for good reason. Even if I was aware of their background, I’m unsure I’d be able to offer anything of value. So there remains an unshakable feeling of helplessness to which I’m unaccustomed.
Volunteering is difficult not because of the tasks I’m assigned, but because those tasks, no matter how great, are never enough. For me, there is no feeling of satisfaction from a job well done. When it comes to caring for children, it’s restraint that’s painful.
I want to be a hero; I want my volunteer position to be so much more than what it is. I’d like to mold their narrative into something wonderful, but I’m certain I won’t be the person who will. I cannot see their story to completion. To them, I’m nothing more than a fleeting four-day memory. I’d feel better dealing in grand gestures to leave an enduring impression, but thankfully my position doesn’t exist for my benefit but for theirs. On the final night, there are no weepy, fulfilling goodbyes. There is only a bedtime story read with care and a quiet exit after they close their eyes.
I rush home to be with my son, a boy who's been deeply loved ever since his first humble appearance as two pink lines. To what will my girls come home?
In the silence, I say aloud a pleading prayer to ask for all the things they will need. I ask for everything I can think of and try to accept there’s nothing more to do.
I wonder how long they will carry my affection. A week. Maybe a day. With any luck, the parting letters I wrote for them will live out their days at the bottom of a box, just precious enough not to be thrown away. The happy memories they made at camp could be good enough, I think optimistically. They could be good enough to replace some of the memories that aren’t.
For more information on Royal Family Kids Camp go to rfk.org
Elevation Church is collecting funds to create a new camp in northern Utah. Please go to https://www.elevation.cc/tithe and include Royal Family Kids in the comment section if you wish to contribute.