*** All names in this story have been changed in order to protect the children ***
Every year, my church holds a camp for foster kids called Royal Family Kids Camp. Long story short, it is a church camp that shouldn't exist. These kids have been put through the ringer when it comes to losing people, broken promises, and tough life situations. I have been three times now. Every year that I have been, I have run a gamut of emotions. There are times when I am sad, happy, relieved, energetic, and drained. It is a week of elevated stress where one must be like a duck: swimming like hell under the water but calm and collected on top. Each counselor has two kids. Some of them are easier to get along with. A lot of them are tough to break through. This year was no different.
Often, I give the kids a little piece of candy when they complete a task. It can be as simple as being ready to go to an event or making your bed. This year I had mints. One of the kids in my room was very loving. His name was Matt. Matt was mostly helpful and always pleasant. Matt was a good kid. I often wonder what kind of messed up short straw a child has to draw to be in the foster system. I myself was in the system, but never fully removed from my parents. I run that gamut of emotions at camp and occasionally at home, but being in the system allows me to understand why some of these kids are the way they are: Their number one goal in life is self preservation. Whether its finding food for themselves, keeping the only pair of shoes they own clean, or a cool rock they have found, they hold tightly to everything they have and worry about number one. Not Matt. Matt saved his mints and gave them out to others. One specific time he gave one back to me with a hug because I was so sad I was crying.
The gamut of emotions I run included anger. At one point another kid that was in my cabin (Luke) had received a toy from the birthday party we held for all kids. Many of these kids have never had a birthday party, so our church goes all out and throws a huge half day bash that takes months to plan. As usual, it was amazing. Often times, keeping the kids under control after the party is difficult. Luke was told to put a toy away that he was annoying someone with. After telling Luke for the 14th time to stop annoying the other kid, I tried to grab the toy from him. Luke held onto it tightly as a grabbed it and the toy was broken in two. Being electronic, it was deemed too hard to fix by most. I was so upset at myself I had to step outside for a minute and collect my thoughts and emotions and have a breakdown where I couldn't be seen. Here comes Matt.
Matt saw the incident with Luke and understood why I was upset. He saw my tears, he sat next to me and without a word, he gave me a hug and handed me a mint. "It'll be okay", Matt said, "Even if Luke doesn't forgive you, God will". Here I am sitting on a bench at a church camp for the broken and lost children in our community, crying uncontrollably, being consoled by one of the children I was called to serve. I saw the beauty in the moment and asked Matt if he would pray with me. All was well again and I was motivated to make things right. During counselor break, I ran to Wal-Mart and picked up a soldering iron, solder, a small screwdriver set, super glue, and batteries. That night I stayed up until 1am in the counselor break room fixing the toy. The next day the toy was sitting on the Luke's lower bunk. He was excited. Camp continued. I kept giving mints.
The last day of camp is usually pretty rough. The kids see the decorations coming down and self preservation kicks in. The kids begin to separate themselves from the counselors and staff, often times being defiant. They know the end is near and now must protect their emotions by showing the counselors that we are not needed nor are we loved. Matt was no different. The breakthroughs we had all week came to a halt, and as usual I felt like we were going full throttle in reverse. As we put up the decorations, he was not pleasant. He was throwing things and being unkind. We finished camp, saw the children off on the bus and said our goodbyes.
I was looking for Matt to say goodbye and make sure he got on the bus. I couldn't find him anywhere. After a quick search I found him. There he was, sobbing uncontrollably behind the bus. I quickly took a knee to talk to him, already knowing what was wrong. "I don't want to leave" Matt said, "I am going to miss you too much". I started to explain to him that the love we have shown him this week was to fill his heart with our love and the love of God. I told him that there was beauty in our separation. He now gets to go out and show God's love to others. I reminded Matt of when he consoled me on the bench after breaking Luke's toy. I told him I fixed it because he motivated me to. I pulled a mint out of my pocket and said "this right here is why you were here this week". I then asked him if I could pray for us. He agreed.
"God, thank you for love you have allowed us to show each other this week. Thank you for the good times, and thank you for the sad times. You have shown me through Matt that love really has no boundaries and whatever is happening in our lives, there will always be the love that you show us through others. God, I pray that Matt takes this sadness and these tears and turns them around. I pray he continues to show the same love to others that he has shown me. Thank you Jesus. Thank you God. Amen"
The tears slowed to a stop, hugs were exchanged, and Matt got on the bus with the rest of the boys. They were headed back to the church to meet their foster parents. Back at the church, Matt comes up to me, again in tears. We hug, we hold a mint and we pray again. He told me "I will always remember you and this mint and I will never eat it". I said "even if you eat it, whenever you see one, always be reminded that God's love is shown through the acts of others. Keep being that light." We said our goodbyes. He went with his foster parent. Camp was officially over. I went out to my car to remove my name tag and backpack and breathe after holding my breath for a week.
I breathed a sigh of relief that I got through another week of camp. I opened my car door and went to put my name badge in the drivers pocket. As soon as I looked down into the pocket, there it was: one single mint, still in its package, broken into a hundred little pieces. I lost it. For 15 minutes I sat in the car seat with the door open, my feet on the hot concrete, bawling my eyes out. I couldn't bring myself to pick the mint up, let alone do anything else except cry.
This camp is deemed by our church as "the best week of the year". Indeed it is. It is also the most emotional week of the year, especially when it is over. You show love to broken children only to be reminded that the pain they feel is not only real, but intense. They project their inner problems on you and without talking about them, their emotional state is often seen in the way they treat you and others. Yet you continue to show God's love to them. You pray for them. You pray with them. You love them and all their faults. When it's all over you are reminded of their pain and hurting. You take some of it with you, trying to dissipate it in a constructive manner and hoping you have reached just one kid, never knowing if you actually did.
Every year, I am reminded that I am not perfect. I am reminded that my emotions are real and often times uncontrollable. The pain is real. Yet every year, I am reminded that the love of God is real.
Every year, it is worth it.
My shameless plug: Camp happens because a church decides it is needed. The church pays for most of it. However, the camp is a huge undertaking, done almost exclusively by volunteers. I encourage you to visit forthechildren.org and look around. Consider donating if you can.