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Kids of incarcerated parents gain Baptist convention’s love

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–It would have been easy for the Baptist Convention of Pennsylvania/South Jersey to decline an opportunity to host a camp for Angel Tree children. After all, the convention has no camping facilities, no camping staff or camping budget.

But as a testament to God’s faithfulness, 36 children between the ages of 8 and 12 attended summer camp — and 10 made professions of faith.

The idea for a pilot camp began in 2004 when Prison Fellowship, whose Angel Tree program reaches out to the millions of children in the United States with an incarcerated parent or parents, contacted Woman’s Missionary Union and the North American Mission Board about partnering to provide a pilot camping experience for some of the children.

Lena Plunk, a NAMB-appointed US/C2 missionary in Pennsylvania, and others in the state Baptist office, even though they lacked camping resources, nevertheless took up the challenge, first in prayer then in the work needed to make the camp a reality.

“God blessed in ways that we never even thought of,” said Lena Plunk, who served as the camp’s director. “The way everything came together, it was obvious that He was in control.”

The convention staff first sought a suitable site with dates available, settling on Camp Conquest in Denver, Pa.

Next came the issue of funding. “God really blessed it,” Plunk said. Prison Fellowship, whose Angel Tree ministry also offers Christmastime and ongoing mentoring programs, provided up to half the cost for each camper. The Pilgrim Foundation outside Philadelphia provided a $5,000 grant; WMU Foundation, a $2,000 grant. Various churches in Pennsylvania and one in New Jersey also provided financial support, and North Carolina WMU donated 100 backpacks.

Another sign of divine provision: a qualified camp staff to work with the kids. Seven young men from South Carolina’s Camp McCall along with several volunteer leaders from Pennsylvania ministered to the 14 boys who attended camp from July 31–Aug. 3. The girls’ camp followed Aug. 3–6 with 22 campers and volunteer staff from South Carolina’s Camp LaVida along with volunteer leaders from Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and Maine.

“God sent an excellent group of counselors,” said Ted Johnson, the Baptist Convention of Pennsylvania/South Jersey church strengthening division’s???????, who served as camp pastor for the week. The young men from South Carolina, for example, were skilled at “firmly leading and patiently loving” the boys.

“Children need love and need to see that others really care about them,” Johnson said, “and we were able to minister to them in that way.”

NAMB missionary Wesley Garrett, who assisted with the camp, agreed. “Once the kids get to know you, they know you love them. That’s the part that makes a difference to me because you can see the response in them,” said Garrett, who has served in church and community ministries for the Greater Philadelphia Baptist Association since 1993.

“As I was ministering, I knew I was touching a life because of the strong possibility there is not a positive male figure at home,” Garrett added.

Most of the kids were cautious when they arrived because they didn’t know exactly what to expect. “Their attitude and expressions seemed to say, ‘Is this for real?’” Johnson recounted, “but once they saw that the counselors and staff were there to love them, teach them and present Christ to them during a fun camping experience, they opened up and enjoyed themselves.”

At camp, the children enjoyed Bible study and worship, team-building activities, crafts, swimming, paddleboats, fishing and free time.

Kristy Carr, national WMU’s Volunteer Connection specialist, spent much of her time at camp teaching the children crafts and how to swim. “Activities like making crafts and swimming are perfect times to encourage them and affirm them,” Carr said. “To see a child go from being scared to jump into the water and say, ‘I can’t do it. I can’t do it.’ to leaping into your arms when you convince them that they can do it is powerful. It builds their confidence and self-esteem, which is so important and carries over to everything else they do in life.”

The experience also provided opportunities for the children to be mentored, see positive role models, build relationships, learn to play by the rules, get along with each other and hear the Gospel.

Johnson said he enjoyed the challenge of making the morning devotional and evening camp sessions interactive. “I worked on presenting to them that they are special, that have been chosen by God for a purpose, and they need to be aware of that and know that God loves them.”

On the last afternoon of each camp, the area was transformed into a block party atmosphere, complete with games, face painting, popcorn and snow cones.

“The children were so surprised to see the block party set up just for them,” said Gail Hallman, the Baptist Convention of Pennsylvania/South Jersey’s church mobilization director. “This was such a great experience for our convention staff to be involved with these children and their families.”

Many of the children live in Harrisburg and Lancaster, and some were already involved in a church while others were not. Hallman said the state convention is in communication with several churches in these areas to follow up with the families to minister to them throughout the year.

“The camp had huge impact on the kids and has really opened doors to minister not only to the child but to the child’s whole family,” Plunk said. “I hope other conventions will see that they can do this too.”

David Waltz, the state convention’s executive director-treasurer said it was “exciting and rewarding to see our state convention staff step out in faith and take the initiative to do an Angel Tree camp in spite of some great obstacles to overcome.”

Plunk said they have already secured Camp Conquest again for 2006 and expect double the number of campers. They are also talking with Doug Pilot, director of missions for the Conemaugh Valley Baptist Association, about hosting a second Angel Tree camp in the state.
For additional information regarding Angel Tree camping opportunities in Pennsylvania, contact Lena Plunk at [email protected] or (717) 652-5856.