LEESBURG, Fla. (BP)–The 120 children were nestled all snug in their bunks while visions of sugar plums danced in their heads — until they opened their eyes to real Christmas gifts during the annual Migrant Children’s Camp at the Lake Yale Baptist Conference Center in Florida.
A giant blow-up “Frosty the Snowman” decoration marked the entrance to cabin 1A where on a Sunday morning the 8- to 9-year-old girls began to stir. They yawned, stretched and sat up in bed to look through their colorful drawstring bags filled to the brim with goodies.
Notebooks, pencils and jewelry kits were greeted with smiles. When they pulled out their soft, plush animals, the girls began to chatter loudly as the animals were named and tightly cuddled.
In another cabin, 8-year-old boys rolled out of bed with sleepy eyes, eager to see what they would receive. Immediately, their eyes opened wide and their faces brightened as they each received their own black-and-white soccer balls. The boys would have been satisfied with just the balls, but there were still more gifts.
Included in their bags of goodies was a SeaWorld cup decorated with ocean animals and school supplies — gifts received with polite attention. But as their counselor withdrew red boxes from another bag, all the boys began to shout with excitement as the red boxes turned out to contain night vision goggles.
“We got so much stuff,” the boys said with delight.
In addition to their fun gifts, each camper received a warm blanket of their own during the Nov. 30-Dec. 2 weekend.
“We give the blankets as a gift because it gets cold at Lake Yale in December sometimes,” said Misael Castillo, migrant ministry consultant for the Florida Baptist Convention.
“We found that kids came to camp and complained of the cold. We’d ask them why they didn’t bring any blankets and they’d say it was because they had none,” Castillo explained.
Castillo is responsible for buying all of the gifts every year and loves seeing the faces of the store clerks when he tells them, “I want 70 of those, 70 of those ….” Castillo buys about 200 blankets each year for the camp because the attendance has been as high as 180 children.
The blankets not given away at the end of the camp aren’t saved from year to year, Castillo said, but given to other migrant families who need them. The funding for the camp and gifts is provided each year by the Maguire State Mission Offering and donations from local Woman’s Missionary Union organizations.
The camp, which is free for children ages 8-12, has been held annually for at least 16 years, Castillo said. The days are packed with Bible studies, crafts, recreational activities, chapel sessions, snacks and games.
This year’s camp emphasized learning and obeying God’s rules. The theme, “Be a Part of God’s Team,” was tied with sports-oriented activities for a concrete message the children could understand.
During the Saturday evening “Celebration” chapel service, the children learned about Joshua and the battle of Jericho through a narrated drama presentation complete with costumes and an Ark of the Covenant. The drama was presented by the migrant mission team from First Baptist Church in Interlachen, Fla.
Earlier in the day, the team re-enacted the biblical account of Esther and allowed all of the girl campers to participate in the drama and wear little veils.
“We were all princesses,” said Celia Palacios, 11, “and the king had to choose one of us to get married.”
The team that puts on the camp includes adults and high school students with a love for missions and a heart for migrant worker families. In addition to the dramas, they also provided music and puppets and led some outdoor sport activities.
“We do the best we can to show the children Christ,” said Daniel McCrillis, 18. “At home I don’t share as much as I should, but when I come down here, God seems to make it so much easier. He gives us opportunities, and the kids are willing and ready to listen.”
Castillo estimated that 50 percent of the children in attendance do not attend a migrant church.
“They’ve never been to church,” Castillo said. “The church and the Bible doesn’t mean anything to them. We have a great opportunity to explain to them in an easy way so all the kids can understand.”
Fourteen churches helped with the camp over the weekend, with some members serving as counselors for the children’s cabins and others transporting them to camp.
Renda Springs and Connie Kernahan of First Baptist Church in Archer served as counselors for 8- to 9-year-old girls.
“You can see their eyes light up with the excitement of everything, from getting a toothbrush to toys,” Springs said.
The women said they were conscious of the responsibility to share Christ with the girls in their cabin. “Our hope this year is to plant a seed,” Kernahan said. “It will be a success if we do God’s will.”
Springs added, “From the moment we walk in we show them love, God’s love. That’s what we are here for.”
Even though the children can be exhausting and the weather isn’t always ideal, Kernahan and Springs never tire of working at the children’s camp.
“As soon as we are in the car leaving, we’re already planning for next year,” Kernahan said.
Jessica Tuggle is a freelance writer for the Florida Baptist Convention.