Southwestern Assemblies of God University hosted its third Royal Family Kids Camp last week where about 100 foster children felt like royalty and experienced the love of a family.
The 100-percent volunteer effort to show love and kindness to these children drew about 125 teens and adults to work the camp at the SAGU campus.
“From the moment they get off the bus, our volunteers are there cheering and waving banners, each with the name of a camper on it. They're made to feel like royalty,” said Dr. Darren Daugherty, Royal Family Kids of South Dallas camp director and SAGU professor.
Throughout the week-long camp 6- to 12-year-old foster children are paired up with a counselor and one other child. The amount of individual attention that each child receives builds trust between them and that counselor, offering a kind of emotional support that some of the children have never experienced.
“With a two to one ratio for our counselors, the kids receive the individual attention they need to build up their confidence and hope,” Daugherty said. “Even with just two children, sometimes the counselors need some help. We have camp aunts, uncles and grandparents to create that sense of family and offer extra support.”
The campers' week began with a giant carnival with games, pony rides, a petting zoo, bounce houses and inflatables. By the end of Monday's fun and activities, the campers were ready to retire to their college dorm rooms at SAGU and dream about the Royal Ball on Tuesday.
“For the past nine months, our volunteers have been buy or collecting donated dresses and suits for all of the children,” Daugherty said. “It was our first time do try this. We had outside volunteers come in and decorate and put on a drama for the kids.”
Each child was able to pick out an outfit to wear to the ball. Girls looked through racks loaded with different dresses to choose from and boys had their choice of argyle sweaters, dress clothes and suits.
A limousine pulled up the dorm houses to carry the VIP guests to the ball, where they were greeted by an escort who ushered them in. Each child's entrance was announced to the attendees at the ball.
The week continued with a talent show, which Daugherty said can be the most encouraging night for the campers.
“They each have an opportunity to get up on stage in the spotlight and perform their talent to the cheers and applause of 200 people,” he said.
Unbeknownst to the campers, the volunteers had planned a surprise birthday for all of them later in the week.
“We had two volunteers coordinate the party and organize the gift bags,” Daugherty said, adding that this year's birthday gift bags were custom pillowcases, which each child found filled with tons of birthday gifts. “The pillowcases were screen printed and also serve as a lasting memento that each child can take home with them and always remember their time at camp.”
Other activities throughout the week included many trips to the pool, games in the gym and time in the “multi-sensory paradise” with craft centers, woodworking and educational manipulatives. The campers also made daily checks at the mailroom, where even Harry Potter would be jealous of all the letters and packages campers receive.
“Before the camp starts, volunteers write letters to all of the kids. Throughout the week the children and their counselors write to each and all of the campers can write to each other too,” Daugherty said.
The whole week is dedicated to making the children feel loved, special and give them hope for a brighter future no matter their situation.
“Some of these kids don't know if or when they'll ever see their parents again. Some are in between foster homes when they come to camp, so they don't even know who their going home with,” Daugherty said. “We give each child a photo album of 25 photos of them with their counselor and a sibling if they have one. Sometimes the siblings are split between foster homes and this is the only time of year they get to see each other. These photo albums are precious to them for many reasons.”
Daugherty said someone once asked him why they would fill the kids with false hope.
“I asked that person, 'What would a week of sight mean to a person who has been blind all their life?'” he said. “We pour into the lives of these campers and give them a hope for a better future. Sure, it's just a week, but it's so intense and our hope is to create lasting memories for these kids of love and compassion.”
There's not only a visible change in the lives of each child, Daugherty said all week there are glimpses of tears spilling down volunteers' faces. However, some campers don't always open up and begin to trust within that first week, but “the seed is planted” Daugherty said.
“Those that come back to the camp the next year run to their counselor, knowing these are people they can trust and love them,” he said.
Even after camp is over, the letters from foster parents and Facebook posts from volunteers come pouring in.
“We received a letter from a foster parent and she said that the two children sang camps songs all the way, and sang them again for her when they got home and for the next several days didn't talk about anything else,” Daugherty laughed. “They showed her all their pictures, gifts and crafts they got. Then they asked her if they could stay with her another year, so they could at least go to camp again.”
He shared countless Facebook posts from volunteer counselors that number too many to include in this article.
“Most of the volunteers say that this is the most rewarding ministry they've ever been a part of – it's that impacting,” he said.
Daugherty noted that the camp is supported by many local businesses and individuals in Waxahachie and throughout Ellis County. He said that 5 percent of all foster children will attend a Royal Family Kids Camp this summer throughout the nation and every ounce of support makes a difference in a child's life.
For more information about Royal Family Kids of South Dallas, visit www.southdallas.royalfamilykids.org or visit the National Royal Family Kids at www.royalfamilykids.org.