COULD A SUMMER CAMP STOP KIDS FROM REPEATING THE VIOLENCE THEY SAW GROWING UP?
STORY BY MELISSA JELTSEN
ART BY SMILEY STEVENS
KLAMATH NATIONAL FOREST, Calif. — The night before his 17th birthday, Ryan slept under the stars. No tent, just the wide-open sky.
He nestled into his sleeping bag, the ground bumpy and hard at Curly Jack Campground, as the Klamath River, just steps away, flowed by. Dozens of boys sprawled out next to him, and a group of girls began to stir and murmur across the campground. It was dawn, a rooster crowed.
Sleeping under the stars at summer camp is a familiar experience for many, but not for Ryan. The lanky teen was still adjusting to life at Camp HOPE America, the first summer camp established specifically for children exposed to domestic violence.
On this particular day in late July, he was one of 60 campers who ranged in age from 11 to 17. Although each child had his or her own unique history, the themes of their short lives overlapped: stress, fear, trauma, pain.
They grew up in homes where they watched men beat their mothers, and homes where they were beaten for trying to intervene. As children, they learned to navigate a type of violence that’s unpredictable and ever-present, compounded by mental health issues, neglect, drugs and poverty.
But for now they were away from all that, at a sleepaway camp here in northern California in a forest of almost 2 million acres, with a bunch of strangers who were just like them – survivors. Half of them were Camp HOPE America veterans, having attended two or three times before. The rest were first-timers like Ryan.
Ryan, whose name has been changed because he is a child, wasn’t sure what to expect from camp. A foster kid from Imperial County, an agricultural area in southeastern California with the state’s highest rates of unemployment and child hunger, he was also painfully aware of how close he had come to not making it at all.
On the 16-hour, 784-mile bus ride from San Diego, he and a few of the older boys were caught smoking marijuana at a rest stop. The founder of Camp HOPE America, Casey Gwinn, had to decide what to do.
Gwinn, a 56-year-old former city attorney of San Diego, wasn’t concerned about a little pot. But the kids had become aggressive, swearing and raising their voices, when confronted about their behavior.
The camp’s rules aren’t numerous, but they are strictly enforced: no cursing, no sarcasm and no putting down other kids. And no play-fighting, no matter how jovial, because every kid attending the camp has been profoundly affected by violence. One of the key features of the camp is that it models a safe, loving environment, essentially creating a new set of social norms.
Gwinn told the boys they were welcome to attend camp, as long as they agreed to follow directions and be respectful of others. Two of them refused, so they left.
But Ryan wanted to stay. He promised Gwinn he would do what was asked of him, and even solemnly shook the founder’s hand to cement his word. He didn’t want to lose the opportunity before it had even begun.
It was a fitting beginning to the week, which would essentially be all about Ryan making tough choices. Would he hold onto the past or let it go? Could he find a pathway to achieve his goals? What would his legacy be?
“I tell kids, you have a right to feel rage,” Gwinn said. “It’s natural to be angry about what happened to you. The question is, now what are you going to do with it?”
MONKEY SEE, MONKEY DO
Witnessing violence can be intensely traumatic for kids, especially for those who see it happen over and over. It can affect a child’s development to have his or her brain in a constant state of heightened stress, explained Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. They inevitably have trouble learning, are subject to chronic disease and don’t live as long.
These same children also carry a heavy burden of guilt and shame, according to Liz Roberts, deputy CEO at Safe Horizon, a nonprofit that works with domestic violence victims in New York City. They may believe that they caused the violence, or that they should have been able to stop it.
Some kids may even start to mimic the abusive parent’s behavior as they get older, becoming aggressive and bullying their peers. Boys are more likely to be violent with their partners when they start to date, Roberts said, and girls are at an increased risk of becoming victims of that abuse.
So the cycle continues, ad infinitum. Domestic violence is passed from generation to generation. Approximately 3.3 million to 10 million children in the U.S. are exposed to domestic violence every year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 4 women will be a victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in her lifetime, making it a grave public health issue.
That’s where Camp HOPE America comes in.
While countless programs across the U.S. try to prevent domestic violence by working with abusers or helping victims escape dangerous situations, Camp HOPE America starts much earlier. The goal is to break the generational cycle of domestic violence by intervening before the kids become abusers themselves or enter into abusive relationships, Gwinn said.
Camp activities are specifically designed to help kids build resilience — the ability to overcome adversity and trauma — and to increase hopefulness about the future, Gwinn said. While “hope” sounds like a simple, feel-good emotion, it actually works as a powerful motivational system that can help individuals achieve goals. And, it can be measured.
Chan Hellman, a researcher in hope theory at the University of Oklahoma, explained a person with “hope” has the ability to create a mental roadmap to reach a goal, as well as the willpower needed to overcome obstacles as they arise.
“Hope is the foundation of resiliency,” he said. “If you think about resilience as a capacity to survive difficult situations, hope is a belief in a positive future.”
TAKING A LEAP OF FAITH
Ryan didn’t have water shoes, so on the second full day of camp, he attached his sandals to his feet using duct tape. He and his cabin group, the Dragonflies, were preparing to raft down a Class IV rapid. As the sun beat down on the top of their heads, they smeared charcoal on their faces to create “war paint.”
Ryan sat at the front of the raft, taking in the bright green of the trees and the shimmering water. He’d seen a bald eagle the day before, but it was nowhere in sight.
They docked the raft after a few hours so they could take on the first big challenge of the day: cliff-jumping.
Ryan plopped down on a rock, feet in the water, and watched other boys and girls take the plunge. At the last minute, he scrambled up the side of the cliff and raced to the top. He wanted to jump, too. He stood still for a moment, scanning the wide open sky. Then he jumped clear out into the water, a perfect leap.
During a break on the river bank, while other kids ate sticky Nutella sandwiches, Ryan fiddled with his red bandana and reflected on life in a quiet, measured voice.
As a young boy, he said, he witnessed his step-father beating his mother. He didn’t actually see the abuse taking place most of the time, but he heard it.
“He’d say he was taking her to the room to talk to her, and she’d come back beat,” he said.
His mother struggled with drug addiction, and his step-father would turn his violence on Ryan whenever she passed out, he said, whipping him with a belt buckle. That’s common: Studies indicate that between 45 and 70 percent of children exposed to domestic violence are also victims of physical abuse.
Ryan’s mother died of an overdose when he was 5. He lived with his grandmother, he said, until she could no longer look after him. He landed in California’s foster care system, the largest in the nation, when he was 13.
He said he was constantly angry after his mom died. As he got older, he channeled his rage into fist fights and dabbled in drugs. He wound up in juvenile hall at least once. He’d never learned how to resolve conflicts without violence.
“That’s how I thought adults dealt with their problems,” he said. “I blame my past for everything.”
THE POWER OF HOPE
Long before Gwinn founded Camp HOPE America, he was a prosecutor in San Diego who specialized in domestic violence cases. Week after week, he put men in prison for beating their families, and witnessed firsthand the devastating effect of domestic violence on the children who grew up around it.
He was haunted by how little the criminal justice system had to offer kids in that situation.
“The best we seemed to have was — your dad is going to jail, you get to move to a shelter with your mom, and you get a therapist,” Gwinn said.
For Gwinn, the topic is deeply personal. He grew up being physically abused by his father, who, in turn, had been abused by his father. Kids like Ryan remind him of himself, he said. As a child, he was furious all the time, and struggled with loneliness and depression.
In 2003, he launched the first iteration of Camp HOPE America, just for kids in San Diego. The program has since spread to multiple sites in California, as well as to locations in Oregon, Texas and Oklahoma. Around 5,000 kids have attended camp.
Gwinn anticipates launching in 15 additional states next year, which would give an estimated 1,600 children and teens the opportunity to attend camp. The philanthropic arm of Verizon — the parent company of AOL, which owns The Huffington Post — is funding Camp HOPE America’s expansion.
While Gwinn is a true believer in the power of the camp, he willingly admits it’s not a panacea. “It’s called Camp HOPE, not Camp Magic,” he said. Still, Gwinn believes that intervening in childhood is the single most effective way to stop violent crime.
“If this country ever fully embraced the vision of Camp HOPE America, we would empty our prisons and mental health facilities in 20 years,” he said.
It’s a bold declaration — and although Gwinn has little evidence that the program directly reduces violent crime, there is persuasive scientific proof that it has a powerful, positive effect on the campers.
Hellman, the professor at the University of Oklahoma, has been publishing preliminary results from an annual study of the camp’s intervention model every year since 2013. Findings from the 2015 study have recently been published in the Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal.
According to Hellman’s research, self-assessments and counselor observations indicate that kids who attended the camp last year experienced a statistically significant increase in hope and resiliency.
Camp actually changed how they viewed themselves and their futures.
The results “support a compelling argument for the power of Camp HOPE to change the lives of children exposed to domestic violence,” the report concludes.
THIS IS HOW YOU GIVE A KID HOPE
Sitting on the river bank, flushed after having jumped off the cliff, Ryan said his birthday wish was to enjoy being 17 without getting into trouble. He has a goal for his future, and it would require him to finish high school. He wants to be a nurse.
“I’m way better than drugs, gangs and all that other stuff,” he said.
Ryan was the one who discovered his mother’s body, he said. He can remember helplessly watching as his step-dad tried to resuscitate her. He has wanted to pursue a medical career ever since, so that he can help others.
“I don’t consider myself a bad kid,” he said. “I’ve just had struggles.”
Back in the raft after lunch, the boys were getting nervous. They were about to hit the most difficult rapid of the day, ominously called Dragon’s Tooth. One of the boys couldn’t swim, and the idea of flipping into the churning water, even with a flotation device, was nerve-wracking.
Their counselor and river guide, a college student named Mattias Anderson, explained that they would need to work together if they didn’t want to smash into the massive rock and capsize. He called out directions as they sliced through the shimmery water.
“Forward two,” he yelled.
James, an athletic 14-year-old who sat perched in the rear of the raft, repeated it back to the crew without missing a beat. “FORWARD TWO, GUYS!” he yelled. “All together! We can do it!”
Ryan paddled in time with the commands, thrusting directly into the turbulent water.
The rapid came up quick, and the team lunged forward. There was an explosion of froth, the whoosh of an orange raft bobbing down and then rocketing straight up into the air. For a moment, it was unclear if it would flip. Then, the raft shot forward, sailing into the calm water downstream.
The boys exploded with ecstatic laughter. They had made it through unscathed.
Anyone who has ever attended sleepaway camp instinctively understands why it can be a transformative experience. If you take a child far away from home and expose them to strangers and activities they’ve never done before, it’s likely they will grow as a person.
That conventional wisdom is also backed up by almost a century of research.
“Camp as a tool for positive development is very, very well-documented,” said Deb Bialeschki, director of research at the American Camp Association and professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
It’s all about the relationships, she explained — between kids and kids, between kids and adults — and the setting, which is typically both physically and emotionally safe.
Kids learning how to do new things, such as white-water rafting or archery, can have a huge impact on children’s confidence levels, Bialeschki added.
“Mastering physical skills contribute to that kid now feeling competent, feeling able to solve a problem without an adult stepping in and helping them out,” she said. “Just being able to make your own decisions is an important skill.”
At Camp HOPE America, there are no therapy groups or one-on-one counseling sessions. Instead, therapeutic work is done through physical activities. Each day, campers are encouraged to set goals that push them outside of their comfort zone: perhaps jump off a cliff or paddle through rapids, like Ryan did, or ride a horse for the first time.
Children are celebrated with positive affirmations from their peers and counselors, regardless of whether they achieve their goals. Counselors hand out “character trait awards” at nightly campfires, honoring kids for the positive behaviors they displayed that day.
Some kids found the praise difficult to take. A few refused to stand up when their names were called, ducking their heads in embarrassment. But others beamed, reveling in the attention. In the first year of camp, one child confided in Gwinn that no one had ever cheered for her before that moment.
One night, Ryan’s name was called. He sprinted to the front of the campfire and stuck out his tongue as Gwinn snapped his photo. His award was for leadership. Being held up as a leader was new to him; he had never thought of himself as someone for others to look to as an example. His hard work paddling on the river had paid off.
“I was shy,” he said of receiving the award. “But I felt very good being a leader and knowing that I have kids looking up to me.”
It was the last night of camp, and feelings were running high.
At the campfire, Ryan sat on a bench pressed together with his group, both physically and emotionally closer than they had been a week earlier. They were friends now, and soon to part. Some of them were going back to homes where they felt unsafe or unhappy, and that reality was slowly sinking in.
As the sun set and the growing darkness provided some privacy, more and more of the kids began to cry. Gwinn took that moment to open up about his own history of abuse, telling the kids about the violence he endured from his father.
“When someone hurts us, when someone abuses us, when we watch someone abuse others, how do we feel?” he asked, looking around the circle of children.
“Nothingness,” said one kid quietly. Other voices chimed in.
Gwinn choked back tears as he repeated their words back to them.
“You’re here because we love you,” he said. “We want to see you filled with joy.”
Ryan was out there in the dark, alone with his feelings. As the fire died down, he made his way to the dining room for an ice cream sundae, and then started the short walk to bed. It had been a long day.
Soon, he’d be back in school for senior year. He knew what he needed to do: Stay focused. Get good grades. Don’t get in trouble. If he wanted to be a nurse, he had to knuckle down now.
“I’m strong,” he said. “I’ll stick to what I have planned.”
But the obstacles that lay ahead are gigantic, perhaps more than he knows: Nationally, only half of foster kids graduate from high school, and only a fraction finish college. And because of his traumatic childhood, statistically he’s more likely to suffer from depression, make a low wage, and potentially abuse drugs.
These are the daunting odds he still has to overcome.
Yet, he was “hopeful,” he said. “Mostly hopeful.”