Attending camp can be an exciting part of a kid’s summer. But for those whose families struggle financially, paying the cost to attend isn’t always possible. Camp Agapé is trying to change that with its Reach 100 program.
Located near Raleigh, N.C., the ELCA-affiliated camp offers full scholarships so local children can attend a week of Lutheran summer camp. With spots for up to 100 campers, the program partners with nearby schools to reach out to students who are homeless or in severe financial need.
“[Camp] is fun for any kid, but for a kid who has to sleep in a shelter it’s definitely a unique experience,” said Jacqueline Fuentes, a counselor at Lincoln Heights Elementary School in Fuquay-Varina, N.C., who refers families to the program. “Camp—beyond the fact that it is a great, fun experience—provides a stress-free environment that is predictable and allows kids to not worry about basic needs that others may take for granted.”
Loving relationships build self-esteem
Reach 100 campers, along with their peers, spend the week attending worship, Bible studies and campfires. Other activities include everything from archery and ropes to pond studies and wildlife hikes. Cabin groups are kept small with only five to seven campers per counselor.
“We’re very small, group-oriented and very focused on the relationship side,” said Randy Youngquist-Thurow, executive director of Agapé Kure Beach Ministries, which administers Camp Agapé. “To build relationships you need to spend time, and to do that it’s easier in a small group than a large one. Our No. 1 goal is to build self-esteem and self-value in campers as a child of God.”
The camp has six other major goals, including creating a safe space for campers and providing good Christian role models in its staff.
Matthew Franck, a longtime camper turned counselor last year, has nothing but praise for the camp’s ministry. “I’ve been going here since third grade, and I’ve never had an experience that didn’t show love,” he said. “[Everything] is built around the campers having the best time they can and growing in faith.”
During Franck’s first year as a counselor, he had a particularly difficult time with a camper who frequently acted out. “He was quite the handful,” he said. “I think he had some troubles at home with not getting much love and attention and got it any way he could. I had to take a step back and show him love since that’s what he’s looking for.”
“I’ve been going here since third grade, and I’ve never had an experience that didn’t show love. [Everything] is built around the campers having the best time they can and growing in faith.”
During the closing ceremony on the last night of camp, counselors meet with each of their campers to give them affirmations. “We just affirm anything positive we’ve seen in them throughout the week,” Franck said. “We tell them all the gifts we see in them.”
To Franck’s surprise, his camper began crying and said he wanted to stay at camp for the rest of his life. “He had the hardest time, and by the end of the week, I’d gotten him to say he’d miss camp,” Franck said. “That put a smile on my face.”
What makes the program special, he added, is that the Reach 100 campers aren’t identified to counselors and camp staff—only the administration knows who they are. “It takes kids who otherwise would have never been to camp because their families can’t afford it and gives them the opportunity to just have fun [there],” he said.
A community effort
Though the program is now drawing plenty of interest, it took developing relationships within nearby communities to get there. During Reach 100’s first year, only 24 campers attended via the scholarship, a problem the board of directors hadn’t foreseen when they’d designed the program to fill the camp’s 100 empty beds each summer. Staff realized they had to spend more time establishing trust with the community before parents would be comfortable sending their children to an unfamiliar camp.
Now the camp has strong relationships with both schools and local businesses, which have donated funds for supplies ranging from sleeping bags to toiletry kits for Reach 100 kids.
“They feel like they’re partnering with us to change the community,” Youngquist-Thurow said.
Thanks to its partnerships, the camp more than doubled its campers in 2017 from the previous year. The goal for this summer is 75, with the hope of filling all 100 beds next year. While Reach 100 started as a two-year program in 2016, it has now been extended to four, which will carry it through next summer
Youngquist-Thurow said the program has gained strong support from area congregations. “It’s something people want to be a part of,” he said. “I’ve been here 21 years and it’s the best thing we’ve done programmatically. It connects us with a lot of people and brings us into the community more fully.”
Reach 100 is also getting noticed beyond its communities. Last year, Lutheran Outdoor Ministries (LOM) awarded the camp its Innovative Program Award. The $1,000 prize is given annually to a LOM site for new and creative programming.
“What stood out to me was that [Reach 100] was so effective in finding ways to generate the funding that was important for Camp Agapé to reach into their own community … across socio-economic lines to include a very diverse group of campers,” said LOM Director Don Johnson.