Located on the grounds of YMCA’s Camp Burgess, Amazing Grace is a cost-free, weeklong, overnight camp for Cape Cod children who have a parent in jail.

          

         This girl who painted this piece said about it: 'I felt like music when I was painting.

This girl who painted this piece said about it: 'I felt like music when I was painting. I got my emotions out."

         By Evelyn Jackson
CONTRIBUTING WRITER


Cape Cod Times, Posted Sep. 14, 2014 at 2:00 AM 

SANDWICH – Friendships – we know how important and sometimes complicated they can be. Ten-year-old “Candice” (all the children’s names have been changed to protect their privacy) has reasons to be especially aware of the complexities. On a hot August camp day as she changed into her bright pink bathing suit, this soon-to-be 4th-grader was grateful for the friends she has at Camp Amazing Grace in Sandwich. “At home,” she says, “I never hang out with kids. Like when they talk about their dad and ask where my dad is. I’m like embarrassed. He’s in jail and my mom says I’m too young to know why. In two years, he’ll get out. I know a boy who had a dad in jail. He said when his dad got out, he gave him a hug. So that’s what I’ll probably do too – give my dad a hug.”

Located on the grounds of YMCA’s Camp Burgess, Amazing Grace is a cost-free, weeklong, overnight camp for Cape Cod children who have a parent in jail. It’s inaugural season was Aug. 17-22. It is sponsored by St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Barnstable, other Episcopal churches, the Cape Cod Council of Churches and other organizations on the Cape and Islands.

“We do not discuss why the children are here,” says Camp Coordinator Elearnor Braun. “We are not therapists – the purpose of the camp is to provide a week of fun, and to offer God’s unconditional love. We offer them a week where they are not to be burdened.” As you would expect, there are many burdens these children have in addition to embarrassment, says the Rev. Libby Gibson, Rector of St. Mary’s. “One of our campers went home for one night this week. He needed a break. Recently he had been expecting to go fishing with his dad, but his dad got arrested at 3 a.m. No wonder he does not want to be away from his mom. His dad has been ripped out of his life and he, the child, is paying the consequences for his dad’s actions.” “For other children,“ she adds, “the collateral damage could be seeing Mom under financial stress, having health problems, dealing with a change in living situation – perhaps living with different kids, not their own brothers and sisters, or living with looser or stricter rules.”

If, because of this collateral damage, or because his need for secrecy prevents him from developing deep friendships, the child acts out, he then adds to his burdens – causing even more consequences. Gibson believes the reported figure that 70 percent of children of an incarcerated parent will end up in the criminal justice system is not set in stone but she adds that whatever the statistic is, she would like to knock it down to 50 percent. “If incarceration is supposed to teach a lesson, it is teaching the wrong lesson. In reality, when they get out, there are no jobs and they can’t vote and then children have to keep paying the consequences. We need to help their children see another path. For some, there is already a negative track in their heads. When trouble comes, if they press the play button, then they are on a spiral down. They feel shame and think, ‘I’m not good enough.’”

Bernice Winthrop, a counselor at Amazing Grace, who was on the executive committee for Camp Amazing Grace in Maryland, a similar prison ministry camp, is one of many volunteers trying to change the path. “Children look at everything through a child’s eyes that is different than ours,” she says. “To them, bad people go to jail. Does that make their mom or dad bad? They don’t know how to react. “What Amazing Grace is trying to do, therefore, is recalibrate and teach them the world can be friendly and loving, that God made you to be loving, athletic and confident. Sometimes a parent has made a bad choice, but that doesn’t mean he or she can’t turn it around and do something good. If we ourselves made bad choices, we apologize and move on.”

In these years when a child is developing his own moral compass, the staff at Amazing Grace present some subtle lessons for guiding them on the right path. Each morning starts with a theme – then the children pair up and the lesson is reinforced the with a puppet show.  One theme is self-control; another gentleness.

Volunteer Joan Johnson, a retired United Methodist Pastor from Yarmouth Port, was in charge of the puppet shows this past season. She presented the children with two kinds of eggs, hard and soft-boiled. She invited them to catch these eggs, and all volunteered. Lesson: You don’t know who is hard- or soft-boiled, so we must treat all people with gentleness.  “These children,” she says, “are ready to be changed. They have a hunger for a choice of the right path to follow.”  By the end of the week the children themselves are able to verbalize what they had learned. Some noticed that the rules were stricter at camp. Many did not have rules at home. “Here the rules are quiet,“ one child said. “You don’t yell. Also, at camp, we have a bedtime – at home none.“

Though they found it hard to settle down to rules, many said they liked it now. They also liked eating “family style” because “you get to talk and eat rather than just getting food and watching TV.” Another path? A recalibration? A break in the cycle? Perhaps.

What can be known is that the week at Amazing Grace has the potential to push a child into positive possibilities – while providing a week of fun. Listen to 11-year-old “Anthony” who spent part of his day with his new friends walking the camp’s farm goats down a path. “We walked them, but sometimes they ran. They were triplet goats. One was not on a leash, but he stayed near the others. They could run very good and we ran and screamed and they ran and screamed baa. It was the best day of my life.” Corrected a friend, “But you said yesterday was the best day of your life.” Anthony was adamant. “Well today is another best day.”