The United States has more billionaires than any other country on the planet. We also lead the world in the number of adults who are living behind bars. There are now about 2.1 million incarcerated men and women in the U.S. More than half of them are parents.
What can it be like to witness a mother or father being arrested, to feel the pain of separation and to deal with the transience, economic uncertainty, and chaos that often follow?
These children live with shame and a sense of isolation. Aggression and antisocial behavior may isolate them even more.
Compared with other children, they’re three times more likely to have behavioral problems and two times more likely to have learning disabilities, ADHD, and anxiety. They’re also six times more likely to end up in prison themselves.
Since 2006, Camp Agape, a collaboration among the Episcopal, Methodist, and UCC Churches in Vermont, takes place in Plymouth and has provided a pathway for change to the children of incarcerated parents. The camp director is Beth Ann Maier, a former pediatrician, a literacy volunteer, and now, also a deacon in the Episcopal Church.
“Agape,” she says, means “unconditional love,” a gift the staff offers to every camper. When children step off the bus, they arrive without labels. Here, you’re not “the bully” or “the victim.” You’re free to try out other parts of yourself.
Camp Agape is offered at no charge to children whose parents are currently incarcerated or who have been in the past. Some of the funding comes from grants, but more than three quarters comes from church congregations pooling their money and from individual donors. The camp is held for one week each summer on the grounds of Bethany Birches, a traditional summer camp, run by the Mennonite Church. Children are accepted when they turn eight and may remain until they turn 12. At that point, they’re eligible to join Bethany Birches as regular campers. When integrated into that camp, they participate in all activities but share a cabin with other Agape graduates and are provided with extra support staff. No one seems to notice differences between the two groups of campers until the end of the session, when most children are picked up by their parents while the Agape kids board a bus to go home. Then you might hear an occasional “How come those guys get to ride the bus?”
Maier knows that traumatized children need time. The camp provides time and a world apart in which children can develop a fuller understanding of who they are. Ideally campers will return each summer until well into their teens when they may choose to become councillors in training.
What do kids do at Camp Agape? Just what campers do everywhere. Boat, swim, fish, archery, crafts, make friends, and gaze at the stars while sitting around a campfire.
But this is no ordinary camp. For the first time, these children may be meeting others like themselves, those who’ve watched a father being handcuffed or those who also cross off the days on a calendar until “mom comes home.” For some, it will be the first time they’ve talked openly about living with domestic abuse, violence, and the challenge of coping with troubled adults.
Academics can be problematic for traumatized children. To support learning, the Children’s Literacy Foundation visits the camp every summer, offering presentations, storytelling, and a chance for each child to choose two new books for their own.
Over the years the camp has evolved as the staff fine tuned support strategies.
“We knew,” says Maier, “that normal camp routines might not be that effective for our kids. They were not in a place where they could be told, ‘Just follow the rules or go home.’ We found their behaviors improved when we discovered the triggers that caused children to act out and planned for successful transitions from one activity to another.” Maier notes that the staff does not “let them get away with everything.” Instead they strategically help their campers find ways to be more successful. The staff also talks with families before camp begins to find out what works well at home.
It’s hard to measure the success of some ventures, especially those involving children. The real results might not be visible for years to come, but the Camp Agape staff often finds reasons for optimism.
Maier tells of watching one teenage camper this summer as he listened sympathetically to a younger child talk about bullies. “I used to get bullied, too,” shared the teen. “But a lot of bullies don’t feel good about themselves and they’re trying to make you feel as bad as they do.”
Then he added, “Beth Ann taught me that.”
Maier smiles at the memory. “I thought, ‘I did?’…Yeah… I guess I did.”
For more information about Camp Agape, visit campagapevermont.org.