VIPER — For many teens going to camp is an annual event often as part of a church group. But for one group of local teenagers, a camp held again in Perry County last week has become a life-changing experience made possible through the work of dozens of local volunteers.
A little over four years ago District Judge Leigh Anne Stephens noticed a trend in her courtroom of juveniles coming in and reporting that they had become delinquent because of a lack of things to do, positive role models or just not feeling as though anyone cared about them. She saw many of these young men going down a bad path, and she feared for their future and what effect their future may have on the future of the community.
After sitting down with Zach Sandlin, a juvenile parole officer for Perry County, they began work on getting influential people in the community together to help these students.
“It is amazing what happens when a judge calls,” Sandlin said. “Everybody shows up when a judge calls. There was about 40 community partners at the table and she just said, ‘What services do you have that can we offer these kids?’”
They looked for existing outlets for these students and found nothing encompassing enough to reach each teen.
“Every program had red tape,” said Sandlin. “Kids have to fall within a certain economic status. Kids had to already be withdrawn from school. To qualify for some programs kids have to still be in school and not have any truancy issues, and some could never have any court involvement.”
After realizing the difficulty they would have in finding an outlet for all of the students that they were trying to reach, they decided it would be for the best to create their own. They formed Project Hope and its flagship event, Camp Promise. Just a few months after this initial meeting, the first Camp Promise was held in 2009, while the latest took place just last week.
The camp is four days and three nights at Twin Rocks Bible Camp on the Middle Fork of Maces Creek. The camp has cabins for 50 campers and their camp dads. There are two camp dads per cabin that stay overnight with the campers, and around 100 volunteers that help out during the day.
The camp is free to any male child between the ages of 12 and 18. Many times these students are referred to the camp because schools, parole officers, LKLP, Kentucky River Community Care or even parents feel they could use a positive role model.
Participants are each given everything they will need for the trip for free, such as toiletries, sleeping bags, pillows, socks, t-shirts, and swim trunks. For some of the campers, Sandlin noted, the experience may be something that they otherwise may not have been given.
“Some of our kids that been here this week have never had a pillow,” he said.
Since the camp’s inception, 257 campers, many of which have come back for several years, have been able to participate. Some who have come to the camp have even come back as councilors and volunteers once they become too old to stay at the camp.
Many of these campers have used the contacts they have made at the camp to get jobs, advice, or just have a role model.
“They know we care about them and they turn to their cabin dads throughout the year,” said Judge Stephens.
Since the initial idea for the camp, it has grown and now expanded to encompass many different events and children who have not been referred because of behavioral, truancy, or court related issues. Roughly 50 percent of the referrals come from parents who can not afford to send their child to a summer camp, Sandlin noted.
While Camp Promise is still the largest event that is a part of Project Hope, they now have events year round, and are looking to include more things for students to do.
“It is an ongoing project,” said Sandlin. “No matter what goals we set we are working toward having no kid involved in court.”
One of the major events in their current calendar is their Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners. Sandlin said that last year they fed the entire families of the campers.
“In November of last year we fed 172 people,” he said. “There is no cost. We eat the cost of everything.”
Judge Stephens said that one major thing continues to be a large problem for many of these children is education. Many have difficulty reading, which holds them back in other subject areas. She said that the next major thing that she would like to do is find a way to ensure the kids are getting the educational help they need.
“The thing I want for the future is a tutoring program for these kids,” said Stephens. “That is probably the number one need that they have if they could become educated. So many of them struggle in school, and that is why they become truant.”
This year’s group of campers were treated to several new activities, including equine therapy. Judge Stephens said that she believes that for many of the campers it is a great learning experience to have the respect which comes from a large animal, but also being able to ride it and have fun as well.
Along with the activities, the campers also get the opportunity to meet hundreds of volunteers from different jobs and backgrounds that are able to help give the campers direction. Stephens said that she feels that these volunteers deserve a lot of credit for this work.
“Our volunteers took vacation time to be here, and I think that is just amazing,” Stephens said.
It is this hard work and dedication that helps make the experience so great that many campers have come back for all four years. One of these campers is Silas Walker, a 17-year-old Hazard High School student.
“I loved it the first year and I have just had to come back every year,” said Walker, adding that many of the contacts campers have made over the years have been able to help them out, and have even helped to get jobs for former campers.
“They do good here,” he noted.