CHANGE FOR CHILDREN: Kids of prisoners learn to bond and play at JC Evangelical camp

CHANGE FOR CHILDREN: Kids of prisoners learn to bond and play at JC Evangelical camp

A Maryville District-sponsored evangelical ministry spans several states and includes five churches in several districts to reach out to a specific group of children.

JC Evangelistic Ministries hosts “With Open Arms Camp,” which ministers to children with incarcerated parents. The weeklong event is held at Camp Ahistadi in the Abingdon District.

“We match them up to a big brother or big sister for a week,” said the Rev. Jason Roe, camp director. “It started out as a mission-type thing for teenagers.”

In its eighth year, Roe said grants and individual donations fund the camp each year. He said it takes from $4,000 to $5,000 to provide camp each year. This year, “With Open Arms Camp” received a $2,000 Change for Children grant, the ministry’s second award.

“I never have had to skip it because the money is always there,” Roe said.

Children attending the camp come from Kingston and Bristol, Tenn., and Mountain City, Va. Prison chaplains distribute flyers each year to inmates. In some cases, people who have heard about the camp by word of mouth contact Roe. Campers range from second graders to rising fifth graders. Teens and other members from Fairview, Kodak, First Bristol, and Marvin’s Chapel UMC serve as volunteers.

"We try to provide a structured atmosphere, because most of them come out of no structure or boundaries,” Roe said. “We have a full schedule.”

That schedule includes "family group time," with 10 campers and a leader, who guides them into Bible study and sharing. They also swim, bicycle, hike, climb, and play lots of games. A corporate evening worship time provides opportunities for participants to present skits, cheers, songs, or other acts showing lessons they learned during the day. Before lights out, they have devotions. The camp also offers three nutritious meals each day.

The campers have ample time to spend with their big brothers or big sisters.

"There is a trust issue (with the campers),” Roe said. "They don’t know why this teen is caring about them so much. Some of those kids are timid at first. Everyone who has loved them has either been taken away or has gone away.”

As the week progresses, campers let down their guards and begin to bond, Roe said. They finally realize that others love them and are being genuine with them. Many of the big brothers and sisters stay in contact with their “little siblings” throughout the year. Roe said he knows of several who have stayed close at least six years.

“Those connections do stay,” Roe said.

Throughout the week, the children receive encouragement from the camp counselors. Rock-climbing, for example, can help build confidence. A child may only climb so far up the wall at the beginning of the camp. But if he continues to try and finally makes it to the top -- or at least closer to the top than where he began -- he might gain confidence in his accomplishment.

“The kids can recite every book in the Bible, and we see the spiritual growth,” Roe said. “They become knowledgeable, and are given a Bible to take home.”

Roe said JC Evangelical Ministries pays for campers' fees. Volunteer youth pay between $50 and $100, depending on support provided by grants such as Change for Children.

“Every year about this time, I say, ‘Lord, we have to put a deposit on the camp.’ Usually, when I do that, I have no idea whether I can do it, but the Lord continues to provide,” Roe said. “I’m amazed.”