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Summer harvest

A camp just for foster kids gives neglected and abused children the chance to have a normal summer.

Emily Summars August 3rd, 2011

It’s your first birthday party, right along with 54 others. Complete with cake and presents, today is your day. At Harvest Foster Kids Camp, kids get parties, they get makeovers, they get knighted: They get to live the normal life of a kid.

Harvest Foster Kids Camp is a free, four-day camp for children aged 7 to 11 who are in foster care. Some children attending the camp have been in as many as 11 foster homes. Of the 8,605 cases of child abuse and neglect in the state, more than 2,000 of those cases were reported in Oklahoma County, according to a 2009 report released by the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.

Ellana Walker, fundraising team leader for camp, remembers one child talking about flunking out of school.

“I just looked at her,” Walker said.

“She’s in fifth grade and she said, ‘I haven’t flunked out yet, but I will at some point.’ These kids have no hope.”

So think of the kids camp as a four-day vacation from life, worries and foster care.

“They come in as closed shells, and as the week progresses, they bloom into the people they are,” said Allison Morris, camp director. “Everyone involved is a volunteer, and they shower love on these kids.”

There are two kids assigned to one camp counselor. The kids are treated to a birthday party, daily crafts opportunities, hiking, horseback riding and shopping at the camp store. Campers can earn camp “money” for good behavior and can buy anything from board games to Polly Pockets.

“My boys came home and said, ‘Memaw, look what we bought you,’” said Shella Jackson, who recently adopted her two grandsons. “They bought fishing poles. They love that store. They love the attention.”

Girls receive makeovers and the boys played with Tulsa University football players for a day. All of this costs some mullah. Running on roughly $35,000, Harvest Foster Kids Camp partners with the state Department of Human Services and Harvest Church to cover the bill for each child to attend camp at $350 a child. DHS  performs background checks on the 100-plus volunteers and provides eight to 10 hours of training.

Jackson said her two grandsons get to be kids.

“I love the friendliness and respect camp staff have for each other and the kids,” she said. “When they come home, they both start telling me stories and I’d be like, ‘OK, hold on, hold on.’ I can’t even put it into words.” Jackson laughs as she thinks about the kids with all of their excitement and stories to tell her.

Without other playmates in their area, her children get the opportunity to play and have a massive sleepover. And, it gives her and “Papa” a break.

“We want to exhibit what a family is like,” Morris said. “We have camp grandpa and grandma, aunts and uncles … you start to see life again in their eyes and you can see it all over their faces.”

The most popular activity among the kids: swimming.

“A camper came up to my husband and said, ‘Thanks for teaching me to swim,’” Walker said. “It’s all worth it for that right there.”

Campers get to do things they’ve never done before, like sing “Happy Birthday” with 54 other campers.

“The orphans of our community are in foster care,” Walker said.

“People don’t really like thinking about foster care, but we all have a responsibility. These kids are wise beyond their years and they can change our community.”

Something you wouldn’t expect:

camp brings families together.

“A lot of siblings are in different homes,” Morris said. “Getting to see them make those childhood memories together, we want kids to have memories with their siblings.”

Each camp day is packed with food, activities and quiet reflection time. Four days of fun ends with a tree-planting ceremony. Each child writes down bad memories. This year a little boy tried to touch the branches of trees that were planted in the past and couldn’t reach.

“Someone said, ‘That’s your life. You’re going to go so high you can’t even reach it and your memories will stay buried far beneath you,” Morris said. “I asked a little girl where her bad memories were and she replied, ‘I buried them last year; they’re gone.’” Every camper leaves with a photo album to cherish time at camp. Next year’s camp goal is to sponsor 80 children. Donations of time and material items, including food, are welcome. Visit harvestfosterkidsoutreach.com.

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