This summer, I had the unique experience of switching my nurse hat from PICU nurse to volunteer camp nurse for a 5-day sleepaway camp for foster kids through my church and Royal Family Kids Camp. For 5 days, 42 volunteers staffed a camp for 28 foster kids, ages 6-12, to give them a week where they could simply enjoy being kids and be treated like royalty for a week. The counselor to camper ratio was 1:1 or 1:2, and the remaining staff served to run activities and support the counselors. To put the potential significance of this camp for these kids into some perspective, one foster parent I spoke with at registration told me of some kids she has fostered who hated the idea of camp because their only previous experience of “camp” was when the previous adults in their lives took them camping, but shut all the children into an enclosed space where they couldn’t go anywhere while the adults indulged in drugs and alcohol. For some of these campers, this was the first real and safe kids’ camp they’d ever experienced.
As camp nurse, I was primarily responsible for medication administration, usually for issues like ADHD, depression, asthma and allergies, and then the expected duties with first aid here and there. I expected those duties. What I didn’t expect was to have a child come to me complaining of chest pain and sudden itchiness in the face, only to draw out from him that the only precipitating factor for his symptoms was a heated argument with his cabinmate that needed resolution and reconciliation. I told him, “You know, sometimes when I get really mad, my body feels really yucky too. Why don’t you go with your counselor to talk to your cabinmate about the fight and if your chest still hurts afterwards, come back and let me know.” He went with his counselor and didn’t come back to see me. I didn’t expect to look out for bruising and swelling as some campers broke out in fights with each other, and even threw wild punches at our team in their most frustrated moments. Because while this was in structure a typical kids’ camp, with sports and crafts, pooltime and chapel and games, it was also a place where these precious children were kids trying to be normal kids in one moment, but became wildly agitated in the next moment from sometimes hidden triggers, full of fury, confusion and dysregulation in response to their dysregulated childhood. Sometimes it lasted a few minutes, sometimes a couple of hours. Sometimes we engaged one group in play while we heard one child howl in the distance as his counselors worked to console his young heart. My heart and mind barely knew what to do with the dissonance I felt.
Up until this point, my main nursing experience with kids in foster care has been as the bedside PICU nurse for children so severely abused, or so far gone from self-inflicted harm, that they have not been conscious enough to interact with. They are usually so medicalized by the time they get to us in the PICU, I really don’t know much about their true personhood. But after one particularly harrowing case where we saw the most cruel signs of disregard that drove a girl into self-destructive despair, and too many cases after hers, I found myself thinking a great deal about what led these children to our PICU, and how we as not just nurses, but humans in the community, might prevent these young ones from being that next awful code in our unit.
This experience with Royal Family Kids Camp shows me a glimpse of what that kind of prevention, that human connection, might look like. It’s both heartbreaking and hopeful.
You see, while it felt as though the darkness of the campers’ stories rose up like towering trees, threatening to eclipse all the little lives in the campground, I watched as our team opened their hearts wide open with the light of God’s unwavering, unconditional, relentless, strong and tender love in Jesus Christ. They took blows from the children and absorbed their pain, and came back with hugs, affirmation, presence and mercy. In both words and action, our team told the children, “You can hit me but I will still love you.” Day after day, the team would play with the children, take more blows, and come back to love the children again.
This was the light that shone in the darkness all week. The light that says evil does not always triumph over good, fury does not always triumph over peace, selfishness does not always triumph over sacrificial love. For five days, I watched our team shine the bright light of Christ into the darkness. And though the time felt much too short, I believe with all my heart that these five days gave the children hope that light can in fact exist in their dark world, and that light can break through the darkness.
I’m learning more about the foster world and how to better support not only the kids, but also their caregivers who pour out so much to love these children daily. For now, I leave you with this plea. The next time you see that out of control child in the park, in the market, at school, on the street, will you love them with the love of Christ? Will you extend to them kindness in place of judgment? You don’t know their story, but you can shine light into their world.