Life can be difficult for children and teens whose parents are in jail or prison or pre-release.
They feel the stigma of knowing that their mother or father is behind bars. And these kids may not get the same opportunities as other youth their own age.
For a week in June, at a church camp 10 miles north of Polson, all that changes for 30 students entering grades three through eight. They leave their worries behind at Grace Camp at Camp Marshall on Flathead Lake.
“It gives them an opportunity to be kids among kids, as opposed to bringing that burden with them,” said the Rev. John Toles, rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Billings.
Toles serves as chaplain at the camp that is sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of Montana, which owns the property. Grace Camp is slated for June 15-20 this year.
At the camp, participants take part in chapel and morning activities, including arts and crafts. In the afternoon, they get to play in field games, theater games, music, enjoy swimming, hiking and other outdoor activities.
“You name it, they can do it,” Toles said. “If it’s outdoors, they can play it.”
Although the camp facilities can actually handle 70 kids, Grace Camp is limited to 30 so that the ratio of campers to staff is one-to-one.
“Many of the children who come to this camp bring a whole different set of issues,” Toles said. “So we want to be able to provide the best care possible.”
In the past, not many youths eligible for the camp from south central and Eastern Montana have applied for the camp. Toles wanted to get the word out early this year in hopes that their legal guardians will sign them up.
As for transportation, if the campers can get to St. Luke’s in Billings, Toles said he’ll get them up to the camp in northwest Montana. Camp Grace is absolutely free for the students.
“It’s paid for by many kind people,” Toles said.
On top of that, women in the diocese spend the winter making quilts that are given to the participants to take home at the end of of the week.
Some of the campers show up with their clothes in a plastic bag, without a bathing suit or tennis shoes, Toles said. Camp counselors take inventory on the first day, and that night the staff goes to a nearby Wal-Mart and buys everything the campers need.
The camp is free, and it’s also freeing, he said. It’s an opportunity for the kids to find out that they’re not weird, that others share common problems and that the issues their parents deal with are not their own.
“We try to do that in many ways, simply by loving them,” Toles said.
It’s a Christian camp, he said, and the staff shares Christian values with the campers. But when the staff meets before the start of the week, the emphasis is on loving the youths.
“If kids go home and all they were able to take away from the camp was the opportunity to be a kid for six days, then we have done our job,” Toles said.