It’s no secret that some foster children have had a rough start. While there are many success stories, there are also lots of kids who could use a little loving intervention. That’s the purpose of Whatcom County’s Royal Family KIDS Camp.
Director Kim Smith has seen plenty of happy results during her 17 years with the organization. “We take in kids from all backgrounds,” she says. “We have some campers who, at the beginning, will barely get off the bus, and at the end of the week they’re smiling, singing, dancing and participating in everything.”
In the 1980s, Wayne Tesch, a pastor in Costa Mesa, California, learned about the large number of foster kids in his area, and knew he needed to help. He found a local campground he could use during the off-season, recruited helpers, and brought in area youth to take part in some much-needed recreation. By 1985 the organization now known as Royal Family KIDS was born.
A few years later, a member of Fairhaven’s Hillcrest Church saw Tesch speak, and decided to bring the his mission home. In 1993, the group’s seventh camp opened here in Whatcom County. Smith joined in 2002 and is understandably proud of all the good work being accomplished—there are now 242 camps in the United States, and more spread around the rest of the world. For 2019, they’ve set a collective goal of serving 100,000 kids.
All of the camps are staffed by volunteers who undergo yearly training, including a method called Trust Based Relational Intervention, a tool used to gain the confidence of campers and help break down walls that can keep some of them from connecting. “When it first came about, I thought it was pretty soft,” Smith admits. “But you get down on their level and talk to them, and they say, ‘Oh, you’re actually listening to me.’”
One result of the organization’s success is that once people become involved, they tend to stay involved. “70 percent of our campers are returning to us from the year before, and around 80 percent of our staff are returning—we just had one volunteer reach 20 years of service,” Smith says.
Some campers even return as staffers. “One young man was just recognized for ten years of service, and he was a camper with us for six years,” says Smith. “Now he’s getting a master’s degree in social work at Eastern Washington University.”
Each counselor is assigned two kids for the week, and counting support staff, there are as many volunteers as there are campers. “So, they get a lot of help and attention from people that treat them like kids,” Smith says. Allowing a youngster to act like a youngster is an important goal at the camp.
“We had a behavioral therapist who wanted to get all the kids together to talk about this and that,” she says, referring to some of the troubles kids have experienced. “I said no. She said, ‘Well what are we here for, just to watch the kids play?’ I said yes—we want them to just be kids for a week, and not have to worry about anything.”
Eight years ago the organization added mentoring to their services. “Any camper that has been through camp and any counselor can sign up for training, and any staff that has done our camp can be part of mentoring.” Smith says. Mentoring is a practical way to keep maintain a positive momentum. “We can keep the relationship going and they can keep up with what they’ve learned at camp.”
Because Royal Family KIDS is a volunteer organization, they’re always happy to hear from community members interested in taking part. Counselors must be at least 18 years old, and support staff—who work behind the scenes before, during, and after the week of camp, either part time or full time—must be 16 years or older. ,And of course, financial contributions are very important and much appreciated.
Royal Family KIDS is grateful to have local appliance retailer DeWaard & Bode on their side, both as an ally to depend on and as a member of the larger community of groups that serve the public.Cruisin Coffee offer a huge amount of support during their annual Drive-By Giving event, which allows the community to donate simply by getting their regular cup of coffee, and Pure Bliss earns a special place in campers’ hearts by donating sweet goodies to the camp for their “Everybody’s Birthday” event.
Thanks to continuing community support, Royal Family KIDS staff are able to provide for this demographic that many of us do not see, or maybe don’t understand. “By coming along with these kids, as a community, to create positive memories and help them change their lives and make them feel valued and worthy, we’re breaking the cycle of abuse and/or neglect in their lives,” says Smith,” so they can have a chance to become thriving members of our community.”
It’s a heartwarming theme that comes up every time Smith speaks: “Despite their hard start, they’re worthy of love, just like everyone else.”