It’s a long way from Sierra Leone to Grand Rapids, Mich., but it wasn’t too far for Foday Cole to shake his reputation. The angry troublemaker who had burned down villages back in Africa was a regular in fights at school in America. Foday had been able to elude rebel soldiers, fleeing for several weeks through forests and living off the land with an older brother and younger sister after rebel warriors invaded his village during Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war. (His father and a sister were killed, and his mother was captured.) But Foday remained an outcast of sorts. He didn’t want to be forced to fight as a child soldier, yet peace-loving villagers didn’t want anything to do with such a volatile boy. “People were scared of him in the villages because he was such a bad kid,” says Noelle Gable, program director of Urban Family Ministries in Grand Rapids, Mich., who has grown close to Foday and his family.

After eventually being reunited with his mother in a refugee camp, Foday and his family were allowed to move to the United States. They settled in Grand Rapids, where Foday and his sister got involved with Urban Family Ministries. Foday initially received tutoring to help him learn to read English. Eventually he was given the opportunity to attend camp at Grace Adventures through scholarship partnerships between the two organizations. “When I went there I was nervous,” Foday says about camp.

But being away from the normal pressures of life gave the young teen the freedom to relax and explore who he was, what he believed. “I had been into Muslim religion,” Foday says. “So I was asking about Christianity. I was asking like in the Bible, the Trinity — how could three people be one person? A lot of those kind of questions.”

He wanted to know more, and he was determined to get answers. “He literally would raise his hand during teaching time and ask clarifying questions,” says Ben VanderKodde, Grace Adventure’s speaker trainer. “It was like this unquenchable thirst.”

Grace Adventures became a special place for the young refugee. The natural setting reminded him of Africa. He had fun playing games. “And they have farm work tools, so I really got interested in those,” he says. Counselors, staff and fellow campers became a safe, accepting community for him, and they reinforced the same spiritual lessons and priorities he had been hearing from Noelle and her staff.

“I think that week of camp was what really pushed him to take that next huge step of, OK, I really want to learn this. I really want to start digging. I really want to start making some changes,” Noelle says.

Foday decided to become a Christian after camp, and he continued to receive help and support from friends and mentors at Grace and Urban Family Ministries. “It was like this mask of uncertainty and distrust was removed, and there was a freedom about him, a light in his eyes,” Ben says.

Transformation

Each year about 6 million people attend one of the 850 camps affiliated with the Christian Camp and Conference Association, and they don’t have to be refugees to go home transformed. “Some of our members report that up to 40 percent of campers make a first-time commitment to Christ at camp,” says Gregg Hunter, president of CCCA. “Christian camps provide unique settings to encounter God’s love in powerful ways. And kids’ lives are changed forever.”

As Foday found, camp provides a respite from normal life — a break that can be invaluable for today’s kids who daily face pressures more intense than those faced by their parents. Bullying, violence, self injury, substance abuse, self doubt and social, academic, economic and extracurricular pressures bombard kids today, all at a superspeed gigabytes-per-second pace. Even the “good kids” are not immune.