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.

Is it any wonder that simply stepping away from the frenzy can bring life-changing perspective? “Something sacred happens when you remove students from outside distractions and live life with them,” says Chad Herman, a church middle school director after taking his students to Pennsylvania’s Rock Mountain Bible Camp. “Walls break down, friendships happen, memories are made, unspoken issues and struggles are revealed and God speaks.”

Anyone who has ever experienced the refreshment of a vacation or the renewal of a spiritual retreat can identify. But today’s camps take those concepts a few steps further. Kids find nurturing environments filled with friends and fun, adventurous activities — all within beautiful natural settings that seem a world away from the problems or distractions they left at home. Speakers and youth workers provide relevant and engaging content to help kids grow. And mentors are constantly available to listen, counsel and encourage kids through questions and struggles.

All of these factors help to create what Gregg calls temporary community, a setting free from the pressures and burdens from peer groups, parents and even kids themselves. “Kids start to see themselves in a new light, as the people they want to be rather than the people they have to be,” Gregg says. “And with this new vision for their future opened up to them, they feel free to consider a relationship with the God who made them and loves them unconditionally.

The sense of acceptance and unconditional community can stabilize broken self-esteem and fuel new confidence. Of course, the transformations that take place are as unique as the campers themselves.

“I had never experienced Christian grace,” says Heather, who grew up in an abusive home. “But during my summer at Doe River Gorge, I experienced for the first time what it was like to be known and accepted for who I was, not what I had done.”

One 11-year-old boy named Austin chose to attend camp at the Texas-based Rockin’ C Ranch even though his stepfather was in hospice care, dying from leukemia. “I remember him telling us that he chose to come back to camp because he knew he would be surrounded by Christians who would pray for him and his family and would love him and comfort him though it,” says Amber Payne, assistant director at Rockin’ C.

And in Michigan a fatherless teen discovered mentors who continue to influence him years later. “Through Grace Adventures I was shown what it looked like to be a godly man,” Matthew De Renzo says. “The staff mentored, taught, and became role models in my life. Many of these staff members are still in my life and are who I look up to.”

Giving Back

The average camp may last a week, but it’s not uncommon for camp-forged bonds to extend far beyond. Often those who experience the greatest impact return as counselors to pour what they’ve learned into the lives of others. Sometimes those kids seem the least likely to turn into counselors when they first arrive as campers.

Zach Falki couldn’t even look at adults who were speaking to him when he first arrived at southwestern Pennsylvania’s Jumonville. The then-15-year-old was referred to Jumonville’s H.O.P.E. Camp (Help Overcoming Problems Everyday) by his counselor because he was so painfully shy and withdrawn. The counselor hoped simply to get Zach through a week that would help him build socialization skills. It did more than that. “Zach seemed to find a niche,” says Ree Enlow, Jumonville’s program services director. “He not only came to camp, he grew at camp.”

Zach returned the following summer and asked to become a counselor in training. “I just looked at him and said, ‘Zach, are you sure you know what that means?’” Ree says. “'That means you’re going to be in front; you’re going to be a leader.’ And he said, ‘Yes Ms. Ree, I’m ready.’ When his mom picked him up, she burst into tears and said, ‘I don’t know what you’ve done to my son.’"

"They helped me grow. I thought if they could help me, then I could help other kids,” Zach says. “I thought it’d be an opportunity, a new step in my life to help people.”

As a high school junior, Zach is eager to become a counselor at Jumonville once he’s 18, and he aspires to work full-time someday at a camp, perhaps as a director. “It’s hard to believe he was the same kid I met who wouldn’t shake my hand or look at my face,” Ree says.

Back at Grace Adventures, Foday Cole also returned to serve as a counselor in training, a role he proved to be a natural for. “He was phenomenal working with younger students and building into them,” Ben says. “His fun-loving spirit and relational side really came out once he was able to experience that love himself.”

The 19-year-old refugee still faces challenges. He finished high school and is attending a technical school, but reading remains difficult. Still he is working to write a book about his life experiences, and he dreams of returning to Sierra Leone as a pastor who brings God’s love and hope to his homeland. Those who remember him there may not recognize the young man whose life is marked more by joy than anger. “Maybe there’s a purpose for me,” Foday says. “My purpose will be to go back home to tell others what I learned.”

Who knows? Maybe Foday will start a camp in his homeland someday. “Camps of all shapes and sizes across the country experience the same kinds of results,” says CCCA’s Gregg Hunter. “There’s just no denying that God uses the unique environment of camps to powerfully change lives.”