MILFORD — On a warm night last week, 31 elementary-age kids gathered around a flickering fire at Camp New Happenings. They sang, danced and just relaxed — typical summer camp fun.
Then, without prompting, one boy stood up.
“My father is incarcerated,” he said, “and I won’t see him until I’m 17.”
At most other summer camps, his situation would be unusual. But at Camp New Happenings, it’s normal — each child at the camp has at least one parent incarcerated in a state or federal facility.
“The mission is to provide a week that is fun-filled, free and healthy with love and support,” camp founder Charlotte Strowhorn said.
Strowhorn started the camp four years ago, after attending a convention for the Episcopal Church and learning about children with incarcerated parents.
“I heard that there were mothers incarcerated,” she said. “Well, I had never really thought about a mother being incarcerated before. And that just really did something to me. So I came out of that meeting with a vision.”
The first Camp New Happenings hosted eight children in 2008, and the program has grown ever since. The entire week and transportation is completely free to parents.
Thirty-one kids age 8 to 11 arrived last Monday at Camp Alexander Mack — which hosts Camp New Happenings — for a week of swimming, crafts, campfires, contests, hikes and basketball.
Strowhorn strives to make Camp New Happenings just like any other summer camp.
“Never, ever do we say, ‘You are here because your mother or your father is in prison,’” she said. “We’re not attempting to place any stigma on them. We’re not singling them out as special. This camp is advertised and spoken of as a summer camp that is no different than any other summer camp. Other than the background that the Camp New Happenings children come from, there is no difference.”
Still, the children’s unique backgrounds do impact their camp experience. Strowhorn keeps a behavioral specialist on staff, as well as two chaplains.
“The children have personal issues, temperamental things,” she said. “We have a behavioral support specialist on staff to assist and work with that, because that needs to be someone who is trained.”
The hardship that having one parent incarcerated presents sits just below the surface at Camp New Happenings — masked by grins and jokes, but still tangible.
Isaac, 12, said his favorite part of camp is swimming and seeing his friend Jimmy. But he’s also learning valuable lessons.
“I learned how — what is that word again?” he paused to think, then said, “Oh yeah! I learned how to interact with people I don’t like.”
Xavier, 10, said he also likes swimming, as well as arts and crafts. But what makes camp different from home is not the cabins, the counselors or the campfires. It’s simply the friends.
“I have no friends at home,” he said, “but I have friends here.”
Mose Carter, camp director, said he thinks time and encouragement are the most valuable benefits the camp gives the kids.
“Time to be kids — without any pressure,” he said. “This is a chance for everything to be centered around them. It’s been planned specifically for them. It’s like your birthday, but it goes on for six days.”
Carter has been involved with the camp since the beginning, and said a childhood experience pushed him to be a part of it.
“Years ago when I was a boy, my friend’s father was incarcerated,” he said. “He actually lived with us, and when they used to call his name in school — his name was different than ours — he would never answer. At that point he felt like he was no longer a Carrington, he was a Carter. So he would only answer if they called him that, which was our last name. It’s just something I grew up in, and I understand it to a small degree.”
Carter emphasized that the absence of a parent or both parents is very hard on a child.
“When I was growing up, I had the ability to brag on my father,” he said. “He was the man. And my mom — to me there was nothing greater. To see kids coming to plays and things like that and no one is there, you can see the disappointment. And not only are they not going to show up to this one, but they won’t even be at home. It’s a whole other level of abandonment.”
Still, the mood at Camp New Happenings was undeniably bright as the kids ran around in their bright yellow Camp New Happenings T-shirts.
Despite being one of the first ones to be knocked out of a lively game of Knockout, Marquis, 9, said he liked camp.
“I just like the counselors because they are funny,” he said. “And we get to swim in a lake. There’s a diving board and a dive raft.”
Editor’s note: The News chose to withhold the children’s last names to respect their privacy.
- To register a child or donate, contact: Charlotte Strowhorn, 219-614-8370, email@example.com
- Children ages 8-11 with at least one parent incarcerated at the state or federal level are eligible.
- The camp is free, and transportation is provided.