Creating pathways for children exposed to domestic violence

By: Casey Gwinn
The power of hope

“Camp HOPE saved my life. If it wasn’t for Camp HOPE, I don’t know where I’d be.”

We hear Ashley’s words often from children who have grown up witnessing domestic violence and experiencing related physical and emotional abuse. Ashley came to Camp HOPE as a camper years ago, has become a counselor and is now a sophomore at New York University.  She and countless others’ stories are anecdotes, but they are backed up by research. The University of Oklahoma’s Center of Applied Research on Nonprofit Organizations has proven the power of Camp HOPE America in changing the way children and teens impacted by domestic violence think about themselves and the world around them.

Profiled this month in The Huffington Post, Camp HOPE America is the first ever national camping program to focus solely on children exposed to domestic violence. Between 2 and 10 million children in the U.S. witness domestic violence each year.

In America, we raise our criminals at home. The vast majority of people we put in prison (for ALL crimes) grew up in homes with some mix of child abuse, domestic violence, and/or drugs and alcohol. A large percentage of adult domestic violence victims also grew up with violence and abuse in their home. Offenders and victims populate not only our jails and prisons but our mental health facilities as the impacts of childhood trauma play themselves out in their lives. We can love these kids at ages 8, 9, or 10 in programs like Camp HOPE America, or wait and lock them up at 17 or 18 and say we are tough on crime. It is our choice.

Camp HOPE began in San Diego in 2003 under the leadership of then-San Diego City Attorney Casey Gwinn.  The program was part of the nationally recognized San Diego Family Justice Center, a collaboration of 25 government and non-government agencies co-locating professionals under one roof to focus on serving victims of domestic violence and sexual assault and their children.  Camp HOPE operated as a local program in San Diego from 2003 until 2012, but in 2013 Camp HOPE started moving across the country in partnership with local Family Justice Centers

We can love these kids at 8, 9, or 10 in programs like Camp HOPE America or wait and lock them up at 17 or 18 and say we are tough on crime. It is our choice.

Watch this short video to see the Camp HOPE America Story.

Alliance for HOPE International is the umbrella organization for all Family Justice Centers and similar multi-agency models serving victims of domestic violence and their children throughout the United States. Family Justice Centers seek to bring many services for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse, elder abuse, and human trafficking under one roof so that victims don’t have to travel from agency to agency telling their story over and over again in order to get the help they need. With strong support from the Verizon Foundation over the last ten years, there are more than one hundred Family Justice Centers in the United States. Now, Verizon is a core sponsor in developing Camp HOPE America programs across the country. In 2017, Camp HOPE America will send trauma-exposed children to life-changing camping programs in California, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska, New Jersey, Louisiana, Tennessee, and North Carolina. The dream is to see Camp HOPE America change the destinies of children impacted by domestic violence in every state in the nation.

The Camp HOPE America program, first developed in partnership with Mount Hermon Association and their high adventure-oriented Kidder Creek Camp, is a values-based summer camping and mentoring model with a six-day program and follow-up activities during the school year once children return home. The program focuses on three key elements: “Challenge by Choice” activities, which encourage children with perceived danger or risk to opt out of those activities if the challenge creates unmanageable stress or fear; affirmation and praise for developing and observed character traits; and themed, small group (called HOPE Circles) discussions and activities focused on helping children and teens set goals and successfully pursue those goals.

Camp HOPE program activities often include experiences like rafting, tubing, high and low ropes challenge courses, horseback riding, arts and crafts, kayaking and canoeing, recreational hiking and field games, skits and camp songs. Campers also experience nightly campfires, journaling, time to kick back and relax in the cabins/tents each day with counselors and campers, campfire group discussions each night (“Where did you see hope today?”), three family-style meals each day, and other relationship-oriented activities.

Each day at Camp HOPE America there is a positive statement for the day. Last year these phrases included “I am a unique masterpiece,” “I am becoming my best self,” “We need each other,” “My future is brighter than my past,” and “My best self is within reach.” By having a positive statement for each day, often including group declaration of those statements, children began to internalize their own uniqueness, personal progress, need for others, future-oriented focus, and perseverance.

The difference in the behavior of the Camp HOPE kids from the beginning of a camp week to the end is always stunning. Many kids start angry, shut-down, and often uncommunicative. By the end of the week, they feel part of a community of caring and loving adults and campers. They share their stories, their pain, and their goals and dreams. The research measures children’s Hope scores using a validated index during their week and camp and confirms what every counselor and staff person sees and feels: Hope scores rise and children begin to see their lives can be different than the lives of their parents.

The difference in the behavior of the Camp HOPE kids from the beginning of a camp week to the end is always stunning. Many kids start angry, shut-down, and often uncommunicative. By the end of the week, they feel part of a community of caring and loving adults and campers.

After returning from a week of camp, Camp HOPE kids attend activities and events in their HOPE Circles (cabin groups from camp) during the year to maintain their relationships. Verizon is currently funding a demonstration initiative with San Diego and Imperial County kids in California seeking to engage them in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) activities each month along with other goal setting, adventures, and recreational activities.

If Camp HOPE America gains the support necessary to move across the country, it can change the destinies of thousands of children and teens. To learn more about the lifesaving work of Camp HOPE America, go to www.allianceforhope.com. You can also buy Verizon products to give children hope. During October, Verizon is donating money from purple products purchased in stores or online to Alliance for HOPE International to support Camp HOPE America. Thousands of other children like Ashley need many to become Hope Givers. Your volunteer time or financial support can help a hurting child find a pathway to hope and healing.