What I Learned at Camp

by Nicole Austin
There have been only a handful of times in my life when I have concretely felt the call of God to do something specific. While I’ve never heard an actual voice or anything like that, there have been a few moments where I suddenly and unmistakably felt a pull that I could not otherwise explain. The first time I heard that our church was going to be partnering with Royal Family Kids to put on a week-long summer camp for foster children in Los Angeles was one of those times. On paper it made no sense… I have three children of my own, two of whom would be on summer vacation at the time the camp was to be held. My husband’s career as an actor is unpredictable enough that we never know exactly what his schedule might be, and the notion of my leaving them all for a week was a bit strange. Although I have many dear friends who have been involved in the foster care system, either as foster parents or mentors, I had no specific training or experience that would make me a particularly obvious fit for something like this. Still, there was no denying that this seemed like something I should pursue.

I can honestly say that the week at camp was one of the most impactful of my life. I am unbelievably proud of the group of volunteers that came together to participate. The week was hard. I don’t think I’ve ever cried that many tears in a five-day span, and the juxtaposition of extreme emotions that we all felt throughout the week was intense. My husband likes to say that parenting is like a roller coaster, only the highs are higher than you can possibly imagine and the lows are lower. This experience was similar, only magnified by intensity and the proximity to the unspeakable trauma and challenge faced by the kids who were our campers.

There’s a lot I can’t put into words, both because I am committed to protecting the confidentiality of our campers and because so much of it is difficult to articulate. But there are a few things I can share, lessons I learned that week about the body of believers, God’s plans, and the need to be flexible when loving others.

First, the body of Christ is real and beautiful. I’ve listened to many sermons over my decades as a Christian that have used the metaphor of a body to talk about the group of people who make up a church. First Corinthians 12, in particular, is a chapter that is often used to illustrate how each of us has a part to play in the body. Whether we are a foot or a hand, an ear or an eye, we serve an integral and necessary purpose in the operation of the whole. While I’ve always understood this intellectually, I don’t think I ever really felt it in my gut until Royal Family Kids camp.

As volunteers, we had each been assigned roles, as counselor or staff member, social worker or camp nurse. Before camp we sat through hours of training learning the expectations for these roles and what each one of us was to do. But then the reality of camp came, and we quickly learned that sometimes a counselor was pressed into service as an errand runner, and sometimes a camp nurse became both a snack dispenser and a swimming coach. Sometimes a camper who had been assigned to a specific counselor formed a bond with a different adult, and suddenly that volunteer had a new role as a mentor, one that they hadn’t expected. We were constantly having to evaluate and re-evaluate our roles, reacting in the moment to what was most helpful and necessary. I’ll never forget one mealtime when I had what amounted to a five-minute conversation with another volunteer that in reality was merely a series of glances across the room, and we each immediately mobilized in different directions to address the issues we saw needed our attention.

This may all sound very mundane in the re-telling, but I can assure you that it was not. Each one of us was stretched so far out of our comfort zone that it was both painful and disorienting, and there was absolutely no room for any ego or sense of “but that isn’t my job.” We saw needs and rose to meet them together, bending like a grove of trees yielding in a severe storm to the winds we were facing. It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, and gave me, for the first time, a real glimpse of what is possible among a body of believers all diligently serving God and working in concert with one another. It was truly beautiful, and I saw in the most visceral way how we could accomplish together things that alone would have been impossible.

Second, God has a perfect plan, and we don’t need to know it all. This is another one of those things that I know in theory. Proverbs 3:5 puts it quite plainly: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” And yet, I am a planner. I like to know everything that is going on. I like to have all of the details, preferably laid out in a spreadsheet and complete with contingency plans if something changes. Going into camp, while I knew that I was not in charge, I trusted that our directors had done an excellent job of getting us ready, and I felt confident that there would be open communication and we would have all of the information we needed to do our jobs well throughout.

What I did not fully understand until we got there was just how intense it would be, and how often we would be operating with selective and severely limited information as we went along. At any given time, there were at least a dozen different challenges (and sometimes crises) being faced by individual volunteers and campers, and I know that I saw only a small fraction of what we were dealing with as a group. Even during the brief times when we were able to come together for group meetings, we quickly found that there was no way to communicate all that had transpired during the course of the day, and it was all we could do to surface some of the most crucial items that needed to be addressed going forward.

Normally, this type of situation would fill me with a level of anxiety and discomfort that would manifest itself in unpleasant ways, both for myself and those around me. But in the pressure cooker that was camp, it simply highlighted for me a reality that in my day-to-day life I like to deny, stripping back the illusion of knowledge and control to reveal the truth. There was so much I didn’t know, so much I didn’t understand, and it was okay. I did the best I could with the information I had and trusted that other members of the volunteer team and leadership were handling the things they were being tasked to do. Ultimately I knew that God was overseeing all of us, fully sovereign over every detail. I felt less in control, and simultaneously more at peace, than I have ever felt. The paradox was overwhelming and comforting at the same time.

Third, I learned that flexibility is essential, especially in trying to love others. In daily life, I am a rule follower, and I feel most comfortable when expectations and standards are clearly and firmly defined. And in fact, one of the things that makes Royal Family Kids so unique and so special is that there are a lot of very defined rules and regulations, all thoughtfully and prayerfully established to ensure that everyone is safe and protected throughout their time at camp. But like the Pharisees, it is all too easy for us to add on to the stated rules, establishing others that also need to be followed, and it is these I quickly learned have no place at camp (or in life in general).

In Matthew 12, Jesus and his disciples are accused several times of disobeying the law. In each instance, Jesus points out that mercy and doing good are to be valued above the exogenous and additional laws that the Pharisees have placed on the people. At camp, we had many instances where the needs of individual campers warranted a change in either the schedule of events, or in the way we went about following them. As one example, we had a set of sisters with us who currently live in two different foster homes. Although we had them placed in different cabins, it became clear on the first night that the older sister really wanted to braid her younger sister’s hair at some point during our week together (and the younger sister was looking forward to having it done). This was not a small task, and had to be undertaken in small chunks over several nights. On the last evening, as it grew closer to bedtime, it became very clear that the braids were not going to be finished by the official lights-out time, and a decision had to be made whether or not to let the girls stay up to finish. The joy we were able to give both girls, leaving them with a happy memory that they could take back into their lives (not to mention a brand-new hairstyle), was more than worth the bedtime delay.

There is much more I could say about the lessons I took from my short experience at Royal Family Kids, and I am already looking forward to next year. I am thrilled that our church was able to host a Christmas party in December for some of the campers, and it was a true joy to see their faces again and to hear how they’ve been doing in the months since camp, and how many of them are looking forward to attending again this summer. But my gratitude for the experience will last far beyond this year and next. The microcosm of camp gave me a glimpse of the power of the body of Christ, the magnitude of God’s perfect plan, and the blessing of adjusting our own expectations as we strive to love others, lessons I can apply in West Los Angeles just as easily as in a campground in the middle of the woods.
Posted in
Tagged with