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Summer camp transforms at-risk children

Ayzia Winfrey, 12, balances on the tire swings at HOPE Camp, a United Methodist camp for at-risk youth in Pennsylvania‘s Laurel Highlands region. UMNS photos by Clay Kisker.

By Gwen Kisker*
July 23, 2009 | HOPWOOD, Pa. (UMNS)

“You trust me to catch you?” Ocie Paige, 19, yells up to his 13-year-old brother, Michael, who is perched on the edge of a 15-foot tower wearing a harness that is attached to a cable.


A camper gets a boost
from a counselor.
  

Michael is standing in the distance, ready to help his brother land along the path of the 200-foot zip-line.

This obstacle is one of many the boys have faced in life. Ocie never met his father; the boys’ mother has been in and out of prison.

Yet this challenge is designed to build up their self-worth, not tear it down. It is an exercise in trust – trust that the harness will work and that another person will protect him from harm.

“Come on, you can do it!” Ocie encourages his younger brother at HOPE Camp at Jumonville, a United Methodist facility about 50 miles south of Pittsburgh near Uniontown, Pa.

Building trust and self-confidence is an important part of the mission of the camp serving “at-risk” youth. HOPE stands for Helping Overcome Problems Everyday.

Camp founder Ree Enlow from nearby Chalk Hill United Methodist Church is a former “project kid” who came upon the idea of a camp for children of present or former inmates 13 years ago while serving in prison ministry. Some 7,000 children would be eligible in Western Pennsylvania, she discovered.

The first camp served six children for three days. It has grown to seven weeks with about 20 children a session, expanding to include youth from all types of challenging environments.


Counselor Ocie Paige, 19, first
came to the camp as an angry
6-year-old gang member.
   

Enlow spends the off-season raising $60,000 to give each child a complete scholarship. The camp relies on United Methodist support.

It is a crusade for Enlow.

“It’s amazing to listen to the stories of the kids. Some of the kids have a parent that they may not have seen since they were 2 and yet they’re teenagers. Others have had their parents move away and not tell them where they were. Others are in foster care. Others may have been gang raped,” Enlow says. “It’s just the saddest of the saddest stories. And how can you say that you can’t find a place for them at camp? How does that work? I don’t understand that.”

For cousins Juanita Harris and Ayzia Winfrey, HOPE Camp offers peace and security they can’t find at home in McKeesport.

“Where I grow up, the challenges are there are a lot of kidnappings and stuff and it makes you kinda scared,” says 11-year-old Harris. Winfrey, 12, agrees, “There’s people up the street where they would be shooting everywhere and it’s hard for you to, like, sleep. “

Counselors guide campers through obstacles here and the ones they face at home by staying in touch throughout the year.


For 13 years, the camp has been challenging campers so they are better equipped to manage life when they leave.
   

Ocie Paige credits the HOPE camp with turning him from an angry boy to a successful college student. “I was in a gang at the age of 6 so that’s why I didn’t care about nobody. About three years ago I finally quit helping all my friends that was in those gangs and decided to go my own way,” says Ocie.

He returned this year as a camp counselor.

“I decided to become a counselor because I figured that since camp has changed me in so many ways, why not try and help and make that same difference in many other people’s lives instead of just trying to live for myself,” he says.

Finally, Ocie convinces Michael to let go and let the zip-line lead him through the forest.

He is weightless and free. His feet begin to scrape the ground and he stops in his brother’s arms.

“See, it wasn’t that bad, was it?” Michael can’t bring himself to admit Ocie is right, but allows a sheepish smile. He overcame.

*Kisker is a freelance writer and producer in Pittsburgh.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.  

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