For many Milwaukee kids in foster care, a birthday celebration is something other kids get to have.
But the leaders of Royal Family KIDS Camp have change that.
During their summer camp, the counselors and staff put together an event called "Everybody's Birthday Party." They wake up the campers, sing and give them each a cupcake. They play party games and celebrate.
"Everybody's Birthday Party" is one of many experiences campers have at Royal Family KIDS Camp, a place for Milwaukee children who have experienced abuse, neglect and/or abandonment in their lives.
"The primary purpose of Royal Family KIDS Camp is to give children a week of positive memories in a Christian environment," said Lisa Carey, camp director.
Children receive attention and encouragement from an adult counselor and a "buddy camper" during their week-long experience, which includes fun activities designed to build self-esteem and foster success for the future. The activities may include hiking, swimming, games, sports and fishing.
"They carry deep hurt in their hearts that may cause them to experience times of anger or withdrawal. Royal Family KIDS Camp provides a safe environment where they are free to just be themselves so that their gifts, talents and abilities can shine," Carey said.
Campers range from age seven to 11 and most live in the Milwaukee area in a foster care environment. There are social workers who assigned or referred them to the camp staff initially. Once a child is a camper, they are then eligible to come back year after year.
The children also interact with volunteers from local churches as well as a full support staff comprised of social workers, photographers, nurses, curriculum coordinators, a music director and a drama team.
A typical week away
"Each child receives a memory bag with a Bible, stuffed animal, water bottle, flashlight and an activity book coinciding with the camp theme," Carey said.
They also receive a photo album to fill with memories from their camp experiences.
Carey recalls one little boy who had a grim face on the first day of camp and did not want to take any photos. However, during the week, his outlook changed, and by week's end, he was smiling from ear to ear and was flipping through his photo album and commenting, "This is awesome! This is awesome!...I lost my mom. I lost my dad. I lost my house. I lost my dog. I lost everything. I will cherish this. Thank you for bringing me to camp."
A treasured experience
"I think the greatest thing our children receive from Royal Family KIDS Camp is hope. Often, our kids have a bleak view of their future. After their week of camp, our children see their future with new eyes," said Carey.
In 2014, the Center for Applied Research for Nonprofit Organizations at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa Schusterman Center conducted an independent study on the Royal Family KIDS Camp to discern its effectiveness.
The study found that "Royal Family KIDS Camp provides children who live in the foster care system an opportunity to experience the joys of childhood in a safe and nurturing environment…the week-long camp experience offers a reprieve from the child's reality and instills in them a sense of hope."
Further, campers reported experiencing an increase in trust in others, feeling comfortable and accepted, feeling like a part of a group and a sense of the ability to achieve their dreams as a result of attending the camp, according to the study.
Along with Carey, Marcia Villa is the Mentoring Club director. At camp, she is the lead social worker and is responsible for helping the children work through their emotions. She also stays in contact with case managers for each of the campers.
During the year, the children meet with Villa eight times on a Saturday, reading stories, singing songs, making crafts and playing games.
"One of the greatest benefits of the Mentoring Club is that the children who participate have the caring, consistent, positive influence of their mentors. They can count on their mentors to be there for them, even in the midst of the many unsettling changes that often occur in their lives," Villa said.
A network of good in Wisconsin
The Milwaukee chapter of the Royal Family KIDS Camp is one of six operating in Wisconsin. This is currently their 10th year in operation and now has 78 children attending the camp as of last summer. They started with only 22 in 2007.
This is also a camp in Hartland, Racine and Kenosha, and in 2016, Royal Family KIDS Camp New Berlin will launch for the first time.
Each camp also raises its own funds to operate. The Milwaukee chapter hosts the Starfish Walk/5k Run, which will be on May 7, 2016 at Grant Park in South Milwaukee. Carey said that it takes roughly $1,000 to support each child at camp and in the Mentoring Club for the full year.
For more information on the Royal Family KIDS Camp and how you can get involved, visit milwaukee.royalfamilykids.org.
Elizabeth Braatz, mother of 6-year-old boy/girl twins, a 4-year-old daughter and a baby boy due in summer, is an active philanthropist. As a grant writer for Discovery World and manager of operations for a Milwaukee-based youth nonprofit, GloBall Giving, she is passionate about assisting children by way of education and recreation.