By Jessica Connor
ANDERSON—Bright afternoon sunlight glimmers off the lake, mingling with the happy shouts of children splashing and swimming.
"Spin me! Spin me!" a young girl cries, the smile on her face wide and pure as a counselor carefully lifts her in a slow circle in the water.
There at Camp Providence, on the banks of Lake Hartwell, children ages 5 to 17 seem like any other kids their age, caught up in the carefree bliss of summertime. A canoe slips through the water, and nearby, some boys are fishing for bream. Laughter is everywhere.
But at home, it s often an entirely different story. Most of these kids come from the outskirts of life. They live in extremely low-income housing, said Camp Director Sharon Irby, sometimes with neither parent working; sometimes with a grandparent serving as mom or dad.
It s called ˜the inner city to be nice, but they ll tell you they re from ˜the hood, said Sean Thrasher, a counselor who works five days a week with the children.
But there, splashing and playing with camp counselors and friends, none of that matters. These kids know the untroubled love and freedom of childhood. And year after year, they come back for more.
Since 1972, the nonprofit, Christ-based Camp Providence has existed to provide an entirely free weeklong summer camp experience for Anderson youth of all ages, particularly those living in poverty. Started as the vision of the late Archie Morgan, a member of Trinity United Methodist Church, Anderson, the camp is nondenominational, but it has a heavy United Methodist influence. Its board chair, Tim Hennessy, is an active member of New Hope UMC, Anderson, and Anderson District Superintendent the Rev. Susan Leonard-Ray is a board member. The camp leases its land from the S.C. Conference.
Our mission is to give these kids a place where they can really come and enjoy camp, Hennessy said. When they come here, I want them to feel welcome. They re not being dumped here “ they re getting a little education, a little fun, a little Christ. We re here for the kids, and that s our main purpose.
We want people to understand what happens here, what a week here will do to open these kids to Christ, his wife and fellow volunteer, Aggie Hennessy, said. It puts them on a different path.
After all, she said, with the children surrounded by so much poverty and despair and so many of the wrong influences, Christ provides a rock they can build their life on. With Christ, all things are possible. And at Camp Providence, she said, many of these kids understand that for the first time.
˜They never want to leave
Borrowing buses from churches across the Anderson District, counselors and volunteers focus on different neighborhoods each week of the summer, which ran this year June 10 to July 26. They obtain permission for the children to attend camp, then drive to the neighborhoods to pick up the children and bring them to camp; most families don t have cars and rely on the transportation.
Then from 8:45 a.m. until 2:30 p.m., the kids enjoy old-fashioned, innocent summertime fun in the sun. Their days start with snack and devotion time, followed by arts and crafts and then games, like spider ball, basketball or tell tag. Song time is next, and then they head for the lake, where they swim, canoe, paddleboat or fish.
After the Superman prayer “ which involves raising both arms in the air superhero-style and chanting Thank you God for giving us food to the tune of the Superman theme song “ the kids have lunch courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which conducts frequent inspections at the camp.
Team-building activities come after lunch, like making a square out of rope with every member of the group blindfolded. The day ends with a devotion and sometimes a guest speaker, such as a firefighter, dentist, coach or athlete from nearby Clemson University who talk about the importance of education, respect and getting good grades. Then the counselors sing out the kids with a special farewell song and drive them back home, where they await their return to camp the next day.
They never want to leave, Aggie Hennessy said.
A path to transformation
Camp staff and volunteers say many of the kids are transformed, both at the end of the week and as they come back year after year. Angel Rice spent three years as a counselor and has been assistant camp director the past two years.
You get hooked, Rice said, grinning as she hugs a camper. You meet these kids, build these relationships, and it just changes your heart. Usually when they re new, the first or second day they re quiet, but by the end of the week they re doing the crazy boogaloo dance. They ask me, ˜When do I get to come back? It s awesome to see.
Counselor Kyla Norris said she s seen kids come to Chris
t and heard their life stories. They really open up and tell you about themselves, and they cry when they have to leave, she said.
Maria, 8, is a return camper who said she looks forward to Camp Providence every year. I get bored at home, but here it s fun “ we get to go swimming and do go-carts and arts and crafts, she said. And we learn about things, like about God and how He died on the cross for our sins.
Sootie, 13, who has come to Camp Providence the last 7 years, said her favorite camp activities are swimming, arts and crafts and song time.
It s very fun, she said. You learn a lot in devotions and about Jesus. Today we learned about the Ten Commandments. The counselors are great, and the kids “all dunking each other, no arguments, no drama, just fun.
Tye, 14, is also a longtime camper and said the camp s emphasis on education and achieving goals has made a big difference in his life. I used to always get in trouble at school, but now I m doing better in school, he said. I don t get in trouble.
Camp Director Irby said many of the kids come out here with a very bitter and negative attitude; they don t have the proper guidance.
After a week, the kids fill out evaluations about what they learned all week, and Irby is heartened to see so much change, all because of a lot of love and some time at Camp Providence.
They put on these forms, ˜I learned respect, or ˜that Jesus is my savior, Irby said, flipping through the forms, pulling them out to read some of the more touching comments.
It s amazing, Tim Hennessy said, shaking his head and gazing out the window at the campsite. You have to see it to believe it.
A work in progress
Like the campers, the camp itself has gone through much transformation over the years. In 1972 when it started, there was little on the seven-acre space beyond a rough shelter and tangled walking paths.
They used to sit on tree stumps and use marble slabs for tables, Tim Hennessy said.
But over the years, a core of volunteers committed to Archie Morgan s vision did all they could to improve the camp experience for the children. Paths were widened and straightened. They got picnic tables and other amenities. In 2008, the camp began a major renovation, overhauling the beach, building an amphitheater and volleyball court, doing extensive landscaping and more.
It is a work in progress. Their central vision is a happy place where the kids can have good old-fashioned outdoor fun, but they have a definite wish list, including everything from a camp bus, ropes course and pontoon boat to a multipurpose building with air conditioning that is big enough to accommodate all the campers when it rains.
Yet even as they know the campers would love these things, those who make Camp Providence happen week after week, summer after summer, know it s the love these kids experience that is the ultimate success story behind Camp Providence.
To them, every child is important. Every child matters. Every child has a voice, and every one of them is loved and worthwhile.
They re just so happy to be here; these kids need to make a difference, Aggie said. They say ˜changing the world one child at a time? Well here, it s true.
To help, visit www.campprovidence.org , call 864-225-1801 or write P.O. Box 2806, Anderson, SC 29622.