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GREENSBORO — On her third day at Camp Hope, Malaya went fishing, swam in a lake and rode a mountain bike through the mud.
The 10-year-old was enjoying camp, though being there had sparked several bouts of homesickness. Leaving home had been hard, she said, because it meant that her mother would be alone for a whole week.
“I’m always really worried about my mom, so I didn’t want to leave her,” Malaya said. “But she said, ‘I’m OK.’ And when I was a little bit sad here, my camp counselor talked to me about how happy my mom was that I was coming here and that made me feel better.”
Going to camp, and the emotions that accompany it, are familiar experiences for many kids, but not for Malaya. She and her 7-year-old sister were still adjusting to Camp Hope, a weeklong camp designed especially for kids who have seen or experienced domestic violence in their homes.
“Their background makes it tougher on them, but we find a way to let them let it out so they can just be kids,” said Jake Huckabee, one of 12 counselors at the camp. “They might not be able to stop what’s happening at home, but coming here can help them deal with it.”
Some of Malaya’s first memories are filled with tumult and conflict between her parents.
“My dad was really abusive to my mom, plus he was on drugs. He doesn’t live with us anymore but I still see him sometimes,” she said. “To me, domestic violence means that a kid is going through something in their family and they’ve seen it and they need to talk to someone. I think it’s really important to talk to someone.”
Sharing those experiences is a key tenet of the camp, a partnership between the Guilford County Family Justice Center and Camp Weaver, a YMCA facility in southwest Greensboro. Twenty-eight campers, ranging in age from 7 to 11, spent a week there this month participating in traditional camp activities (horseback riding, ropes courses, ziplines) mixed with curriculum designed to help them process and overcome trauma.
The combination of activities aims to help children build confidence and move past the conflict in their lives, with the ultimate goal of breaking the generational pattern of domestic violence.
“We want to create pathways for healing and by doing that, we know we can prevent the cycle of violence,” said Catherine Johnson, director of the Guilford County Family Justice Center. “That’s really the most unique thing — it’s an emphasis on prevention more than anything else we do.”
Camp Hope is free for participants, thanks to private donations coupled with grant funding from Verizon and the Weaver Foundation.
Campers were referred to the program from local agencies that had provided support services for their families (in Malaya’s case, Family Services of the Piedmont).
All of the kids knew why they were at camp and were encouraged to talk about what they felt, particularly at nightly campfires. That shared experience helps remove the stigma and shame that frequently accompany violence and upheaval at home, Johnson said.
“Often when you live in a home with violence, you think you’re the only person who has experienced it. So we put them in a community setting to neutralize it,” she said. “The whole focus is recognizing that domestic violence is something that happens to more people than we realize.”
Camp Hope also allows participants to revel in being kids. One camper, afraid of the water, finally submerged her face in the pool, then resurfaced to find a ring of 20 children cheering her on. Another climbed on a horse for the first time and spent the entire ride giggling. Kids scampered up climbing walls and completed aerial ropes courses, overcoming fear and anxiety and learning, in the process, that they could do things they never imagined.
“We teach them to push through,” Johnson said. “Everyone has anxieties. If we can give them the tools to regulate that, that can be applied in any facet of their lives.”
Much of that aligns with what Camp Weaver does anyway, which is part of why the partnership works, said Jamie Cosson, the camp’s executive director.
“We exist to provide kids who are less privileged with the camp experience,” he said. “I think camp is just a great place for kids dealing with challenges in their life. It builds confidence. After the week is over, I hope and would believe that they will be able to deal better with those challenges.”
Johnson plans to continue Camp Hope on an annual basis, adding more campers and additional age groups. All of this year’s campers will be invited back — including Malaya, who had a message for future attendees.
“It’s a lot of fun,” she said.