Family works to give foster kids a summer to remember
Summer camp. Just the words can conjure up images of sunshine, water sports, campfires and friends. For most, it either brings back wonderful memories or anticipation of experiences yet to come.
Yet, there are hundreds of young children in Yellowstone County’s foster care system who have never had the privilege of experiencing summer camp.
That tugs at the heart strings of Billings woman Johanna Kennedy, so much so that she and her husband, Chris, set out to do something about it.
It started more than eight years ago when the couple, parents of four children, were drawn toward a foster children’s camp called Royal Family Kids. They attended a weeklong training and volunteered at a camp. But other priorities in life prevented them from sticking with it at the time. The family was involved at the time in Youth with a Mission (YWAM), a Christian mission group, which took them all over the world.
Homeschooling the children allows for a flexible schedule, and in 2018 the Kennedys embarked on their first YWAM Family Discipleship School in Kona, Hawaii. After three months of intensive training, the family spent two months in the Philippines doing missionary work. It was the first of many trips they took to countries around the world as they immersed themselves into each country’s culture, sharing their faith at every turn.
After several years of serving around the globe with YWAM, Covid hit, and the family’s mission trips came to a halt. Like everyone, the Kennedys waited to see what would happen. Their home had always been a revolving door between raising and homeschooling their children, mentoring young women, and taking in young adults, so it was a natural progression for them to apply to be foster parents. It was a surprise though, when just two days after they returned from their last YWAM mission trip, they received a call to foster a newborn baby.
“Someone once said, we wouldn’t know what hospitality meant until we had someone living with us.” Johanna says, speaking about all the young people that have found refuge in their home. An infant, though, took on an entirely new dimension.
“Nine years after our youngest was born, we welcomed another baby into our home,” she says, smiling.
The baby, now 2, is in the process of being adopted by the Kennedys.
After learning about the foster care system, becoming foster parents themselves and taking a hiatus from YWAM, the timing became perfect for Johanna and Chris to pursue their dream of a summer camp for foster children. In 2022, Haven Camp became a reality.
“God has placed a lot of desires on my heart,” she explains, “and helping children has always been at the top.”
With over 800 children in the foster care system in Billings, there’s a large pool of potential campers to pick from. Haven Camp focuses on children ages 7 to 11. Under the ministry of Faith Chapel, the first camp was held last summer at the church’s Camp on the Boulder River, south of Big Timber.
The logistics of what it takes to put on a camp can be daunting, but Johanna says the need was filled last year. She expects the same will hold true this year.
“Our phone began to ring with people wanting to help at camp and financially. It was amazing,” she says.
Determined to keep the camper-to-volunteer ratio to one-on-one, the camp operates with a little more than 100 volunteers to safely run the four-day adventure.
“We want it to be a family atmosphere,” Johanna continues. “We’re providing a safe and fun place for kids to come and step out of whatever situation they live in for a few days.”
As last year’s camp unfolded, the team of volunteers watched with excitement as children who arrived scared and unhappy broke into smiles. Laughter was heard across the campus among many who had never enjoyed one-on-one adult time.
“They were able to take a break from hurting and difficult situations and bask in the love and safety of Haven Camp,” Johanna says.
Janet Ross, a licensed clinical social worker and mental health therapist, says that Haven Camp provided the children with the opportunity to experience something “normal.”
“I like to say that camp allowed many of the children to rewrite the script of who they are by feeling special and loved on over the course of the week,” she says.
Janet attended in a therapist role and spent the week interacting with both campers and volunteers.
Wanting the children to experience a family, the adult volunteers, or “Big Campers,” are referred to as aunts and uncles. In addition, four sets of married couples act as “grandparents” for the campers. Volunteers range in age from 17 to 70.
With the ratio of volunteers to campers, there is never a moment when campers are by themselves, and that’s intentional. It’s not only the kids who are impacted by the experience of Haven Camp; the volunteers are as well.
David Moorhead volunteered to be a Big for the week.
“One of the sweetest aspects of the week with my camper, was how he trusted me,” he says. “These kids have a hard time trusting adults, but during the week you get to give them your full attention. It was incredible to see our relationship grow so strong in such a short amount of time.”
For foster mom Ashley Leach, it was an amazing experience for three of her six foster daughters.
“We were all a little anxious,” she says. “We’d not been apart since we had taken them in, and the girls had never attended any kind of camp. Immediately though, I could tell they were well matched with their Bigs.”
Camp was filled with exciting activities each day, and the girls came home with memories to last for years. Amazingly, Haven Camp provided each camper with pillows, quilts, dress-up clothes from the tea party and a personal photo album.
“It was really touching,” Ashley adds. “Each of my girls has a personalized album of their camp experience that they can treasure forever.”
Reports from foster parents has affirmed to Haven Camp that they are doing something good.
“We trying to do everything we can to meet the kids where they are at,” Johanna continues. “We don’t know what these kids have experienced, but we’re providing an environment where they can feel safe.”
On Haven Camps website it says, “I have become convinced that if God stands a child before you, for even just a minute, it is a divine appointment.”
“We take that seriously,” Johanna says.
“We are all a part of giving back to each child a piece of childhood to hold on to,” Janet adds, “and that feels really good.”
TO LEARN MORE ABOUT HAVEN CAMP, visit havencampsmt.org Right now, there are more than 800 foster children living in Yellowstone County and not enough foster and adoptive homes to house them. To learn more about adopting or fostering a child, call Child Bridge at (406) 200-0580 or visit childbridgemontana.org. You can also reach out to Child and Family Services at (406) 657-3120.