NATHROP, Colo.—After being removed from the home of their biological parents due to abuse, neglect or other family difficulties, youth in the foster-care system often spend years—sometimes a lifetime—wrestling to overcome their experiences. Statistically, youth in foster care are less likely to graduate from college and more likely to experience teen pregnancies, unemployment and generational cycles of poverty.
But when 34 Texas youth primarily from foster care gathered around a Colorado campfire this summer—roasting S’mores, stargazing and challenging themselves in leadership-building sessions—their skills and abilities, not their limitations, stood front and center.
“The Leader in You: No Limits” was the theme of the camp at Silver Cliff Ranch in the Rocky Mountains, organized and underwritten by BCFS, formerly Baptist Child & Family Services.
“Many of them had never been out of the state, much less in the mountains of Colorado,” said Stacy Lee, BCFS program director of youth services. “They were empowered being out of their element. I saw a definite rise in their self-confidence in just one week.”
A convoy of buses picked up youth from BCFS centers across Texas—traveling to McAllen, Corpus Christi, San Antonio, Abilene and Lubbock—before heading to the Rockies with teens and youth, plus staff from BCFS and the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
“At the beginning of the camp, we asked the youth to name leaders,” Lee said. “We got names like Barack Obama, Michelle Obama and Oprah.
Different kinds of leaders
“By the end of camp, they understood there are different types of leaders, like a quiet leader or a supportive leader. They realized they could be leaders too, and it’s not just for popular, powerful or out-of-reach people.”
The 34 youth were selected from thousands BCFS serves monthly across Texas as a reward for maintaining high grades in school, successfully completing life-skills courses, and staying focused on their goals under the guidance of a BCFS case manager.
Campers scurried into the woods and across the campsite on a leadership scavenger hunt, gathering items that symbolized the core values of a leader—communication, confidence, a positive attitude, inspiration, creativity and being a team player.
Between candid and emotional group discussions, the campers played team games, hiked in the woods surrounding their log cabins and completed a ropes course, which one young camper called his favorite camp activity because it gave him “a chance to help everybody.”
“Interacting with the other campers was my favorite part,” the teenager said. “I learned that nothing is impossible. There’s always something you can do.”
Former Major League Baseball pitcher Jimmy Morris, whose story inspired the Disney movie The Rookie, led exercises that helped the youth recognize their individual leadership styles. Morris distributed awards to the campers, who were eager to snap photos with him and receive autographed baseballs. Morris serves as a motivational specialist for children, youth and families throughout the BCFS system of health and human service nonprofits.
“Jimmy asked some of the staff to get in front of everyone and share their personal trials and triumphs to show the youth that everyone goes through hard times,” said Miriam Attra, director of BCFS community-based services.
On the last day of camp, the youth were encouraged to show off their hidden talents in a talent show. Attra noted several young men and women who initially were shy became enthusiastic participants.
“One of our youth opted to share the testimony of her life,” Attra said. “She said the whole camp experience allowed her to open up for the first time, and now she feels more comfortable bringing her guard down and trusting people more.”
“This trip helped me look at things from a different perspective, like the way I think of myself,” one teen camper said. “My teammates and my leaders were very encouraging, and they pushed me to do things that I never thought I could do.”
Another young woman says her camp experience inspired her to share what she learned with her peers back home.
“I did things that were out of my comfort zone—things that I thought I couldn’t do,” she said. “I hope to one day help other people grow the way I grew.”