SANDWICH, Mass. (AP) — Amazing Grace of Cape Cod provides a traditional summer camp experience for children with family members who are incarcerated.
"Statistically, if you have a family member that's incarcerated, you are three to four times more likely to become incarcerated yourself," Julie Lytle, the volunteer executive director, said. "If you have two parents or family members incarcerated, it exponentially jumps. It's like eight or nine times more likely."
The children, ages 7 to 11, attend a six-day session at Camp Burgess on Spectacle Pond, offered through a partnership with the South Shore YMCA. The summer camp experience is filled with swimming, hiking, zip lining and games. Amazing Grace then hosts monthly events that the children and their families can attend to stay connected.
"These are normal, healthy, engaged children who have all of the attributes of any child I would meet anywhere else in the world," Lytle said. "But they have the burden of having the absence of a family member and the struggle that makes."
Deirdre "Deer" Sullivan will be camp director during this year's Aug. 18-23 session. This year, she hopes to focus on an adaptation of "restorative justice," or "circle practice," in which the children will sit in a circle and learn to tell stories and to listen to each other.
"We're bringing in these circles as a routine of modeling that there's no hierarchy here. We all sit in a circle at the same level," said Sullivan, who started working with Amazing Grace in January. "Everyone is given an opportunity to speak from the heart. It's a really great practice of being there for one another."
Lytle, who has been with the organization since its founding, said helping the children form stable relationships and showing them alternative opportunities can give them a more stable environment to make different choices.
Although the camp has Christian roots, the camp counselors do not discuss religion or incarceration unless the camper brings it up, Lytle said.
"We're there to give the kids the experience of summer fun and to try to let go of the burdens they feel because of their family circumstances," Lytle said. "If they happen to bring up the stories about what's happening with their family members and want to talk about it, we have people that are trained."
Eileen Putman, Amazing Grace board chairwoman, said she and her children also have experienced what it is like to have an incarcerated family member, and she knows how being in nature can be therapeutic for children.
"I saw that it was extremely beneficial to have a place where they could go and experience the wonderful things that nature has to offer and relieve any outside troubles," Putman said.
Massachusetts has the lowest incarceration rates in the country, according to a report by the Vera Institute of Justice, but drug addiction adds a twist.
"Our biggest challenge is that we incarcerate people who have addictions, and the addiction rate on the Cape is incredibly high. So, a lot of children have been impacted by addiction," Lytle said.
In its first year, 2014, Amazing Grace had 13 campers. This year, it is expecting about 36 campers. To accept more children, Amazing Grace is looking for volunteers to be mentors, and it offers a stipend for people under 30 to spend the week at camp. It also costs $1,068 to send a child to camp.
Amazing Grace relies on community grants to pay its expenses, Carol Bolstad, one of the founders, said.
"We're totally dependent on people's generosity," Bolstad said.
After a couple of years offering the summer camp, volunteers noticed some children weren't coming back the following year. They realized that a year in between the camp was too much time — that children might stray. They decided to create monthly events for the children and their families to deepen relationships formed from the camp experience.
"It's different every month. Sometimes it's more hands-on, sometimes it's more reflective," Lytle said. "But it's always with the goal of bringing the families together, of us having a chance to deepen those relationships that started at camp."
Events include pool parties, mini-golfing, spending time with therapy dogs and going to Edaville Family Theme Park in Carver.
Amazing Grace also has expanded to find funding for youth ages 12 to 15 to attend a similar session the same week across the pond at Camp Hayward.
As the children get older, they can become mentors themselves at the camp.
"We're hoping that we're planting seeds that will develop strong enough relationships that our Amazing kids will want to always stay a part of the community," Lytle said.
Information from: Cape Cod (Mass.) Times, http://www.capecodtimes.com