Royal Family KIDS Camp Marks 30th Anniversary
Ashley Gunter's birth mom, a depressive bipolar alcoholic/drug addict, abandoned her and her brother, leaving them to live with their dad. During the day when the father worked, the siblings, still in diapers, stayed at home unattended in his mobile home. One day when Ashley was 2, a police officer arrested her father for reckless driving, and the children were placed into state custody.
Ashley and Sean, her older brother, found themselves in a succession of group homes and foster homes. Amid the turmoil, Ashley's caseworker asked her if she would like to go to a church-sponsored camp. That summer, she found herself at a Royal Family KIDS Camp backed by a Southern California church.
Ashley was just the kind of child who Royal Family KIDS Camp founders Wayne and Diane Tesch aimed to reach with the love of Christ. While Wayne Tesch ministered on the church staff of George O. Wood (now Assemblies of God general superintendent), the two worked to launch a regular church camp for secondary-school-aged kids, which Tesch ran for 12 years.
Then the district superintendent extended to Tesch a golden opportunity: If he could run a camp for anybody, who would be the beneficiaries? As Tesch pondered his answer, Jill, his administrative assistant working on a master's degree in social work, had an idea: How about a camp for abused kids?
"We sounded the call," Tesch says. "This is what we were going to do."
Indeed, the statistics for foster children are shocking. In a typical year, more than 400,000 children are in the foster-care system across the U.S. Half of girls who at one point have been in foster care are pregnant by age 19. Approximately three-quarters of prison inmates - and 80 percent of death-row inmates - were once in the system. Half of young adults who aged out of foster care are incarcerated within two years.
Royal Family KIDS Camp opened in 1985. Now the camps have spread to 38 states and to Chile, Australia, Namibia, and South Africa. Churches in 22 denominations host the camps.
Last year, 7,359 campers ages 6 through 12 participated in a week at the camp guided by more than 11,000 volunteers. Among the volunteers were 163 former campers. This year marks the camp's 30th year.
The Tesches have written three books, including 2010's A Week of Memories-A Life of Hope, which featured stories of 20 former campers who returned to serve at the camps. In 2013, a filmmaker who served as a Royal Family counselor wrote and directed the movie Camp.
The most important purpose for Royal Family Kids, Tesch says, is moving people from the pew to purpose. A stay at the camp can make a tremendous difference in the life of a child who has been neglected and physically abused, he says.
"In one week in the cathedral of the outdoors, the seeds of hope and healing begin to take place in their heart," Tesch says.
"Our goal is not to change their life in a week," says Scott Murrish, ambassador of vision for Royal Family KIDS Camp, "but to plant seeds of safety, hope, and love. That way, when they grow up, they can say that somebody loved me at Royal Family KIDS Camp, and that someone loved Jesus."
The camp's leaders recognized that children in foster care needed more intervention than a single week in the summer. In 2005, the Royal Family KIDS experience expanded into a year-round program that includes a monthly club and mentoring.
The ambitious goal, Tesch explains, is for every foster child to experience a Royal Family KIDS club and mentorship.
The Gunter family that adopted Ashley at age 8 was Christian and she knew about God. Her third year back at the camp Jeremiah 29:11 was a featured Scripture and she knew she wanted to have a relationship with God when she understood He planned to give her "a future and a hope."
Ashley is among campers who return to Royal Family KIDS Camp as a volunteer. She was herself the first camper through a Fullerton, California, church that sponsors Royal Family. She joined the camp staff as a worker at age 16 and became the first from that church's camp to return as a counselor at age 18, which she's done every year since then.
In 2013 she became a Royal Family year-round mentor to a girl whose story is much like hers. Ashley's goals include becoming a wife and mom and a Royal Family KIDS Camp director.
"I learned I could trust people, that people loved me, that people cared for me," says Ashley, who turns 22 this week. "I didn't have to be afraid of new people because I knew that God was going to protect me. I felt strong. I didn't have to shut down anymore."