A fair warning up front: this isn’t going to be a happy story, because Riley’s* life isn’t a happy life. When Riley was 8 years old his parents checked him and his younger brother into a hotel room in Florida, walked out the door, and never came back. He now lives with his grandma and uncle in California. He hasn’t seen his mom since.
*not his real name
Riley was in cabin 2, the cabin I was a counselor for and the unofficial war zone of this year’s Royal Family Kids Camp. At a scrawny 5’-nothing Riley was far from a fighter, but he knew how to run his mouth. He would sit in his top bunk, looking down on the action, antagonizing the people below him. He was like those two cranky old guys from The Muppet Show, who in real life would be no fun at all.
Riley was a loner. One of the optional activities was crawdad fishing, and one afternoon Riley spent 2 hours sitting by the creek with a stick, string and raw bacon dangling in a mossy lagoon. He caught easily the biggest crawdad of the day. We called for a bucket but as I brought it over I accidentally hit the crawdad and knocked it in the water. This is not my favorite memory from camp.
Riley hid when scared. Twice he literally crawled underneath a bed in the far corner of the room to hide from conflict. Two other times I had to get on to him for calling someone names and while I did Riley would slink back in his sleeping bag, cocooning as far away as possible and using his green alligator pillow as a blockade.
I never really bonded with Riley, maybe because of the crawdad thing (though that might have been a bigger deal to me than him), maybe because I wasn’t his personal counselor (we each had 1-2 kids in the cabin and Riley wasn’t mine) but mostly because I was always the one getting on to him. One day, during the mandatory afternoon nap time, Riley got out of his bunk, walked out the back door of the dorm and onto the outside patio. Riley was always doing this. I think he was scared to sleep.
I followed Riley out and told him he needed to get back to bed. He said he was bored, there was nothing to do inside, and could he pleeeeeeeease just sit outside instead. Something about his voice made me say sure. I figured I could sit outside with Riley, keep the door open, and watch the other kids inside. So we sat outside, me by the door, and Riley in a corner of the patio where the dorm wall met a chest high concrete barrier jutting out from the building. Riley sat in a dusting of white powder used to keep ants out and turn all clothing a similar shade of gray.
It was there that Riley started crying, head between his knees, small body lightly shaking. He tried to hide it but I told him it was okay to cry, and asked him if he wanted to talk about it. Riley said he didn’t want to go home. He said camp was the only place he was allowed to have fun. I asked Riley if I could hug him, and he said yes, and I told him that nothing, absolutely nothing he did would ever make Jesus love him any less, and Riley stared at me with eyes I now noticed were big and brown and so, so expressive.
The last day of camp was tough for everyone, kids and counselors. In years past everyone said their goodbyes at the actual camp, but this made for a pretty brutal bus ride when the kids left the counselors. The new plan was for everyone to meet back up at a church in Costa Mesa and say goodbye there.
I got to the church just after the buses, but before the other counselors. Some of them got stuck in traffic. Others ran some quick errands, thinking they had time. None of them realized how quickly the lady running things at the church would dismiss the kids. This wasn’t anyone’s fault. Just a miscommunication. A thing that happens.
And it’s why Riley’s counselor wasn’t there to say goodbye to him. I saw Riley leaving from a distance, shoulders slumped, head looking down, walking out the door and never coming back.
And I wish I had realized what was happening. Realized and ran over and reminded him about Jesus and told him you’re going to be okay, you’re going to be okay, Riley listen to me you’re going to be okay and held him and let him cry into my chest the way he did on the patio.
But I didn’t. Because I didn’t know, just like I didn’t know before this week all the kids living not so far away, with stories far too similar.
But now I do. And I’m praying someone will step into Riley’s life and say the words I didn’t.
In addition to yearly summer camps Royal Family Kids has a club/mentoring program. Click on this link and find one near you: http://royalfamilykids.org/locate-a-club/