This summer I had the opportunity to spend a week with foster kids at a camp called Royal Family Kids Camp. 30+ kids who normally don’t get childhoods were given a week of unconditional love, fun, & hearing about God. This is just one story, of one these kids. The name has been changed to protect his anonymity.
“You’re burning it! Josh you’re BURNING IT! JOSH YOU’RE BURNING IT!!!” Deandre screamed.
The truth is I wasn’t burning the marshmallows, I more had burnt them. Past tense. I’d drifted the marshmallow too close to the fire, then quickly blew the ensuing blaze out, hoping the s’more was still salvageable. Deandre had said he wanted his marshamallow “toasted, not burned.” I was hoping this would be okay.
“JOSH YOU’RE BURNING IT, YOU’RE BURNING IT!!!”
I was in this situation because Daniel, Deandre’s counselor for the week, was taking care of Deandre’s recently-skinned knee. Each kid’s counselor at the camp was making a s’more so I offered to step in. As I brought the s’more back toward the crew of campers sitting in the amphitheater, I assumed Deandre would get over the singed marshmallow and all would be well.
“Why did you do that?!? You BURNED it!!” Deandre yelled. His eyes were brimming with tears, his face angry. This was going south quickly.
I hadn’t expected this at all. I had expected him to be appreciative of me getting him a s’more in the first place. I expected him to remember that I was one of the guys who had played with him in the pool and who had let him look at the soundboard and showed him how it worked. And when he didn’t, I let a little “wait, seriously?” smile creep across my face.
“IT’S NOT FUNNY!!!!!!” Deandre screamed, and then he started sobbing. At this point the other 35 foster kids sitting in the amphitheater were staring as their 20+ counselors pretended not to.
I’d just inadvertently caused the Marsh-pocalypse.
One of my favorite Deandre moments happened on Marsh-pocalypse Eve. The first full day of camp a few of the support staff decided to take the boys on a short hike up a mountain trail, read them a story about a brave knight, then have their counselors give them their “knight name” like “Sir John the Brave” or (my favorite) “Sir Bryan the Benevolent.” The whole thing went alright I suppose, though the ceremony lost out excitement-wise to a termite-ridden tree stump 20 yards up the trail.
A few boys realized that if they hit the trunk with a stick they could take chunks out of the brittle wood. It actually was kind of cool in a way that only boys (or grown up boys) can appreciate. But the termite wood stump obsession was getting in the way of our Significant Life Moment we were trying to create, so I was having a hard time appreciating it.
Afterward, as we corralled the kids back down the mountain, Deandre sprinted back up to the tree stump hitting it over and over and over with a thick branch he’d found. I walked up to Deandre to tell him “we have to go now, please stop that” but noticed his counselor Daniel beside him, showing him the best way to hit the stump and knock wood off.
“Try stepping back a little bit … here, let’s use this smaller piece as a wedge … you’re getting really good at this buddy! … dude, you’re really strong … that was awesome, good hit Deandre!”
Deandre kept swinging and splintering and swinging again, and soon Daniel’s words started coming out of Deandre’s mouth “I’m getting good at this … that was a good one … I’m pretty strong, huh? … I bet when I get this piece off you guys are going to be so proud of me …”
It was about 20 minutes later that Daniel and I began sliding back down the mountain trail, Deandre in between us, holding our hands.
When it was clear Deandre wasn’t going to accept the seared s’more, Daniel decided to go make another one, leaving me with Deandre.
“Deandre, how are you feeling right now?”
No response. Eyes down. Fists clenched.
“Are you mad?”
“Do you think I burned the marshmallows on purpose?”
Deandre glared up at me and nodded his head.
“Buddy, I’m sorry. I totally didn’t. It was an accident. I’m sorry. Can you forgive me?”
And that was end of that.
Watching Deandre throughout the week was a remarkable experience. On one hand, he’d wander off in the middle of the field games or try to walk on stage during chapel. He constantly needed attention and was exhausting to be around.
Deandre also was this sweet, kind, affectionate kid who was surprisingly spiritually aware. One night Deandre and Daniel were talking about God, and Daniel told him he could talk to God about anything, even all the hard and painful things. And right there, in front of the campers and counselors in his cabin, Deandre began to pour his heart out to God about all the things he was feeling.
The more I watched him the more convinced I became that this kid was listening to God. Was aware of his presence. Was connecting the unconditional love Daniel and others were offering him with the love of his Dad in heaven.
Deandre volunteered to pray for the entire camp’s meals almost every day. One of his prayers was a song he’d picked up somewhere. Another lasted about 5 words. All of them felt real.
The day after Marsh-pocalyse was tense. I wasn’t sure if Deandre was still mad or if – like most kids – he’d forgotten about it. We moved around each other tentatively, avoiding eye contact.
By Thursday things were back to normal – he was squishing together the skin on the top of my head, yelling for me to watch him swim in the pool, and giving me hugs during meals. But Marsh-pocalypse lingered in the background.
The truth is I probably should have brought it up because I could tell he was thinking about it too. I should have asked if we were good and if he forgave me and said I was sorry again. I should have modeled conflict resolution but I didn’t, mostly because I’m no good at conflict resolution.
The following day was Friday, and all day long there was a heaviness in the air. Friday is the day the bus comes to take the kids home. It’s a day full of packing and loaded up luggage and there are goodbyes and picture memory books and tears and hugs and more goodbyes. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking and all this is exactly as it should be, because the week matters.
As I stood at a distance from the bus and watched the kids and counselors have their moments, Deandre walked up to me. I bent down to look at him, eye to eye, ready to say goodbye and …
“I forgive you,” Deandre said solemnly.
And then I was one of the people crying too.