At Frontier Camp in Grapeland, Texas, there's a distinctive brick walkway engraved with dozens of names, years, and Scripture references. One of those names is "Shay".
Fifteen-year-old Shay hasn't seen her brick yet, but she knows it's there. She earned the distinction for completing Frontier's annual Bible memorization challenge. This year, Shay savored her favorite week of the summer once again with her second family at Frontier's Teen Camp.
Angel Tree Camping® partners with churches and organizations to give children like Shay a chance to experience God's love in the great outdoors.
"I am different because of Angel Tree camp," says Shay, her blue eyes glossy with tears. "I have changed the way I look at certain things ... and I've tried to look at God more often than I used to."
'I'm different because of Angel Tree Camp.'
SHARED HEARTBREAK, SHARED HOPE
Like other 15-year-olds, Shay passes most summer days with friends and might opt to watch TV when the Texas sun is too much to bear. She helps out at home by babysitting her little brother. Hers is a family of five: Shay, her little brother, one older stepbrother, and her mom and stepdad.
Shay's biological father is in prison. She writes to him often, and he reaches out to her. Recently, some of their most special memories became possible through Angel Tree®, a program of Prison Fellowship® that partners with churches to provide to children gifts in the name of their incarcerated parent and the Gospel.
"We received the gifts [through Angel Tree] because [Dad] can't be there to give us them," says Shay. Her voice trembles at the memory. "I just hope when he gets out, I can prove to him that I still love him, and I didn't forget about him. ... I love him more than the world itself."
Angel Tree Camping—part of Angel Tree's year-round programming—made it possible for Shay to attend Frontier Camp, where every summer turns into a new redemptive chapter for her. One of 2.7 million children in the U.S. with an incarcerated parent, Shay knows the unique burden of having a parent locked up. Intense feelings of heartache, abandonment, and low self-esteem, as well as alarming rates of mental health issues, often weigh heavily on children of prisoners. Without support, those with moms and dads behind bars may deal with crippling repercussions into adulthood.
Through Angel Tree Camping, Shay has met children who share the same challenges, the same heartbreak—and, by God's grace, the same profound hope.
'GOD LOVES US THAT MUCH'
"We're like a big family," Shay says of her camp counselors and friends. Even for someone shy like Shay, camp is a safe environment to meet new people and open up to counselors. "My counselor Brittany always helped me through a lot. ... Before I came here, I wasn't really reading the Bible much. At home, we were struggling, and coming here helped me get to know God better in many ways."
Camp introduced Shay to new experiences like laser tag and horseback riding. The horse trail has become one of her favorite places to relax, clear her head, and spend quiet moments with God. Her first year, she couldn't wait to tell her mom the stories of fun and fellowship. This year, she can't hold back the tears, knowing it's her final summer before she ages out as a camper.
"I knew Jesus before camp," Shay adds, "but not as much as I do now."
'I knew Jesus before camp, but not as much as I do now.'
She hopes to return one day as a camp counselor. Until then, she is committed to finishing high school strong and attending college. An animal lover, Shay aspires to study at the University of Texas and might become a zookeeper.
Still, thanks to camp, she says her most important studies will be in Scripture. Her favorite verse is John 3:16. "Everyone knows it, but it just makes sense why," she explains. "God loves us that much."
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,
that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
John 3:16, NIV
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