As a little girl, Maria* didn’t realize being raised by a grandmother was unusual. But then she started school. During special events, Maria's friends all had a mom and a dad waving from the audience—but not her. She only had her grandma. And though she loved her grandma dearly, a part of her knew it wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Maria's mother battled mental health issues which made it difficult for her to care for Maria, and her father was incarcerated before she was born. Her grandmother stepped in and took custody of her.
Maria felt protected at home. Even though they lived in a rough neighborhood, she was loved and supported. Still, her grandmother couldn’t shield her from everything. Along with the loneliness she felt from missing her parents, Maria was exposed to death at a young age in her neighborhood. She developed anxiety, and because of this she didn’t like spending time away from her grandmother.
DISCOVERING SHE WAS SET APART
Maria was 8 years old when she first went to Pine Valley Camp through a scholarship provided by Angel Tree® camping. Initially, she was afraid to be away from her grandmother for so long. Her grandmother had trouble getting her to share her feelings even at home, and Maria didn’t feel like camp would be any different.
Her fears quickly disappeared as she jumped into life at camp. Pine Valley Camp’s theme is “fun builds the bridge to the heart of a kid.” For Maria, having fun through camp activities drew her into relationship with her counselors.
She realized camp was a place where she could feel safe, just like her grandmother made her feel at home. There, she felt loved. Her counselors encouraged her to open up about her life and struggles. And this time, instead of shutting down, she shared her experiences with those around her.
Many of the counselors also had a parent in prison. Because of this, Maria quickly bonded with them. She felt a deep sense of connection from their shared experiences.
Maria also felt more connected to God than ever before. Although she regularly attended church back home, she had difficulty focusing. At Pine Valley, however, the lessons were engaging and relevant to her as a child. Things began to click into place for Maria: She was part of God’s family.
“[Camp] also helped me to recognize my issues rather than hiding from them and face those, and bring God into it,” she says.
When she returned home, she had a renewed vigor. She began investing in her seven younger siblings.
“I understand that I was set apart for a reason. … I realized that I was meant to be set apart because it’s easier for me to help [my siblings]. I can be in their pain, but I haven't felt exactly how they feel,” she says.
A FAMILY IMPACT
Unlike Maria, her siblings still lived with their mother—but like Maria, they didn’t have a relationship with their father. Maria wanted to help her siblings open up about their experiences and provide the kind of support she received from counselors at camp.
Whenever she could, she went over to visit. Her mom stayed in her room during the visits, struggling still to connect with her daughter. But that didn’t deter Maria; she was committed to being there for her siblings. It became easier when she got her driver's license. Now she could take her siblings out for walks, ice cream runs, and other adventures.
Every summer, Maria went back to camp. Her desire grew for her siblings to experience the safety of camp, and eventually, they started going, too. Maria's love for her family was evident to everyone at camp—including Pine Valley Camp Director Keturah Blystone.
“[It’s] been really cool to see her trust in the Lord in that way with her siblings and her family. I know she loves them so much,” says Keturah.
'I understand that I was set apart for a reason.'
RETURNING AND INVESTING
When Maria aged out of the kids camp, she came back for teen camp. Then she was invited to return as a counselor-in-training, kitchen staff, and finally, a counselor. This past summer was Maria's second year as a counselor.
Maria remembers how important the relationship she had with her counselors was when she was a kid, and now plays that same role for her campers. She knows that because of her own struggles with having a parent in prison, she can speak to campers in a unique way.
“It’s easy for me to connect with them on those different levels. And when I share my story and they know that I’ve been through that, it helps them to open up about what they have [been through],” she says.
She wants her campers to know they aren’t meant to carry their feelings alone—the very thing she needed to learn when she was their age.
Maria has watched her siblings go through many struggles, but now she gets to watch as they enjoy camp. Her younger brother is walking in her footsteps and hopes to return to camp as a counselor-in-training.
'I just think it's really important what [Angel Tree] does, because it helps kids come [to camp] and to experience what I've experienced.'
A HEART CHANGED
Maria and her father reestablished contact when she was in high school. Initially, she was reserved to have him back in her life yet appreciated his desire to be involved.
Upon reflecting on the importance of Angel Tree camping, she says, “When these kids are out in the city and they don’t have a connection to God and they don’t have people in their life that are investing in them, this is such an important place, because they get to come here, and they’re invested in, and they learn about Jesus.”
Maria now attends a university in Pittsburgh where she is studying health science. Her desire to help others has carried over into her studies.
“It’s really easy to just feel no one cares,” she says, “I just think it's really important of what [Angel Tree] does, because it just helps kids to come [to camp] and to experience what I've experienced. I think everyone should have that chance.”
*Name changed to protect privacy.
'Camp helped me recognize my issues rather than hiding from them.'