Growing up, DaMarius Harp felt one thing was certain: Having a parent in prison made him different. For the first eight years of DaMarius’ life, his father was incarcerated.
“Why can’t Dad come home? When’s he going to come home?” DaMarius would ask, his cheeks stained with tears.
DaMarius and his two older brothers lived with their mother in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His grandmother often took him to see his father behind bars, but long, snowy Michigan winters made travel difficult at times. When visits were scarce, DaMarius looked forward to phone calls with Dad.
As the only parent at home, DaMarius’ mom worked hard to provide for her three boys. But their father’s absence was a void they couldn’t fill.
A SAFE HAVEN
When DaMarius was in elementary school, volunteers at Calvary Bible Church introduced his family to Prison Fellowship Angel Tree™, a program that mobilizes churches to share the hope of the Gospel and enfold Angel Tree® families into church life.
Part of this effort is Angel Tree Camping, which provides scholarships to sponsor a week of camp for Angel Tree kids. That’s how DaMarius first discovered Camp Michawana.
DaMarius was around 7 years old when he first attended camp. He stayed in a cabin with other campers his age and met caring counselors like Satchel, who helped him feel at home. “[He] kept me coming back every year,” says DaMarius.
For many children, summer camp signifies a rite of passage, a getaway for making new friends and memories in the great outdoors. For DaMarius, camp became a special kind of haven, a source of stability and joy when life felt uncertain. At camp, he found a place to just be a kid. He met other children who faced the challenges of having a parent in prison and realized he wasn’t alone.
DaMarius’ favorite part of the day was chapel, where he could learn about Jesus and sing and dance with his friends.
As he returned to camp year after year, DaMarius’ love for Jesus grew. He developed a heart for serving others. And he discovered he wasn’t just a kid with a parent in prison. He was a child of God.
“I know my faith wouldn’t be in God if I wasn’t involved and had that seed planted in me at a young age,” said DaMarius. “I wouldn’t say I’d be on the streets or somewhere, just not doing things that God has called me to do.”
WALKING THROUGH DARKNESS
After camp ended, Prison Fellowship Angel Tree was still there to remind him of Jesus’ love. During the holidays, Angel Tree Christmas became one of his best childhood memories. Angel Tree equips churches and organizations to deliver a Christmas gift, the Gospel message, and a personal message of love to children on behalf of their parent behind bars.
DaMarius still remembers when he and his brothers received an Angel Tree gift from their father for the first time. Calvary Bible Church volunteers John and Ruth Hoogenboom delivered presents to DaMarius and his brothers for many years. DaMarius still recalls the joy of receiving something from Dad. He mailed his father thank-you letters and pictures in return.
John and Ruth went beyond delivering Christmas gifts and welcomed DaMarius and his family into their church community. DaMarius started attending the youth group where John and Ruth served as leaders, and John became his mentor. DaMarius knew he could always count on them, whether he needed a ride to church or a word of encouragement.
From pizza dinners to mission trips to the worship team, that youth group helped DaMarius connect with kids his age in a Christ-centered environment. He says Calvary became like “home.” When DaMarius’ grandmother passed away, people like John walked with him through the grief.
DaMarius’ grandmother’s death marked a dark time in his life. He struggled in his faith and stopped going to church for several weeks. But he couldn’t deny what God had already led him through—and DaMarius realized he needed to run toward his faith community, not away from it.
“I got back into church, I started doing different things in ministry, I started working with kids more,” says DaMarius. “Ever since then, that’s my motivation to keep going. I know [my grandmother] would want me to keep going.”
A HOPE TO CHANGE THE WORLD
As a kid, DaMarius couldn’t imagine summer without camp. Not much has changed since. Today, he serves as a counselor at Camp Michawana, overseeing the elementary age students—kids around the same age as DaMarius when he first attended camp. He’s a jovial presence on the campground, well loved by counselors and campers alike. Most of them know DaMarius by his nickname, “Mar-Mar.”
Even after years of going to camp, DaMarius doesn’t take his experiences for granted. He says, “There are a lot of kids in this world that don't have this opportunity, so I am very grateful that God opened up the doors for my family … to have gone through the Angel Tree program because of John and because of Prison Fellowship. I am very grateful, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
Now, DaMarius is attending college to become a teacher. He knows his purpose, and his future is hopeful.
“I know my calling is helping people, and I really have a high passion to help kids that went through the same [experience] as me,” says DaMarius. “My hope and dream is to open up my own foundation for young people that went through the same process with not having their father growing up, just being that male figure in their life. So hopefully God will provide a way for me to open that foundation, so I can possibly change the world and make it a better place.”
'I keep coming back every year because I just love seeing the smile on a kid’s face when we're here, and I just love serving God, and this is one of the opportunities for me to serve God to the best of my abilities.' —DaMarius