“The bus is almost here. Everyone get ready!” The excitement has been building all day. For weeks and months really. As we line up along that gravel road each year, often covered head to toe in rain gear or sometimes praising El Nino for a welcome break in the weather,we are thankful either way. Ancient and massive Douglas firs, salty air, a roaring ocean and kind hearted people surround us,providing the backdrop for the magic that is about to happen. “Here comes the bus!”. And then it’s here and there she is.
Since 1990, Camp Victory, which is sustained solely by private donations and an all volunteer staff, has served girls and young women aged 5-18 who are survivors of sexual abuse. In 2013 a much needed camp for boys was also launched. The campers come primarily from either Grays Harbor or Pacific counties in coastal Washington state. Many, in addition to the abuse they’ve suffered, come from homes, foster or family of origin, that are deeply impoverished. Camp is likely the place that will provide the shoes and jacket to keep them warm and dry over the cold, damp Pacific Northwest winter. It’s also the place where they’ll make the memories they can hold on to the rest of the year and call on to occupy their minds when the painful ones try to take up residence.
So tiny. She can’t be more than 7 can she? Her frail shoulders are covered only by wisps of tangled hair and her footwear belongs to another season,providing information to those outside about where to start. We don’t know the specifics of how she got here. That is her story to tell or not tell. As she readies herself to descend the stairs of the bus, her sad, lonely eyes dart sharply left and right, surveying the crowd of cheering strangers. She takes some comfort in the fact that she’s made a friend or two during the journey and even smiles slightly, remembering that they will be here with her. They’re all soldiers, in an army they didn’t join and in a war they didn’t start, having endured more pain during their short time on earth than most could possibly imagine. As they step off the bus they are greeted with a hero’s welcome from the band of volunteers, known as Mama Lions, who give their time and hearts to make this weekend miraculous. They’ll eat as much as they need and want. They’ll play until cheeks are rosy and faces ache from smiling. They’ll sing songs of healing and dance dances of peace. They’ll sleep deeply, possibly for the first time all year, feeling safe and protected. Most importantly, they’ll hear over and over again, “It’s not your fault” and “You are not defined by what happened to you”. They have arrived at Camp Victory, leaving their daily battlefield behind even if only for 3 precious days.
Over the long weekend, the campers enjoy all of the age-old activities that anyone who attended a summer camp during their childhood can probably still recall. They create tie dye masterpieces, weave bracelets from string, build the perfect smore, deliver award-winning performances in team skits, imagine themselves the savior of their district as they load an arrow into their bow, and they sing “repeat after me” songs around the campfire until their voices are raspy. All of those things would be more than enough if this weren’t Camp Victory.
The red one with a rose etching and pink cord. That’s the one she wants and she digs through the wicker basket to get it. She lets the small glass heart dangle, feeling its full weight and letting it linger briefly before she hangs it on the tree, hoping that the Mama Lion who is her big buddy all weekend got a good look at it. She returns to her spot on the floor, sitting on crossed legs and watching intently as the tree blossoms with the colorful offerings of every camper. Then she sees the ribbons. Red ribbons and white ribbons beginning to fill in the bare space between the hearts and grasped in the fingertips of the Mama Lions who are lining up for a turn at the tree. She remembers the ribbons now. Every adult at camp adds a white ribbon to the tree and those that are survivors, like her, can add a red one too. Anytime she sees the tree over the weekend, after undoubtedly making sure her red heart with the rose etching is still just where she left it, she’ll think about those ribbons. And, when her big buddy gives her that heart on Sunday, just shortly before she must board the bus for home, she’ll be taking with her more than just a piece of colored glass. She’ll wear that heart for the days and weeks to come, holding on to the memory that she is not alone.
For the women that started Camp Victory all those years ago and for the women and men that carry it forward year after year, this is more than volunteering. This is life changing, heart nourishing, necessary work that burrows deeply into the soul and doesn’t let go. Bearing witness as the light returns to defeated eyes and as fear gives way to confidence is what drives them. It’s what keeps them coming back. It’s what keeps them holding on. Holding on to hope that enough funds will be collected so that camp and other services, like free counseling for any child that wants it, will continue. Hope that they’ve done enough digging through systems and communities to reach as many children as possible. Hope that someday Camp Victory won’t be needed.
To learn more about this amazing organization and how you can help please follow the link: