Children who have experienced trauma are forced to grow up early. Childhood naivety and playful wonder are replaced by the need to simply survive and cope with daily life. Children—who most need to be cared for and protected—are suddenly protecting and taking care of themselves.
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We pull up in a white SUV, and the young Yazidi ladies of the Akoyan Village approach our car with joy. Bursts of genuine laughter erupt as they hug Ingrid, Jessie, and Dawn, women whom they’ve come to love during their time spent together.
Flashback to early June 1995—I had just graduated from high school and hopped on a plane to spend the summer in Zimbabwe. As a 17-year-old boy with little to offer in terms of medical care, counseling advice, or theology, I knew that finding my role would be key to understanding my purpose on that missions team.
I was recently reminded just how profound play is for children, particularly those that have experienced trauma, when a team of people from NBC’s American Ninja Warrior set up a course in Haiti for children in our program—a safe place to run, laugh, and be a kid. The children in Haiti were gifted with a safe place to play.
“I have never seen so much grass in my life! Can you believe all the grass?” He exclaimed as he ran around the fields at the Olympic Center in Haiti. His smile was so big, so enthusiastic that I thought it would split his sweet, little face.
Ah, summer camp . . . that magical place we’d go to as children . . . where we’d ride horses, swim in a lake, eat s’mores, battle mosquitoes, and create lasting memories while building deep friendships. Summer camp conjures up feelings of nostalgia, as we remember how good it felt to escape for one week and just have fun!
For children in developing nations who live in extreme poverty, an “escape” from the challenges and hardships of daily life is long overdue. In these hard places, it’s difficult for kids to just be kids! Children’s television icon, Mr. Rogers, once said, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” Professionals in child development agree with Mr. Rogers. Play is important for children to learn, to create, to problem solve, and to imagine.
Knowing this, OVC Program Director of Haiti and former youth pastor, Francois Murat, saw the value of providing the kids in our OVC (Orphaned and Vulnerable Child) Program the opportunity to attend summer camp. Thanks to the help of many church volunteers, he loaded the children into buses and took them to a location just outside of Port-au-Prince for a weekend. While their summer camp may not have included horseback rides or a lake, it did include lots of fun! They sang songs, played games, put on a talent show, and participated in group Bible studies.
These silly songs and friendly competitions did more than merely elicit laughter (though they did plenty of that!). They created an atmosphere where children could let their guard down and where friendships could grow. For possibly the first time in their lives, these kids felt safe and free to just be kids.
For Adams Bichotte, going to camp was the first time in his 16 years of life he had ever left his neighborhood. His mother accompanied the group to serve as a volunteer in the kitchen. Before camp, Adams could be described as shy and aloof. He mostly kept to himself and rarely spoke.
But something happened during that weekend at camp. Somewhere in between racing with an egg balanced on a spoon in his mouth and dancing in a circle with dozens of his peers, Adams realized he didn’t have to be afraid or shy. He realized he wasn’t alone and could express himself freely. Following camp, Adams said, “I have never eaten as well as I did at camp! I did not imagine it would be so fun. I had no idea I would meet other kids who are in the same predicament as me. Camp was the most beautiful experience of my life!” This young man, who had been isolated from life outside of his neighborhood, came to realize that there are other kids just like him, experiencing similar struggles. How freeing to know that you are not alone and that there are others who understand your situation and care about you!
Now that the kids have returned from camp, Adams has completely come out of his shell. He is more outgoing and is not afraid to talk and meet new people. In that one weekend, he developed new friendships and a renewed sense of self. Neither Adams nor his mother have accepted Jesus as their Savior, but now they are much more interested in church and are asking their pastor many spiritual questions. Their church is praying that God will use this experience to lead them to salvation.
As the children and their families resume the day-to-day struggles of life in Haiti, we hope and pray that they will not soon forget their weekend of laughing ‘til their cheeks hurt, the feeling of a full belly after a meal, or whispering to bunkmates long after lights out. We hope they never forget what it felt like to escape for a weekend and just have fun.