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Camp offers children of jailed parents encouragement and a visit from Miss America

For kids uncomfortable with having an incarcerated parent, a Broward County summer day camp provides encouragement and solidarity.

For three days, 150 youngsters came to Highlands Christian Academy in Pompano Beach for the annual Prison Fellowship’s Champion Sports Camp. There they took part in athletic and academic activities, studied the Bible and received advice about reaching their potential.

“They give you help, tell you what’s the best thing to do,” said camper Adrian Jeune, a 12-year-old from Deerfield Beach. Despite having two uncles and a godfather in jail, Adrian said the camp counselors taught him he wouldn’t have the same fate. “I’m going to be OK with them.”

And on Wednesday, the kids received a special visitor: Miss America 2012 Laura Kaeppeler.

Kaeppeler, whose own father served a year for mail fraud when she was in high school, has made support of children of incarnated parents her platform as Miss America.

“Work hard, believe in yourself, dream big,’’ she encouraged them. “You promised me you’ll do these things?”

“Yes!” the kids responded in unison.

After her speech, Kaeppeler took questions from the audience. One camper asked her the process to becoming president. Another asked her how long she had been a Christian. Kaeppeler, wearing her crown, then posed for photos with campers.

Currently there are 1.7 million children across the United States with a parent in prison, according to Prison Fellowship. Statistically, 60 percent of kids with jailed parents also end up in trouble. Prison Fellowship’s Champion Sports Camp aims to prevent this.

“What we do instills in them leadership, good sportsmanship and, above all, gives them tremendous self-worth,” said Raeanne Hance, executive regional director of Prison Fellowship.

Campers get to attend for free. All activities, hot lunches, snacks, backpacks and T-shirts are provided by private donors and churches.

It was the Prison Fellowship that made sure Christina Allen received a Christmas gift each year from her father, who was sentenced to 40 years in prison for murder when Allen was just 3.

Allen, now a volunteer with the group, told the kids how growing up, she developed an animosity toward her father. Then, when she was 12, her mother died.

“The hardest part is not having the parent there to celebrate the happiest days,” said Allen, now 24 and living in Boynton Beach.

She told the campers how receiving that gift every Christmas made her realize her father still cared for her and she was motivated to not let her past influence her future.

“Our circumstances don’t dictate our destiny; rather it’s our responses to those circumstances that do,” she told the campers.

Allen earned degrees from Florida Atlantic University and Florida State University. Today she works as an accountant for Power Systems Management.

“My story is an encouragement to others,’’ Allen said.

R.J. Gervin had never had an opportunity to meet other kids living under similar circumstances. The 15-year-old Deerfield Beach native said the camp allowed him to learn new things and meet new people.

“I will be coming back next year,” R.J. said.