Summer camp looked very different for the 140 students who took part in Core Camp this year in Homestead.
Instead of swimming and arts and crafts, camp activities included cleaning camel poop, giving elderly women manicures and sweating profusely while teaching younger kids how to shoot a basketball — some of a dozen community service projects around the city.
“These kids are taking their vacation days and sleeping on the floor,” said Angel Garcia, a youth pastor at Core Community Church in Homestead who pioneered the idea for the camp. “I can’t sugarcoat it and act as if it’s not something supernatural. They’re sacrificing their comfort for others; all for love and all for Jesus.”
Core Camp was a week-long overnight summer camp for middle and high school students in Homestead. From June 21 to June 28, about half a dozen churches in Homestead partnered up with Core Community Church, and students devoted themselves to serve organizations and people in need in South Dade.
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Every morning, the 140 students deployed in mustard yellow school buses from Everglades Preparatory Academy — where they slept each night — and got to work.
Some days they gave presentations at the Agape House Women’s Shelter on their value or taught kids how to read; on others they helped Kids For Christ staff supervise and serve children, taught toddlers the Bible or cleaned animal habitats at the Animal Outpost in Homestead. They even helped a family in need of moving services. Eight kids helped them pack and load the truck.
“We want to help our kids connect with our city,” Garcia said. “We want them to want to serve not just during camp, but we want them to want to come back to help and serve on their own. That’s why we focus on Homestead; it’s our backyard. We stay here because we live here. You don’t have to go far to go on a mission trip. Homestead is our mission. We want them to own it.”
Garcia noted that 86 percent of students who attended camp last year continued volunteering or interning on their own afterward, something that Becky Blanco, children’s coordinator at Open House Ministries in Homestead, a community outreach program for the underprivileged, says is priceless.
Inside Blanco’s facility, kindergarteners learned two lessons from the Core Campers: to do the right thing even when no one is looking, and how to stand up for what is right when it’s not popular.
“That’s the real goal, to have the volunteers to click with the kids so that they come back. That’s the real mentorship, the real service,” Blanco said. “It only takes one connection to be at risk of local gangs or drug trafficking. Getting them at this age is crucial.”
Godwin Altidor, 31, a director at Greater Miami Youth for Christ, led a free six-week sports camp for under-served kids in Homestead. Some of the Core Campers spent their week helping the staff there.
“Homestead is packed with talent,” Altidor said, standing on a basketball court. “This is the gutter. You don’t really get that extra training. Here, they get to see men like us playing sports, they get to see us react, having our lives be a vision of teamwork. A lot of the kids you see here, their parents have given up on life. They don’t have that drive, they don’t have people to push them. That’s where we come in. That’s where the campers come in. They’ve been so helpful.”
But their time at camp wasn’t all work, thanks to the “two-person pranking policy” where kids were allowed to prank with consent from two leaders, something Garcia says creates “a strong bond, like family.”
“You either go with the flow or the flow takes over you, and I’d rather have the students learn how to prank and have fun without creating a devastating experience for a person,” he said, who was pranked four times. “One of the ways is by teaching them how to do a prank that will be funny, but won’t scar someone emotionally.
His favorite prank: A group of students and leaders took Garcia’s car keys, filled up 400 small balloons with air, and placed the keys in one of them. They then placed all the balloons in his car and he had to pop all of them to find his keys.
Another place the kids volunteered was at the Animal Outpost — an abused animal sanctuary housing monkeys, bears, tigers panthers wolves, lemurs and more. As 16-year-old Bianca Segura took a break from raking grass in 90-degree weather, she talked about how preserving the animal’s niches is worth her time.
“We’re not just regular kids,” the South Dade Senior High School student said. We’re doing this because God sacrificed himself on the cross to help us. The same way I will sacrifice my time to serve others. That’s why I’m here.”
Jordon Hernandez, 20, concurred.
“One of the best ways to show others God’s love is being helpful to the community,” The Miami Dade College student said. “We just don’t want to tell people about God’s love, we want to show them. That’s louder than anything we can possibly say.”
Every night the students reported back to the site and ate dinner — mostly donated or provided highly discounted meals from local restaurants. They ended their days with a youth service and completed their camp with a costume party and concert.
“Our goal is to have all of Homestead say ‘Man, I’m glad you guys held camp this year.’ To be good news,” Garcia said. “We asked ourselves: ‘How do we create a camp that Homestead will be happy about?’ And we realized that it would be by serving them, by serving the city.”
Homestead Councilwoman Patricia Fairclough, director of the City’s Mayor’s Youth Council, led the efforts to contribute funds to go toward the camp’s transportation.
“We have to invest first hand in the kids in our community, that’s when they turn around an invest right back,” Fairclough said. “These are kids with a heart for Christ, coupled with a passion for the community — it’s a perfect marriage. I think that what they’re doing really represents the true story of Homestead. We always get bogged down with these headlines, but look at this here; this is what’s going right with Homestead. These kids are changing the narrative.”