Children and parents alike are always nervous at the drop off to summer sleepaway camp.
One grandmother was no exception when she dropped off her grandson June 28 to stay at a camp in the Uinta mountains, where just an hour from the city, children could see streams run through rocky waterways and lambs guided by sheepdogs alongside winding ridge roads.
“This first time he’s going to camp — he’s so excited he’s just bouncing,” she said. “He’s already got his stories ready for the campfire.”
But for her grandson, it was more than just a trip to camp, it was a chance for healing. For five days, in a picturesque corner of the Uintas overlooking a mountain meadow, 62 children who were all victims of crime got to bond, make friends and just be kids.
The program is called Camp Hope and it’s the work of District Attorney Sim Gill and Chief Deputy Blake Nakamura. All the children, aged 8-17, were involved with cases tried by Gill’s office. Gill’s project is a branch of Camp Hope, an international organization for children and teens exposed to traumatic experiences, and has run for a decade with help from a YMCA-run campsite.
For Gill, the program is an effort to go beyond the prosecutorial process to help children who are victims of crimes, since for victims and their families, the pain of sexual abuse or witnessing violent crime doesn’t end with a court verdict.
Gill said it is “incredible” to see the fruits of their efforts, a year after the first Camp Hope experience had to be scaled back to day-camp events due to COVID-19.
“We saw the response, and then the feedback from parents,” Gill said. “I mean, some of the remarks that we got was, ‘This is the first time I’ve seen my kid smile, and just act like a kid.’”
Putting victims first
Creating Camp Hope involved years of work. It’s one of several projects from the DA’s office offering support for victims.
The most recent piece for Gills’ office was the Victims Support Services Division, which was created in February 2020. The division, which is staffed with 40 victim advocates and social workers, helps connect victims to counseling resources and services like job training.
The Salt Lake County Children’s Justice Center, an organization that provides support for child victims, partnered with the office in providing resources for children affected by crimes. The additional processes in helping victims led the DA’s office to apply similar approaches with adult victims in cases like domestic violence or elder abuse.
“Blake and I would finish up the day’s work, and we would sit in my office, and we would just sit there and we’d say, ‘OK, So wouldn’t it be cool if we could do this?’” Gill said. “Each foundational piece we laid down just got us a little bit closer. So when Blake and I came up here... last week, I just had to take him aside and I just had to hug him and say ‘My God, we’re doing it. It’s real.’”
Gill said the office had to “change [its] paradigm as an institution,” in supporting victims by internalizing a “trauma-informed approach,” all the way from the front-desk secretary to the prosecution.
Gill said he believes they are the only District Attorney’s office implementing a Camp Hope program in the way they are doing it, with various community partners and agencies pitching in. Using asset forfeiture money and grants, none of the families have to pay for their child’s attendance. There is already enough funding in place to run the camp for the next two summers.
“This is fully funded and paid by the D.A.’s office,” Gill said. “Our long term vision is that not only will we do these camps for the kids, but ultimately, families can go camping together, as well, as they heal as a family.”
‘They’re not alone’
For some of the kids, the camp is the first time they’ve been in nature. At Camp Hope, they’ve seen chipmunks, heard the rush of water in the nearby creeks and even watched an osprey catch a fish from nearby lake, said YMCA Program Director Kathryn Peel.
“It’s very cool to be involved in such an influential experience for campers,” Peel said. “Being able to bring them up and have a transformational experience … that I get to provide every day through my job to kids, but also being able to bring to kids who’ve never had anything like that, and also let them kind of give them the space to just be kids.”
The children are accompanied by two adults who are YMCA counselors and two Camp Hope-specific volunteers with trauma-informed knowledge to support the children’s emotional needs.
The goal of the camp is to create the right conditions for the children to heal. That means creating new memories to crowd out the bad ones. Gill said neuroscience shows that there is an “incredible plasticity” in the minds of children, so the camp works to create positive memories, like camp fires, friends, fishing and observing wildlife.
“These children have undergone some of the most painful, horrific things that you and I can imagine, and they have had to grow up faster,” Gill said. “This is really about giving them their childhood, and seeing that … they’re not alone, and there are other kids, and there’s laughter and there’s joy.”
Julianna Potter, program manager for Camp Hope America - Utah, was already working with the District Attorney’s Victims Services Division when Gill and Nakamura were creating the camp. A trained social worker who loves the outdoors, Potter said she’s loved seeing the blossoming friendships between the children.
“I asked every child as part of the screening process, ‘What are you excited for, for coming to camp?’ Potter said. “Almost every child said, ‘It’ll be really nice to make friends understand what it’s like to go through something hard.’”