Donations, volunteers and grants help Sandy church provide free camp for kids in foster careFeb 23, 2022 06:31PM ● By Heather Lawrence
Utah Royal Kids runs a summer camp for kids in foster care through grants and donations. (Heather Colling/Utah Royal Kids)
By Heather Lawrence | [email protected]
Children in foster care can miss out on fun life experiences. For the past 20 years, volunteers with Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Sandy have worked to make sure that summer camp isn’t one of them.
“GSLC is a host church for the nonprofit Utah Royal Kids. We get donations and volunteers from around the valley to provide a week-long summer camp free of charge for kids who most need the experience, often because of abuse and neglect,” said Utah Royal Kids board member Heather Colling.
The camp hosts 40 to 50 kids, ages 7 to 11. A Saturday morning mentor club runs throughout the year and is open to a bigger age range. Both are run with donations, grants and lots of volunteer hours.
Colling credits social worker Shelley Horel and her husband John with starting the 501(c)(3) nonprofit that grew into Utah Royal Kids. Horel insists it was a group effort.
“I became a foster parent at age 25, which I know is pretty strange. My husband and I were raising foster kids and became adoptive parents. So we’ve known about these kids who really struggle. Being foster parents is one of those things we’ve found that we could do to help,” Horel said.
She said the idea came from a friend of hers who fielded a call at work as an adoption specialist for the State of Utah. A woman at another church in Sandy had the idea to do a summer camp for kids in foster care. They worked together and brought the program to Utah.
“Our first year of camp, we had 19 kids attend. There are some things you learn pretty fast. Now we’ve figured out our training and our program, and it’s very good,” Horel said.
The location of the camp is confidential, but Colling describes it as “a beautiful camp with lodges and showers—the Ritz-Carlton of camping.”
“Everything is done as a labor of love. We have no paid staff except for a grant writer. Volunteers undergo extensive training and background checks, and there are two adults to a child at all times,” Colling said.
GSLC is the host for the camps, but they welcome volunteers from all different churches and spiritual backgrounds.
“We are up front about the religious element of the camp. We want the kids to know God loves them, and has given them gifts and talents. We feel it adds an element of hope and self-worth,” Colling said.
Campers feel welcome from the moment they arrive. “As they pull up, the volunteers line the road holding up signs with their names on them and cheering for them. Seeing their name on a poster is a big deal for many kids,” Colling said.
They do typical camp activities like hiking and crafts. They also get visits from the Jazz Bear and inspiring speakers, like Salt Lake Olympic Silver Medal winner Bill Schuffenhauer.
“Bill grew up homeless and in foster care in the Salt Lake and Ogden areas. In junior high he had an influential coach who encouraged him in track, and from there he became an athlete,” Colling said.
Schuffenhauer’s track career led to bobsled training, and he became part of the 2002 U.S. Olympic team. He brings his medal to camp and lets the kids hold it, while telling them to work toward their dreams.
Other camp programs include skits, birthday party day (Colling said many kids in foster care don’t get a birthday party) and a Dream Team to help kids sleep at night.
“Kids in foster care are living in survival mode most of the time. Here they are loved, cherished and told how great they are for a week—something that many of them have never heard. It does them a lot of good. I heard from a therapist who worked with our kids that a week of summer camp is equal to a year of therapy,” Colling said.
Utah Royal Kids hired a grant writer recently so they could increase their fundraising and serve more kids. They were in a good position this year: in addition to their annual fundraising banquet, they got grants from the state, Burlington and the Sorenson Foundation.
“We’ve had so much success that we want to serve more kids. We’ve learned that the sweet spot is 40 to 50 kids at camp. With more donations, we can branch out to have camps in St. George and Ogden. Instead of adding more kids to the same week, we would add locations. With an all-volunteer staff, donors know that 100% of what they give goes straight to the kids,” Colling said.
For information on applying, volunteering or donating, go to www.utahroyalkids.org .
Donations also provide a special souvenir of the child’s time at camp—a photo album.
“During the week we have our photographers take pictures, and at the end of the camp each child is presented with a photo album of their time there. It becomes a treasure,” Colling said.
She remembered a story from one foster mom who was checking in her kids for camp.
“She said that one of her older foster sons, who was 18 now, went to camp years ago,” Colling said. She said he takes his photo album everywhere he goes. We’ve heard that from a lot of parents. That photo album is a treasure.”