17 May More than a Camp
What is TRAC?
TRAC is short for Teen Reach Adventure Camp. In short, we are a 3-day camp experience for students aged 12-15 in foster care.
Why does TRAC exist?
Students in foster care are in this situation through no fault of their own. We know that those middle school and early high school years can be some of the toughest years for kids from the best of homes, but for students in foster care these struggles are hugely magnified. Most of the students that attend our camps have been in a shocking number of foster homes, have experienced failed adoptions, and just generally show up feeling unloved and unwanted. We see in their countenance even that they feel completely defeated. We want these same students just 3 days later to leave confident that not only does God love them, but so do His people! We use our challenge course, quality time with incredibly fun adults and our CrossTalk bible study and worship times to speak the truth of the Gospel into their lives. As we travel along the path, we encourage these students and help them begin to see the incredible plans that God has for their future.
How have you seen TRAC impact kids and families?
I’ll be honest. The first time I volunteered at a TRAC camp several years ago in the Houston area, I was skeptical. I wondered how in the world we could make an impact in just 3 days. God has repeatedly used camp to remind me that He is so incredibly loving, and the love He expresses through His people is immensely powerful. The impact we have seen has been incredible. Students that come in to camp defeated leave knowing that God has gifted them with skills, talents and gifts that He plans to use for big things! We are seeing the typical statistics of foster kids never graduating, much less attend college, being turned on their heads. We are seeing God heal deep pains that students have buried for years being brought to the surface and discussed in a safe environment, by loving Christians. God is really moving!
How have you seen God move through TRAC?
One way that surprises many who volunteer at camp is the impact that it has on the volunteers. Many people are heartbroken over the tragedy of kids in foster care waiting for forever homes, and the abuse, neglect and/or abandonment that caused these students to become part of “the system”. But so often, we don’t know what to do to help. Camp has been a huge answer to prayer for many people in this regard. Once at camp, our volunteers realize that these students are absolutely amazing kids! They respond to love and end up teaching us as volunteers so many lessons about perseverance, courage and patience. Lessons I know I need to be reminded of regularly.
What has been a struggle/barrier you have seen overcome?
We get to overcome a really fun barrier at our Girls Camp. Our camps are single-gender camps, so we have one weekend for boys and one for girls. On the first day of camp for the girls, we take them to our dress shop. We spend all year collecting formal dresses from friends, family and church members so each girl has tons of dresses to choose from. The girls are always blown away by the options they have and the beauty of the dresses. Our staff talks to them about the way God describes each of them, and about the incredible inner beauty he has knit into them. Then each girl not only selects a dress, but the shoes, accessories and undergarments necessary to complete the outfit. Its not unusual to see tears in the room as the girls, most of them for the very first time, pick out a beautiful dress that is just for them.
We do this for 2 major reasons. One, it meets a pretty practical need. We want every girl to have that formal outfit they need for things like prom, homecoming or other events and know they likely would never be able to attend these events otherwise. The bigger impact though happens on a special night at camp. We host a dance for these girls, and the men of camp spend that night serving these girls. These men serve the girls a formal dinner, pull out their chair, dance with them and make them feel like they are a princess for the night.
At the conclusion of the dance, we explain to our campers an important lesson we hope will break the pattern of abuse we often see carried on from generation to generation. We explain to them that they are worthy of being treated the way they were treated that night at the dance. That they don’t have to accept being treated poorly. I ask them all to make a promise to me. I ask them to remember this night, and when some guy comes knocking on the door to take them out on a date, if he isn’t the kind of guy that will treat them the way our men treated them at the dance that they simply wouldn’t answer the door or go on the date.
Can you share a story that has stuck out to you from an experience a camper has had at TRAC?
We don’t advertise to the campers that this is a camp just for kids in foster care, but they quickly figure that out on their own. It’s comforting to many of them to be surrounded by other students who “get it”. People that understand the things they have been through. For boys camp, we do a talent show every year. Last year at camp, we had a camper named Nathen take the stage. He wasn’t signed up on our schedule, but just asked if he could have the stage for a few minutes. Once on stage, he looked out at the crowd and said “I feel like I can trust you guys.” For the next 10 or so minutes, he proceeded to tell us his life story (with a few jokes mixed in to keep it as light-hearted as he could). For the staff, there wasn’t a dry eye in the place. The students though took the stage a couple different times to hug him, and the night ended with all of the boys rallying around him and giving him a huge camp hug. Nathan left not only feeling loved, but excited to see what God has in store for his future.
What is your biggest hope for TRAC in the future?
Currently there are only 3 TRAC camps in the entire state of Texas. For our Austin chapter, we want to continue to expand the number of volunteers and resources needed to bring in more kids. We have a very high ratio of volunteers to students to give these teens a great experience, but we know there are so many teens that will never get an opportunity like this if we don’t continue to grow.
Secondly, we want to start a mentorship program using the connections that are made at camp. These students need ongoing encouragement and support, but the state is very clear on the steps we have to take to have an ongoing connection with them. Lastly, we would eventually like to start a camp for that next age group, the 16-19 year old students. These students are the most at-risk and most likely to find themselves homeless or incarcerated when they age out of the system without the proper support.
How can people get involved?
Just do it! You can find out more about opportunities to volunteer on our website at tracaustin.org. If volunteering isnt possible for you in your current phase of life, we can always use your financial support and of course your prayers!! We have an easy way to give on our website as well. Lastly, if you know of a foster student that would benefit from our camp, let us know! We’d love to reach out and see if we can get them in our camps.
*Chad Jackson is the founder and Camp Director of Teen Reach Adventure Camp-Austin. If you are interested in learning more about how to volunteer, financially support or have a foster student you’d like to send to camp, please go to tracaustin.org to learn more.