‘Like Jesus with skin on’

May 31, 2024

‘Like Jesus with skin on’

 Interview: Jacqui Willing & Winnie Ho

Southern Cross Kids’ Camp (SCKC) is an Australian Registered Charity that seeks to interrupt the cycles of abuse and neglect by providing an outstanding five-day camping program to primary school-aged children (7-12 years old). SCKC gives kids who have had a tough start to life, as referred by social workers and welfare agencies, the best week of their year. In 2023, this included 450 kids over 20 camps across Australia.

Winnie Ho began volunteering with SCKC in 2004 and has invested a decade as Director of SCKC East Sydney Camp. Winnie graduated from ACU with a Bachelor of Education and has spent 20 years working as a Primary School teacher in NSW Public Schools. Winnie was recently interviewed by Jacqui Willing, a young camp volunteer, to learn from her experience and understand her passion for serving in this unique ministry.

What sets SCKC apart from other children’s camps?

SCKC is the only program focused on kids who've been through trauma, abuse, and neglect. We're not just a band-aid solution; we're intentional about providing our campers a safe space, positive relationships and personalised support. We create a sense of belonging where children feel accepted, understood, and valued.

Every child is paired with a 'buddy' who offers practical and emotional support throughout the camp. We also have a registered nurse who handles medication and a children's counsellor who helps manage and calm situations when necessary, but the atmosphere isn't clinical at all. Volunteers are affectionately called ‘grandparents’, ‘aunties’, ‘uncles’, and ‘cousins’ by the campers, creating positive intergenerational bonds. The only thing missing is a family dog! In the SCKC family, children are our top priority. Our staff-to-camper ratio is greater than 1:1, and buddies create personalised memory books for each camper to cherish. These books include heartfelt letters of encouragement throughout the year.

SCKC recruits and trains dedicated Christian volunteers who embody Christ's love. Volunteers undergo screening, interviews, and trauma-informed training to understand the campers' needs and provide support and care. This commitment is exemplified by one of our life-long volunteers who prays for every child they've met at camp every day of the year.

Initially, I was sceptical. I found it hard to believe that five days of attention and fun could help these children heal and thrive long-term. After my first camp, I struggled with a sense of injustice for six months. We lacked certainty about the well-being of the children we had poured our hearts into for a week, which stretched and tested me.

But after 10 years, I look back and say ‘Oh ye of little faith!’

The children are always eager to come back each year. They know a supportive family is waiting to spend another fun week with them. I'm grateful to the parents and carers who trust us to provide this healing, growing, and thriving space.

Parents, carers, and caseworkers often notice positive changes in the children after camp—more self-confidence and love for others, especially siblings and carers. Camps also have a positive influence on families.

I believe God makes this program possible and sustains its work beyond the five days of camp. We trust that only God can protect and provide for these children all year long. SCKC challenges us to surrender our efforts to God, who can make all things possible.

How have the challenges for primary school-aged children changed during your tenure as camp director? Do these changes align with what you've observed during your time teaching in the public school system?

The level and type of trauma experienced by primary school-aged children at camp have changed significantly since I joined SCKC over 20 years ago. Nowadays, almost every child experiences anxiety and struggles to regulate their emotions, which wasn't the case back in 2003.

It’s also a trend that we are witnessing in schools. I remember years spent teaching where one child in a school of 350 had special emotional needs. In the past 5 years, this has changed dramatically. Now, we see at least one student with emotional regulation, anxiety issues or a diagnosis (such as ADHD, ODD or ASD) in every class of a school of 470 students.

So yes, children are suffering from anxiety in a way we haven’t witnessed before. It’s hard to pinpoint why we see this astronomical rise because every situation is unique. Still, certainly, I believe changing family dynamics has played a big part. That’s why the safe and loving family unit experience that SCKC offers campers is so dear to me.

Can you tell us more about this change? Why do you think it’s happening and what challenge does that pose for the future of SCKC?

We talk a lot about COVID because it has affected everyone, young and old, in a way that could shape this generation permanently. Anxiety is heightened for both caregivers and kids in the family unit. I believe we're witnessing the impact of uncertainty—the feeling of not knowing when life will stop or change.

Small behaviour shifts in the children may include a refusal to go outside. More serious ones include expressing a fear of dying, even through questions in the classroom.

The irony of paralysing anxiety is that the same barrier keeping campers from attending can sometimes be the reason they would benefit from it. Nationally, there is more demand for camps than ever before. Our limits to providing more spaces come from lack of funding and volunteers, which is why community engagement will become even more important now.

SCKC has always worked to involve local communities to raise awareness about trauma and abuse issues and to gain support for its programs. Community involvement creates a support network for the children during and after camp. Now, with the increasing pervasiveness of anxiety, community education is becoming even more important.

How can we as Christians offer meaningful support to children who have suffered trauma as a result of abuse or neglect?

Kids who've been neglected or abused often blame themselves for the pain. It's hard to change that belief. They might not listen to encouraging words because their memories are strong, or they don't fully trust adults.

That's why we shouldn't just tell them we're there for them; we have to prove it. This is especially important for kids who've felt rejected or doubted themselves.

In Philippians 2:3-5 we find the wisdom to ‘do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.’

Every time we interact with a child, we can show them they're valued, loved, and safe. It's a privilege to be positive role models, guiding them towards Christ's love through our actions.

From my first training in 2004, the Director (Tammy Tolman) said that for us volunteers to be involved in this camp, we had to be ‘like Jesus with skin on’. That has stayed with me until this day. I believe every interaction with children should reflect how Jesus first served us.

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