For youths who have a parent incarcerated in the prison system, it can be difficult to have fun childhood experiences without being weighed down by the burdens of their complex family lives. One organization in the U.P. set out nearly two decades ago to provide such youths a place where they could let go of their burdens for a week and enjoy the outdoors while in community with other young people in similar life situations.
Camp New Day is the Upper Peninsula’s only summer camp that serves youths with parents or caregivers who are incarcerated, and it is this year’s recipient of Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine’s annual donation for 2020. (See p.9 for more info.)
The camp lasts for one week each July and includes activities such as archery, fishing, canoeing, kayaking, and nighttime campfires. Although the camp’s target population is children of incarcerated parents, the camp’s goal is to be a typical summer camp experience where kids only talk about their experiences with caregiver incarceration if they wish to.
“A lot of our kids have a lot of burdens and things that they have to tend to at home and it just lets them have a hopefully carefree week being kids,” Board President and Camp Director Gene Champagne said. “We’re perfectly willing to talk about [incarceration] if the camper wants to talk about it, but usually the counselors hear it at night in stories, and when the kids are talking in their cabins.”
To serve the camp’s target population, camp staff receives two days of in-depth training before the week begins.
“We have pretty rigorous training, not only what the state requires us to teach and educate our staff about, but also things that might be unique to children who have an incarcerated parent or caregiver,” explains Champagne. “Some of them might be, not all, but some of them, might have more examples of anxiety or [feelings of] worthlessness or guilt or who knows what else that might be associated with the incarceration.”
Oftentimes, Champagne said, the campers may come in unsure of themselves and unsure of the camp experience, but by the middle of the week they acclimate to the carefree atmosphere.
“Sometimes the smiles don’t come out until Wednesday; I call it Miracle Wednesday. You know, some kids might come in never having been to a summer camp before. I know the first time I went, I was probably nervous and scared. And some of them might come in with a real defensive attitude, (having) never been to camp before,” Champagne said. “But I call it Miracle Wednesday because by Wednesday they’ve had a day and a half at camp, and they realize, Hey, this is a fun, safe place to be. I’m getting three square meals a day and we’re doing all this cool stuff. And you see the smiles really start to come out.”
The organization, which hosted its first camp in 2002, drew the idea for its mission from a social outreach project at St. Paul’s church in Marquette inspired by a camp with the same premise in Denver.
The camp currently accepts U.P. youths aged nine to fourteen, and provides any necessities to the campers to ensure they are able to attend, according to Champagne.
“We provide everything free of charge to the campers, whether they need a toothbrush, bedding, or transportation,” Champagne said.
Camp New Day U.P. usually accommodates about twenty-five to thirty campers each summer. The campers are housed in four cabins by age range and gender, with about six campers and two counselors per cabin.
Unfortunately, Champagne said, the organization was unable to host a camp this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so instead board members traveled to see some of the campers and give them care packages of items that would usually have been distributed at camp, including beach towels, blankets, sunscreen, glasses, games, and other camping supplies.
In the future, Champagne said, the camp hopes to expand to accommodate children who age out of the current program. Although the target population is often quite mobile due to the foster care system and family financial burdens, making it difficult to keep in touch with campers through the years, Camp New Day U.P. hopes to host small regional camps throughout the year for high school students.
The camp survives on the generosity of organizations and individuals, Champagne said.
People donate time, money and goods to the program. Counselors for the camp are always in demand, especially male counselors for the boys’ cabins, added Champagne. The camp also looks for volunteers who can share fun skills with the campers.
“There’s groups of individuals around the UP that make blankets for these kids all year and donate to the camp, and the kids are just amazed,” Champagne said.
“I didn’t know there were so many people who cared about us… and who don’t even know us,” an anonymous camper said.
Akasha Khalsa is a student at Northern Michigan University, where she studies English literature and French. She is currently employed as a desk editor for the North Wind Independent Student Newspaper.
Excerpted with permission from the Winter 2020-2021 issue of Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine. Copyright 2020, Empowering Lightworks, LLC. All rights reserved.