A former camper, Michael Mills returns to All God’s Children Camp as a mentor each summer. Photo courtesy Mary Hetzel
For Michael Mills, the All God's Children Camp is a very different world than the one he knew as a child growing up in a South Richmond neighborhood near Jefferson Davis Highway.
"When I got to the camp in Goochland, I thought it was the Bahamas," he recalls. "I didn't know nothing like that existed. There was nobody shooting up on the street corner, no violence." At home, "my mother would try to teach me how to cook crack [cocaine] on the kitchen stove. I was probably in elementary or middle school. My mother even shot my grandmother and she almost died."
Now 21, Mills returns each summer as a mentor, giving other children the opportunity that he believes changed his life during the six years he attended camp. The Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church established All God's Children in 1999 as an initiative for children whose parents are incarcerated, as Mills' mother often was.
"My first-grade teacher gave me a paper saying the camp was free," he recalls. "My grandparents didn't know much about it, but they wanted to get me out of the house.
"My mother was in jail," he continues. "As soon as I was born, she gave custody to my grandparents. It ain't all been sunshine and crickets growing up. My grandmother called me ‘Little Black Sambo,' but she idealized my older brother, Guy. I'm cool with my brother now, although I felt like a slave in that house."
After his grandfather died, Mills moved to Haven House, a group home for teens where he met Gina Jones, a residential counselor there. "Haven was due to close, and Michael was scheduled to stay in a shelter until another home was found," Jones says. "He had visited me previously, so he was allowed to temporarily live with me through an emergency foster care placement in March 2007. He's still here."
A 10th-grader when he left Haven House, Mills eventually transferred to Varina High School, where Jones now works as an administrative intern. He graduated in 2010.
"My family embraced Michael immediately," Jones says. "Going to camp every summer reinforced the values I had. We leaned on God, and Michael put the bad things behind him." When Mills was in the group home, no one visited him, she says. "When he spent time with his birth family, it always ended in a dramatic episode." Jones credits her stepfather as her guiding light, saying he "gave me the strength to help Michael."
The Rev. John Peters, senior minister at Trinity United Methodist Church, became Mills' mentor at camp. Peters says that many of the children there are looking for a father figure.
"I was paired with Michael by chance and ended up mentoring him and Guy, who is two years older," Peters says. "They never had a father living in the home. Our family included them at Christmas and Easter and gatherings across the years. They are adults now, but we continue to help them with decision making, encouraging their direction. Our two sons, who are grown, consider Michael and Guy as family, too." Peters describes Mills as having a sweet spirit, but adds that "there were times when he would go to a dark place and nobody could communicate with him. Rather than push the issue, we just tried to encourage him."
The Peters family learned about the children's home situation along the way. "We weren't surprised, since this is the type of child that the camp deals with. I held the grandfather's funeral, and the boys took a leadership part of the service in 2006," Peters says. "I wanted to honor him because he was well loved by those boys. I just held the grandmother's service as well."
Mills now works alongside Peters as a mentor.
"Nothing gives me greater joy than to be at camp with Michael and see what he has grown into, how he relates to these kids who are just like he used to be," Peters says. "Much older mentors turn to him because he knows where these kids live in their heads. He's so valuable to the camp."
The camp was valuable to Mills and his brother, as well, Peters says. "Guy spent some time in jail but is doing great now, working in construction and staying close to church. Michael has attended community college classes and is currently working two part-time jobs."
Mills knows he can count on Peters, unlike his birth family.
"John understood when my grandmother kicked me out of the house, and when I look back, all the stuff that John went through with me and my family, he could have just shut his car door and never come back," Mills says. "John proved that he was always going to be there for me."
This summer will be the fifth year Mills has been a camp mentor, says Casey Torrence, director of the camps that are held at Westview on the James, Camp Highroad in Middleburg and in Occohannock on Virginia's Eastern Shore. This summer, camp will be held from Aug. 11 to 16 in Goochland and Aug. 4 to 9 in the other two locations ( vaumc.org/agcc ).
Staffed by volunteers, the camps are free for attendees, except for a $10 registration fee. Each camp includes nature and Bible study, music, and crafts, as well as a class in peer mediation, taught by paid counselors who also assist with children in need of a little extra help.
"If a parent is incarcerated, statistics show there's about a 60 percent chance of the child becoming incarcerated, which is particularly true if it's a mother," Torrence says. "Mentors like Michael are so important."
When interacting with campers, Mills says, "I get down on their level and try to make them feel good about who they are." He adds, "Right now, I'm not emotionally prepared to do what John did for me. My feet have got to be planted a little deeper before I can take on that much responsibility, but I'm going to get there.
©Nancy Wright Beasley 2013. All rights reserved.