“We Thought Love Would Be Enough!”
These families who adopted from foreign countries were often unprepared for the effects of their son’s previous experiences. Many boys came from orphanages where they experienced neglect. This can cause negative behaviors later in life. Other boys experienced abandonment and loss from their biological families. They frequently struggle to build relationships and trust with their adoptive families. The result is sometimes disarray and turmoil in the family.
“We did so much for our son; why doesn’t he appreciate it?” is a question that many of these parents ask themselves.
For years they did everything possible for their son. But their options were running out. They had no place to turn. They didn’t know what to do next. They were desperate.
Evan had experienced a lot of severe neglect in a Ukrainian orphanage. “He was severely underweight when we got him,” his mother Christine remembers. “I thought that we would just love on him, and that would be all he needed.”
“Because he has no memory of that trauma and wasn’t verbal, he was not able to process it,” she goes on. “He was not able to talk about it in therapy. He can’t recall it, but it’s there.”
Things really got bad with Evan when puberty hit. He was bullying other kids and getting behind academically.
Once, after a violent incident, Christine told him that they knew he didn’t want to be this way. They were going to pray for an answer. He responded, “There’s nothing to pray about. God can’t fix me.” He had given up on himself.
Many children adopted from foreign countries suffer from reactive attachment disorder (RAD). Bradley was one of them. “RAD is a condition in which a child doesn’t establish healthy attachments with parents or caregiver,” explained his mother Sharon. “It may develop if the child’s basic needs for comfort, affection and nurturing aren’t met.”
Children with RAD thrive on chaos and upheaval. “Our family life was out of control,” she recalls. “We couldn’t take him out in public. The more we showed him affection, the more he would push us away. He was tearing our family apart!”
“Unless you live with a child with RAD, you have no idea what it’s like,” his father Scott relates. “Our closest friends and family members would comment on our supposed lack of parenting skills. We felt very alone!”
“In the orphanages, there aren’t enough caretakers for all the children,” Hudson’s mother Tamela explains. “So they don’t get a lot of one-on-one attention. They don’t get held and rocked. They do the best they can with the allocated resources.”
Like many children from these orphanages, Hudson had developmental delays in many areas. He responded well to much of the therapy, but there were still behavior issues. He was finally diagnosed with RAD. “That rocked our world,” Tamela remembers. “We knew that it was going to be a sustained effort for the rest of our lives.”
“As time passed, it continued to get worse,” she continues. “When he tried to hurt another child at basketball camp, we knew that we had to do something.”
Josh was not in an orphanage, but he suffered early loss when his mother and twin brother died soon after he was born. In that culture, having twins was a curse. Since Josh was alone, he would have been treated as an outcast. He was rescued by missionaries and eventually adopted by Rodney and Gina.
When Josh turned seven, the hurts and feelings started to surface. He would keep all his feelings inside and refuse to talk about them. Then something would happen and he would erupt in fits of rage. They were at loss with how to deal with his issues.
He would take out his anger on Gina—hitting and throwing things at her. But they could not get him to talk about what was bothering him. Then he started hitting and disrespecting other people.
No Place to Turn
Their situations felt hopeless. These families tried many therapies and various methods to get help. Nothing seemed to work. They didn’t know what else to do. “Our son had every test known to man done on him,” one father said. “We were told that there was nothing they could do for him.”
“One of the things about RAD is that the number of people you can rely on to help gets smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller,” another father said.
“Since he was adopted from another country, we had no help from the Department of Social Services,” a father explains. “We were on our own. We didn’t know where to turn.”
In their desperation, these families searched far and wide for a solution. They often learned about camp from other families, or a professional recommended it. Many families were surprised that camp felt they could help their son. “Our family worker said they could help us with our son,” one mother said, “but… I didn’t believe him.”
“Camp provided the time and attention for our son that we couldn’t,” a father observes. “They could take the time to stop everything and deal with his issues. If he acted out, the whole group would circle up and deal with the problem at hand. You just can’t do that in a family environment. That’s the sort of thing that has brought change.”
“Camp provides a space for a boy to deal with his attachment difficulties,” explains Gary Barnhart, program director. “We have the time at camp for him to share when he is struggling. His chiefs and group will stop everything to focus on the present distress. As he begins to open up, the others speak into his life in a caring and understanding way. Over time, his brain will start to reframe relationships as he learns to express what he is feeling and begins to trust others.”
“Everything we do at camp, we do together,” Daniel Hochstetler, executive director, said. “The constant interaction with his chief and the other campers fosters trust. As they solve problems, they are able to get below the surface of his acting out to see what is really bothering him. As they care and help each other, the boy becomes part of the solution – not just a problem. He begins to believe that he can be different.”
Families often notice change within a few months at camp. For many boys, it’s learning to react to problems in a more productive manner. “On one home visit, Josh was having a bad attitude,” his father explained. “When asked what was going on, instead of getting angry like before, he admitted it and explained why and changed his attitude.”
“His first home visit was amazing,” another mother remarked. “He was different, especially with me. To have him look at me and say ‘yes ma’am’ – that was priceless. Six weeks at camp accomplished more than all the other things we have done throughout the years.”
“You always know that camp has your back,” comments Scott. “You always know that they are only looking out for the best for your child. You can be open and honest with the staff because you know they understand your situation. They made us feel safe.”
Life Goes On
“The past few years have been a whole lot easier,” Warren explains. “It’s not been a cake walk, but we now have the tools to work through our problems. I don’t where he would be without camp. He was headed for some type of incarceration.”
“Camp helped his decision making,” Christine said. “He now has the wherewithal to make a good decision. Now it is up to him. When he makes a bad decision, he can process what he has done, where it can lead, and what he can do about it.”
Josh has been home a few months. He still has things to work through and it has not always been easy. “He still gets angry, but it’s what he does with it that has changed,” Rodney said. “When issues surface, he’s quick to say ‘That’s not right, lets change this.'”
“Camp takes something from unmanageable chaos to manageable chaos.” A father explains. “It’s still hard, but he doesn’t end up with the same outbursts. We thought we could bring these boys into our home and change them with a lot of love. But the hurts and scars were so deep that we realized that we needed help.”
“When a boy graduates and goes home, the family is given a renewed hope that things can be better,” Daniel said. “With all that they have been through, many families quit believing that they can be a healthy family. The camp experience renews their passion. It gives them the energy, courage and hope to move on. Camp doesn’t fix the boy. We help them understand what the problems are which gives them the confidence and tools to work through them.”
Before a boy comes to camp, family workers conduct multiple visits with his family to help prepare them for the journey at camp. During camp, they stay closely involved with the family, keeping them informed of his progress and helping them prepare for their son’s return home after graduation.
For most families, the real work starts when their son graduates and returns home. They have seen great progress while he was at camp, and he returns home with the tools he needs to lead a successful life. But a boy’s return to home, school, and normal life can create some difficult challenges. How do they maintain and then build on the growth that he experienced at camp? How is camp personnel involved in that part of the journey?
Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with Carlos and Tamela, parents of a former camper, along with their family worker, Phil, to discuss their journey since their son returned home a few months ago.
Tamela: Camp Did a Good Job of Giving Him Tools
“When Hudson came home, our expectation was that things should be better than before he went to Fair Play, but that he would need reminders and constant structure for the rest of his life. It would be up to us to continue the structure of camp in our home as much as possible. We want to help him think for himself – to take what camp has taught him and what we are teaching him – and start creating his own structure.
Hudson has a troubled background that he can’t help. He has been diagnosed with Reactive Detachment Disorder (RAD). There is a difference between a child with behavior problems and a child with RAD. Behavior problems can often be fixed, but a child with RAD has experienced early childhood trauma. Early childhood trauma shapes the brain in such a way that makes close relationships difficult. That comes with challenges forever. Camp did a good job of giving us tools that we can use and apply in his life at home.
I often call Phil and ask for advice on how to deal with problems that come up. Once, when Hudson was struggling, Phil visited him to discuss what he could do to get things back on track. That felt very supportive.
Phil has met with us at different times, sometimes with all three of us and sometimes with just us as a couple to talk about our concerns. He is always available by phone – if I have any issue, he is there to help us.”
Carlos: Camp is a Touchstone for Life at Home
“The lifestyle and structure that camp provided has become a touchstone for his life after camp. It’s something we can refer back to, a base on how to structure his day, how to deal with problems, and how to treat each other. It’s something we can refer to as a common experience. That’s been really good for us as a family.
The big thing we brought from camp is putting structure in Hudson’s day, like making his bed, brushing his teeth, and doing his chores. We are trying to help him create habits – he is very much about habit. When he gets off that stuff, it’s a signal to us that we need to circle around and get back on track. When we run into a problem, the first thing we do is sit down and figure it out. Later, we discuss it in pow wow.
The continued personal connection with camp has been really good. It did not end when he graduated from camp. The continued connection with camp keeps it alive for Hudson.
It has been very touching to us to see how real, raw and affectionate camp staff is in working with these boys. These are some difficult boys, but they don’t give up. They just keep coming back every day. When you are in the thick of it as a parent, you sometimes get lost in the daily grind. But it’s been really encouraging to me to see that example of God’s love. I often use that as a reference point as a parent.
Before camp, it was just tough to love Hudson because he pushed us away so hard. Watching staff love these tough kids, even when they kept pushing away, is a challenge and encouragement to us.”
Hudson and Carlos: Camp at Home
At a recent Parent Group meeting, Carlos shared with the other parents some of the practices they have implemented since Hudson returned home.
“We set goals for a month,” Carlos explained. “Each Sunday we check in to see how we are doing and then at the end of the month we evaluate. For example, he wanted to work on his relationship with his mother, so we decided that before he can eat breakfast, he has to give her a compliment.”
He further encouraged the parents who currently have sons at camp. “Before camp, it was difficult to get breathing room just to think about how to make progress. This is really a time to catch your breath. Your son is learning a structure that can really make a difference in his life. So whatever you can do at home to keep some parts of that structure going makes a big difference.
Hudson also shared what it’s been like since returning home. “It’s been going pretty good. One thing that was really a struggle in the past was school. I’ve been doing really good and haven’t got into any problems. I am still working on respect for mom. Every night we do pow wow like we did at camp. We evaluate what we did well, what we need to work on, and we sing a song.”
“Our nine-year-old gets involved in pow wow, too,” Carlos adds. “Even Tamela and I review our days and have found it helpful to evaluate things that we can improve on.”
Camp Understands Our Son
“The staff at camp understand Hudson more than most people around me, even my very good friends,” Tamela said. “It’s because they spent twenty solid months with him on a day to day basis.”
“Phil gives us an opportunity to discuss situations to see if we are over reacting and to determine how we should respond to various situations. There are not many people who are comfortable discussing these situations. We are very grateful for Fair Play’s connection to our family!”
Every night was chaos in the Caldwell household. Six-year-old Brad would react violently to a situation and the only way to keep him from hurting himself and others was to hold him tightly. Often when Bob thought he had calmed down, he would relax his hold and Brad would immediately run out the door and down the street. There were many evenings spent looking for Brad in the neighborhood. Something had to change!
This story begins a few years ago when Bob and Sarah Caldwell began to feel some restlessness in their lives. As the parents of four beautiful kids, they were the recipients of many blessings and started to feel God asking them to enter into lives of those less fortunate.
They began to attend an inner city church in Spartanburg that focused on children’s ministry. One boy in the program touched Sarah’s heart—four-year-old Nyjerious. Sarah would often ride the bus to make sure he was ready to go. There she met his brother Brad. “We really felt God drawing us to this family,” Sarah recalls.
It was during this time that the boys’ mother fell into some difficulties and it became necessary to find other places for the kids to live. She requested that the two boys live with the Caldwell’s.
A Nightly Struggle
Life quickly became very chaotic. Nightly, Brad would violently act out. “Sometimes he would run away two or three times per night,” Bob remembers. “We would drive around the neighborhood looking for Brad. After finding him and thinking he was settled, he would run off again.”
“It is only through God’s help that we were able to get through it,” Sarah commented. “There were times that he was misbehaving so badly that we would send him outside until he would settle down. It was so bad. Our house was being destroyed.”
He was out of control but at the same time he was upset with himself. He would become fearful, saying things like “I’m a terrible person, I’m going to be a terrible dad.” One night was so bad that they feared for his safety and took him to the emergency room. They placed him in a psychiatric hospital for a few days.
Out of Desperation Came Hope
Bob and Sarah finally reached the point where they couldn’t deal with it any longer. “The one incident that showed that something needed to be done happened one morning while taking our kids to school,” Bob remembers. “I asked Brad to fasten his seatbelt and he refused. Fifteen minutes passed and he continued to stubbornly decline. The other kids were getting upset with him and me because they were going to be late. Finally I decided to get out of the car, and fasten the belt for him. No sooner had I returned to the driver’s side, he took off and I ended up chasing him around the car. I then realized that we couldn’t provide the time that Brad needed. Our family life had to go on.”
Sarah started researching group homes but many of those were not willing to accept Brad with his behavior issues. Someone suggested they consider Fair Play and they decided to check it out.
Bob instantly felt that Fair Play was the answer. “Brad loves the outdoors,” Bob explained. “Camp looked like the ideal place for Brad to deal with his issues while enjoying the outdoor setting. We felt like the Lord directed us to Fair Play.”
“When Paul Graber first visited, he described how camp dealt with issues by stopping an activity and circling up to solve a problem, I knew that this was exactly what Brad needed.” He continued. “As a family we couldn’t do this as life had to carry on for the other children.”
“I cannot begin to tell you how thankful I was for that day,” Sarah comments. “We felt God’s peace on our situation while talking to Paul. Camp was exactly what we needed. I finally felt hopeful for the first time in a long while.”
With Brad at camp, things at home quickly settled down. “We needed that,” Sarah remarked. “Things had been so frenzied for the previous three years.”
“Camp takes something from unmanageable chaos to manageable chaos.” Bob explains. “It’s still hard. Getting him to go to bed is still difficult. He continues to struggle with following directions. But it doesn’t end up with the same outbursts. He is not running away and he no longer has to be restrained for up to two hours.”
“In the past he lacked a lot of self-confidence,” Sarah continues. “But camp has helped improve his self-esteem. At school he has gained self-confidence through sports. His science teacher in particular has taken a special interest in him and has spoken a lot of truth into his life. God has brought numerous people into our lives to surround us and support us with these boys.”
“We thought we could bring these boys into our home and change them with a lot of love,” Bob comments. “But the hurts and scars were so deep that we quickly realized that we needed help. God was going to have to change these boys and He used camp to help us. In the end, it is us who have been changed the most.”
Exactly What Was Needed
“We cannot express our gratefulness enough for how camp has helped us. Camp is a most loving and structured place that provides what boys like Brad needs. I have so much admiration for the staff, especially the chiefs. And, they have been just as helpful after camp. They continue to be interested in our journey.”
“Camp provided the time and attention for Brad that we couldn’t. They could take the time to help him deal with his issues. If he acted out, the whole group would stop what they were doing, circle up and deal with the problem at hand. That was what I was trying to do with the car thing, but you just can’t do that in a family environment. That’s the sort of thing that has brought change.”
“Thank you so much to those of you who support Fair Play with your time, prayers and finances. There is no way that we could have made it by ourselves. God has used camp to help bring healing to our family.”
When Scott and Sharon Hawkins traveled to the Ukraine in October 2001, they were planning to adopt a little baby girl. Upon their arrival, they learned that the girl had already been placed and they then felt God leading them to adopt Bradley, a 15 month old baby that had been abandoned by his mother at the orphanage.
After their older son Taylor was born, they were unable to have more children. They were excited about adopting a younger brother for Taylor and providing a better life for Bradley. They soon found out that they were not prepared for what was coming next. (more…)