A childhood with one or both parents serving time behind bars is a life-altering experience at an early age.
When Charlotte Strowhorn, of Gary, first heard the idea of a summer camp providing not only escape, but also spiritual, educational and inspiration focus for children of parents in prison, she made it her own personal mission.
"This annual camp opportunity was something needed in Northwest Indiana," Strowhorn said.
"I needed help and support, so I turned to my own faith and foundation in my church community to make this camp a reality."
Stowhorn, a member of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Indiana, asked the Right Rev. Edward S. Little II, bishop for the 36 episcopal churches in Northern Indiana, for help and guidance, and in 2006, she founded Camp New Happenings.
It was after two years of planning, research, writing grants and fundraising that the annual summer camp for children of incarcerated parents was launched as an ecumenical ministry sponsored by the diocese.
"Our first camp season was in 2008 and we had eight youths," said Strowhorn, who is accepting applications now for this year's participants for the 2015 weeklong event at Camp Alexander Mack in tiny Milford, Ind., near Warsaw, Ind.
"By the second year, in 2009, the camp grew to 27 children. And now, each year we average about 35 youths registered."
This year's camp is July 19 to 25.
There is no cost to the parents and guardians and round-trip transportation is provided from any location in Northern Indiana, spanning from anywhere in Northwest Indiana to South Bend and Fort Wayne, to as far south as Marion, Ind., and the surrounding areas.
Each year Strowhorn keeps busy ambitiously writing grants and fundraising to acquire the needed $15,000 required to run the one-week camp, which is always held at Camp Alexander Mack. The property and staff are accredited by the American Camping Association.
"Although we are budgeted for 30 children, we never turn a child away and we also accept siblings, as long as they fall within the age range," said Strowhorn, who says it cost more than $500 per child to cover all of the needed expenses, such as food, lodging, transportation and supplies for the week.
She said there are 21 such camps around the country and she's proud her camp experience has a staff of volunteers with a 1-4 ratio, assuring ample attention to the children, who come from diverse cultural backgrounds and range from ages 8 to 11.
The staff consists of counselors, college students, arts and crafts instructors, chaplain, professional child behavior specialists, certified life guard and nurses, all managed by Moses Carter, who has served as the director of Camp New Happenings for the past seven years.
Children who have at least one parent incarcerated in a state of Indiana or federal facility are eligible to participate.
"We offer all of the activities normally associated with a summer camp, from starting the day with the Pledge of Allegiance to daily swimming and arts and crafts to sports, hiking, evening camp fires, cookouts, along with a nondenominational Christian education," Strowhorn said.
She said the Camp New Happenings board of directors is ecumenical and composed of representation from throughout Northern Indiana. Strowhorn is the board president.
"We are always in need of donations, volunteers and support," Strowhorn said.
"There's lots of paperwork involved for both the children and our volunteers, but these are efforts that are very rewarding for everyone involved. I'm particularly grateful to Bishop Little, for all of the help and support he gives this program. One Sunday a month, all of our Episcopal churches ask for what's called a 'Prison Sunday Collection' to help raise money throughout the year."
Little said it is Strowhorn who deserves all of the credit for launching what he describes as "a mission of hope, mercy and love."
"Charlotte is not only energetic and well-organized, she's a genius for turning dreams and ideas into reality," Little said.
"These children are an invisible population. And while there are so many people serving time in prison, we so often forget how many other lives are touched by this situation — family and loved ones, and especially the children involved. They need people who care."
Strowhorn said she also continues to learn at the camp each year.
"These children are so appreciative for the attention and time they are given during this one week," she said.
"And I've never seen children who are so happy and willing to eat all of the fresh prepared meals and snacks provided each day. From vegetables, fruits and cottage cheese to guidance and education, these children are hungry in many ways. And for some, at the end of the week, they don't want to return home to their everyday life."
Strowhorn, who spends the week on site as the camp project coordinator, said there is a story of one child's camp connection that serves as a prime example of the impact of the one-week experience.
"It was the final day of camp and Bryce, who was about 10 years old at the time, would not get on the van with the other children to depart," she said.
"He was crying and kept pleading, 'Please let me stay just one more day.' For him, this summer camp was the best and most structured and stable thing to happen for him in a long time."