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Migrant children pampered for a weekend with gifts, love and the message of salvation

By Barbara Denman

December 12, 2013


LEESBURG—(FBC) Combined with the festivities of the Christmas season, two life-changing topics—the gospel message and sex trafficking—were addressed during the annual Florida Baptist Migrant Camp Dec. 6-8 at Lake Yale Baptist Conference Center.

While the incongruity of those two subjects seems obvious, both have the potential of irreversibly altering the life of a migrant child.   

“Florida is the third state in the nation for human trafficking,” said Marc Johnston, strategist for the Florida Baptist Convention’s Church and Community Ministries.

Migrant children, as others, are especially vulnerable to predators involved in sex trafficking due to their migratory lifestyle, he explained. By being responsive to this social issue, the camp provided a great opportunity to educate the children to be better prepared for dangerous situations.

The eternal safety of the children was a priority at camp as gospel presentations were shared with the campers in a variety of settings, including devotional time in their cabins and worship celebrations led by local churches. At the conclusion of the three-day camp, 22 children prayed to accept Christ.

“This is a wonderful place where they can grow spiritually,” said Pastor Juan Gonzales of Iglesia Bautista de Wimauma, who annually brings children from his church—17 this year. 

“This is important. We don’t have much for the kids in the church. Here they learn more about God, can share with other kids and discover there are many churches with youth who know Jesus just like they do,” he explained. Because their parents are field workers, he added, the children would not be able afford to attend a similar camp.

According to Miseal Castillo, Florida Baptists’ missionary to migrant churches, 30 percent of the children who attend the camp do not go to church and are brought there by pastors as an evangelistic outreach into their community. “Camp gives us the opportunity to provide fun for the kids and share the gospel. We encourage every counselor to be sensitive to the spiritual needs of the children so they will leave here with a new faith.”

“And what better way to show kids what Christmas is all about.”

Throughout the weekend, the 182 campers were pampered with activities, gifts and attentive counselors. Upon arrival, each one received a ditty bag with shampoo, toothbrushes and paste, wash cloths, towels, soap and their own water bottle. Bibles and blankets also were provided. Then when the campers in the 16 cabins were awakened on Sunday morning before their departure, they received a bag with a huge stuff Teddy bear and a walkie-talkie. 

Planned activities encouraged the children’s participation on the ropes course, zip line, football, soccer, piñatas and hayride.

 When asked what she liked best about camp, one youngster immediately exclaimed, “food”—plentiful and unceasing for migrant children who sometimes struggle with hunger. Popcorn, snow cones, hot dogs, homemade cookies, sodas and pizza were available at different times throughout the days. None of them went home hungry.

According to counselor Mona St. Hilaire from First Haitian Church in Belle Glade, camp is a time for children “to get away, be in the Word of God and have fun during this season.”

She said the children have few extras at home. Many of their parents struggle, making as little as $5,000 a year, she explained, and have multiple children to care for and feed.  Often the older children are expected to care for their younger siblings throughout the day while parents work in the fields.

Most of the children she brought to camp have never left their hometown of Belle Glade and were amazed even at sights along the drive to Lake Yale, she reported.

The migrant community is “a mission field,” she asserted. “You don’t have to go to another country when there are so many needs right here; so many children need to know Christ. We are investing in the leaders for the next generation.

The sex trafficking issue was addressed by Edie Neal, a special agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, who told the rapt audience what to look for in risky situation and how to respond. She also urged the youth to speak to parents and law enforcement when they or their friends have become involved with predatory relationships--explaining it is a matter of life and death. 

Noting that the average age of victims are between 12 and 14 years old, Neal said one third of all runaways are lured into prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home. 

They don’t seek help, she noted, because of threats, fear shame and dependency upon the predators.

A video of two church-going teens targeted and ensnared by predators illustrated the gravity and reality of the situation.

Counselors who brought the migrant children to the camp applauded the effort to educate the campers of this evil in the world. “The video showed some youth who attend church and the signs to look for,” said St. Hilaire. ”It is good to explain this to the kids and make it real.”  The counselor said she planned to discuss the presentation on the way home to further drive home the point with the youth. She is also considering showing the video to those who could not attend.

The annual weekend camp is free for migrant children in the state, underwritten as a ministry of the Florida Baptist Convention through the Maguire State Mission Offering. But it also represents gifts of love from countless Florida Baptist congregations who send counselors and recreational leaders, lead worship, sew ditty and gift bags, contribute food and pray for campers before and during the event. Many sponsor individual children who otherwise may not be able to attend.

Three associations—Nature Coast, Marion and Lake County—provided meals for the 300 campers, counselors and workers, and made financial contributions to create an extraordinary experience in the children’s lives.

Joe Maddox, director of missions for the Nature Coast Association, has championed involvement in the camp among his churches as an Acts 1:8 opportunity, he said, for “churches to get out of their communities and into the state—our Judea.”

“You can sponsor a child to attend camp for $40. This is so easy for a Sunday school class to do.”

When it was time to leave Lake Yale on Sunday morning, the 10-year-old girls in Cabin 2A didn’t want to go home according to cabin counselor Jill Cumbo, associate strategist in the Convention’s Women’s Missions and Ministries/Missions Education Team.

“One said ‘this needs to go on for a month.’ Another one said, ‘no forever.’ And a third, ‘I want to live here,’” she reported.

“They did not want to leave camp. We were a family for the weekend.”

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