I woke up early Wednesday morning, July 4th, and remembered I had left my mountain bike at Oceanwood Campground the week before.  I hopped in the car and drove over to the camp to retrieve the bike as Neal Diamond’s song “America,” played on the radio.

Only want to be free
We huddle close
Hang on to a dream

Home to a new shiny place
Make our bed, and we’ll say our grace
Freedom’s light burning warm
Freedom’s light burning warm

Got a dream to take them there
They’re coming to America
Got a dream they’ve come to share
They’re coming to America

The campground was now empty – the children’s voices and laughter gone, the swings hanging idly and the playground quite with only the words of Neal Diamond’s song in my ears.  He is right – people strive to come to America from all over the world.  For all of the things that this country stands for and is known for – the liberties and freedoms that we are so very blessed with and for the opportunities that we are so fortunate to have available to us.

Yet as we finished up our 13th week long Royal Family Kids Camp which serves children with a history of abuse and neglect it makes me realize that so many kids in this magnificent country of ours hang on to a shared dream that they may have little hope of achieving without positive role models in their lives.

At camp we watched each day as kids made their beds and said their grace and carried shared dreams of a better future.  We shared a week of laughter, of fun, of hope, and of God’s grace.  We enjoyed seeing the ear to ear smiles as the young boys and girls rode horses for the first time, gleamed in pride as they conquered the climbing wall, shot arrows, swam, canoed, built sandcastles, and participated in arts and crafts and woodworking.  Yet, a week doesn’t last too long does it?   Thursday afternoon of camp we can always feel the mood change slightly as the kids start to anticipate the end of the week and the return to the world they know.  Camp director Beverly Lowell shares, “Friday – our final day, we work hard to make an upbeat day – a day when we celebrate the time we have shared rather than dwell on the fact that that time together is ending.”  But still the underlying feeling is there.  Each year has touching stories, this year one little girl kept stumbling as she was walking around camp Friday morning, and Tammy, her counselor, asked her what was wrong with her flip flops.  She replied, “I guess my feet just don’t want to go home.”

We live in a land of opportunity where anyone can rise up and make the most of themself but often only if someone believes in them and guides them.  In this country 37 million people live below the income poverty line including 13 million children.  But poverty isn’t just about income levels. As Ronald Sider points out in Hope for Children in Poverty, “Persistent poverty also consists of a lack of cultural and social capital – the web of relationships, connections, opportunities, skills, and cultural know-how that enables children to learn to function productively in society.”  Sadly, emotional and monetary poverty is the largest predictor of child abuse and neglect.  Research shows that children living in poverty are twenty-two times more likely to experience child abuse and neglect than children living in stable homes.  In the richest nation on earth we watch as a child is born into poverty every 36 seconds and a child is abused or neglected every 35 seconds.

Along with the emotional toll that poverty takes on our children it also impacts our nation as a whole.  Marion Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund shares, “The Children’s Defense Fund estimates that each year that we allow 13 million children to live in poverty will cost our society over $130 billion in future economic output as poor children grow up to be less productive and effective workers.  The numbers add up to an inescapable conclusion:  Child poverty takes a huge economic toll on our nation, and all Americans pay the price – a price that is far higher than the cost of eradicating poverty.”

Many people appear to have picked themselves up by their bootstraps and found a way to succeed against overwhelming odds.  The truth, however, is that it is underestimated how much guidance and support such a person was often provided along the way by someone special in their life.  Without guidance and positive role models children in either material or emotional poverty stand little chance to right the ship and build a life that they dream of.

I wish I had the answer to the problem but I do believe it starts by finding ways to relieve the current pains that children are experiencing while providing hope through such programs such as Royal Family Kids Camp;  preparing our children for future success by providing positive role models, mentors and support systems such as provided by organizations such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters;  and finding ways to reduce the number of children growing up to live in poverty as adults through continuing to improve our educational system and government programs.

The wonderful thing about kids is that they are kids – they are resilient and have a strong tendency to bounce back given the tools they need and time to heal.   Warm clothes, nutritious foods, solid education, and adequate nurturing such as loving smiles and encouraging words from someone meaningful in their lives can all help build a bridge to realizing their dream of a brighter future.

This bridge continues to be built little by little thanks to all who have contributed time, energy, and monetary support to these wonderful programs that help strengthen the futures of our children.  It is being created thanks to the teachers who work tirelessly in providing education and support systems within the school systems, churches, etc.  It is being built thanks to the social workers who work with children and their families as they strive provide tools for families to become functional units.   And with special thanks to all of our brave military personnel who fight for the freedoms and safety that our kids will grow up to enjoy.

Happy belated Independence Day!