09:53 AM

Abused and Neglected Children Build Self-Confidence at Nation's One-of-a-Kind "Family Camp"

By: Claire Caton

While many summer camps cater to entire families, only one in the United States is devoted to creating special memories for entire, extended families of abused and neglected children.

The 2nd annual, overnight Family Camp at Echo Hill Ranch recently brought together eight special families for a week full of fun - including horseback riding, archery, crafts and swimming - facilitated by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) and the Center for Family Strengths (CFS) at the University of Houston-Downtown (UHD). UHD Professor Alvin Sallee worked closely with Roger Friedman, Ph.D., psychologist and social worker, to coordinate logistics for the camp.

Held at the Echo Hill Ranch in the Texas Hill Country, Family Camp seeks to create affirmative experiences and bring non-traditional families closer by strengthening bonds between children and their adult caregivers. This year's camp united 25 children - ages 4 to 14, 11 adult caregivers, 20 volunteer social work counselors and two staff members from the Region VI DFPS Kinship Care Program for four days and three nights of fun.

"I'm so impressed at how a state agency, Harris County, a public university, community members and a private camp all joined forces to create such a life-changing week for children, many of whom have special needs," said Sallee, director of UHD's Center for Family Strengths. "At the Center for Family Strengths, we strive to promote healthy families and preserve the family unit whenever possible. Family Camp at Echo Hill Ranch serves as an invaluable tool in repairing these family dynamics and interpersonal relationships."

This year, nearly 50 Echo Hill Ranch alumni and friends contributed $18,500 in scholarships, enabling all families to attend camp free of charge.

Caregiver Debbie Mendez took her newly adopted daughter, Brianna, to Family Camp this year and saw a transformation in the fearful child. Brianna is Debbie's niece who came to live with her two years ago when Child Protective Services (CPS) removed her from her immediate family. Despite a period of prolonged "mental exhaustion" as she calls it, she is excited about starting a new life together and looks forward to creating a future of hope and possibilities for the eight-year-old.

"To see her blossom from a child who was clingy and distrustful to a carefree, happy camper who let all her fears and cares go for a week was incredible," said Mendez. "My job is to fill the rest of her life with good, positive memories to replace the negative, fearful ones of her past. To us, Family Camp represented a fresh new beginning and taught Brianna that it is OK to trust people and - most of all - to be happy."

Mendez spoke at UHD's 3rd Annual Family Symposium on campus Sept. 5-6. Sponsored by CFS and Children at Risk, the national symposium entitled, "Community Partnerships and Programs for Evidence-Based Child and Family Well-Being," gathered a diverse audience of leading psychologists and social workers. Keynote speakers - including Dr. Friedman from the University of Maryland Graduate School of Social Work and Christopher Greeley, M.D. from The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) Medical School - addressed integral issues of child safety and well-being, including parenting, mental health, substance abuse, child abuse, education, developmental disorders and juvenile justice.