At Camp Golden Bear, women battling homelessness and addiction get a little quality time with their children — and a chance to know innocence again
Amanda Bourland radiates with pride as she watches her 12-year-old son Justin hit a bull’s-eye at the archery range. Through the coordinated efforts of Camp Golden Bear and St. Jude Womens Recovery Center, this is the first overnight Bourland, 32, has spent with her son since she was released from prison in December, after serving three years on drug charges.
“Justin has never really known me because I started using when he was so young,” Bourland says. “When I used to take my kids all I could think about was how I couldn’t wait for it to be over so I could get high, and now I don’t think that anymore. Now we’re starting to really know each other.”
She will finish the 12-step program at St. Jude in November. The organization houses and provides comprehensive addiction treatments for women, and when Bourland gets out she hopes Justin and his 15-year-old brother will come to live with her — at least part-time.
Many women at Camp Golden Bear share Bourland’s goal. They also share her plight: This is a place where women from various homeless shelters in Louisville can come to spend quality time with their children, from whom they’ve become estranged because of drug abuse, troubles with the law or an untenable living situation — or, as with Bourland, all of the above.
Camp Golden Bear began in 1996 as an escape from the strains of daily life for women, mothers and children in the community who live in shelters. Today the women, and even a few fathers, come to the camp to share an environment where they can relax, and know they are not alone in their concerns.
“These are human beings. These aren’t some strange, foreign entity out there,” says Carolyn Rice, camp founder and volunteer for Wayside Christian Mission and Safe Haven. “They laugh, they cry, they hurt, they die.”
Rice knows homeless life. Before starting the camp, she spent five months living on the street — starting in Northern Indiana, she came through Louisville and ended up in Lexington — eating from garbage cans and sleeping in alleys, as a real-life experience for a graduate thesis. It made an impression, and after working in senior and homeless community services in Louisville, she was inspired to create a temporary getaway for those in need.
“We have all walks of life coming through homeless shelters, and they’re broken,” she says. “They need to be able to feel golden again, to be replenished and to go back to that innocence.”
The innocence Rice speaks of is what she calls golden, like when a child is young and beyond reproach. This was the inspiration for the name of the camp, which she hopes can help people of any age regain that feeling. The camp is free to all attendees, and is staffed primarily by volunteers. Some staff members from Camp Cedar Ridge, on the outskirts of Louisville Metro and where CGB is based, also help out with the different activities.
Campers have myriad chances to get active — that doesn’t happen often in shelters. The high rope, a series of obstacles about 30 feet off the ground, not only gets some women and their children moving, but challenges them mentally, too.
Lisa Chatman, mother of 13-year-old twin girls, shouts words of encouragement as her daughter, Asia Butler, hesitates at a jump.
“Mom, I’m scared,” Asia cries, as Chatman looks up from below.
“You ain’t scared,” her mother replies. “We ain’t never scared.”
Those words resonate. Chatman and her girls recently left Wayside Christian Mission Family Shelter, and their future is uncertain. The proud mom brags about how brave her girls are. They were the first to volunteer to capture a bat when one got into the shelter, she says, but the girls joke about their fright of bugs. Just as many girls would.
Ginny Lilly, of the Louisville-based Phoenix Health Center and four years a volunteer at CGB, says the camp is an equalizer where all children can run, play and laugh — things many of them are not used to doing.
“Young kids are always looking for a thrill a minute, so let’s give them a positive one,” she says.
Children must be at least 4 years old to come to camp, a rule that prevents some mothers from attending but opens up a wider variety of activities. Last weekend, they all got a chance to create tie-dye T-shirts with clothing collected by camp volunteers, sometimes from their own closets. When white T-shirts ran in short supply, some children dug out whatever piece of white clothing they could find in their bags, resulting in a wardrobe of tie-dyed socks and underwear. Nobody cared; they were all having too much fun being creative.
The children’s creativity extended to the two pianos available in the dining hall. The result: hours of on-the-spot compositions.
“We like to call that the Excedrin hour,” Lilly says with a laugh.
Seven-year-old Dylan was one of the young composers. He came to the camp to spend some extra time with his mother, Sara Sorbellini. Sorbellini has been sober for a year and a half, thanks to support from New Beginnings, a health center that offers substance abuse treatment programs. While her son practiced on the piano that evening, she and several others attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at the camp.
“One of the biggest things that I’ve learned here is that I can enjoy life while being clean and sober,” she says.
After Dylan and others perform for a small talent show, the campers gather around a bonfire by the lake, where many had canoed earlier in the day. As children amass around the fire and parents settle into chairs, Rice steps to the fire’s edge. She is wearing American Indian regalia. Rice describes the different pieces of her garb, and then asks the volunteers pass out sticks — in this case Popsicle sticks. She implores the campers to write their greatest hurt on the sticks, which will soon be cast into the flames. The point is for the fire to devour and release into the sky these sources of pain and anguish.
“Today you are not a slave because you are homeless, or an addict, or because of the color of your skin,” Rice tells the women. “You are a slave only if you don’t try.”
Though Rice encourages campers to improve their own lives as much as they are able, she also holds the community, and even more specifically, the church community, responsible for reaching out to those in need.
“The homeless are never going to learn how to take care of themselves if we don’t get out of those church pews, get out there and show people the love of God,” she says. “This is a country that is supposed to be one nation under God, and we’re probably one of the least under God. We become more and more materialistic and less and less humanistic.”
This year, CGB hosted 103 campers and 30 volunteers. Of these, 42 were children. It wasn’t easy getting the campers out to Cedar Ridge — they used to make several trips from Louisville in the Wayside Mission Bus, but today had some help from TARC. The extra buses have increased participation.
It takes a large team of volunteers to put this camp together each year; they call themselves the Women and Children’s Advocacy Network, an umbrella term to cover all of the individual shelters and organizations that participate. The Phoenix Health Center, which provides preventive health services regardless of ability to pay, functions as the corporate umbrella.
Rice never anticipated the camp lasting a decade, though sustaining the effort has been a pleasant surprise. Had it only lasted one year or if it goes another 10, Rice says the chance to help bring something golden to lives smeared with everything that’s not is enough to sustain her.
If you’re interested in participating in Camp Golden Bear or know someone who might be, call Laurie Hardin, with Phoenix Health Center, at 569-1676.
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