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Building a wall between heart and hand

Religion | Stories of redemption are common at Camp Alandale, where abused children hear and experience one often life-altering message: You are loved

Issue: "Iraq: Fallujah's fallen," Nov. 27, 2004

Related story: Faith-based White House

Reynaldo Reyes remembers well the stinging end of his father's extension cord. The Santa Ana, Calif., native would often line up along the wall with his mother and four sisters, taking turns as innocent whipping posts for a man's insatiable fury. "Sometimes he would use a TV cord he'd ripped out," Mr. Reyes recalls of his father. "It was thinner, so it hurt more. And he knew that."

In the late 1980s, Mr. Reyes's beatings suddenly became less frequent. Often his father would send most of the family outside, keeping only one or two daughters with him for extended periods. Just 12 years old at the time, Mr. Reyes thought little of it, his welted flesh welcoming the chance to heal. Far less naïve, however, his mother soon ascertained the reason behind her husband's behavioral shift. "She went to the police," Mr. Reyes recalls, "and that same morning, they showed up with guns drawn, kicked down the bedroom door and arrested my father."

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The physical, sexual, and verbal abuse was over. Only the emotional mess remained-fear, self-loathing, and unmitigated rage.

An Orange County social worker helped change all that, introducing the five Reyes children to Camp Alandale, a Christian ministry for abused children. Sixteen years later, Mr. Reyes, his mother, and his four sisters have found healing in Christianity from their painful past. "Without the people of this camp, I would have ended up killing someone," Mr. Reyes said. "I would either be dead or in prison." Hardly an exaggerated melodrama, such a grim outcome has befallen most of Mr. Reyes's childhood playmates from the gang-ravaged neighborhood of his youth.

Similar stories of redemption are common at Camp Alandale, where since 1980 about 3,000 abused children have come to hear and experience one simple but often life-altering message: You are loved. Orange County Social Services (OCSS) often unofficially endorses Camp Alandale, despite its explicitly evangelistic purpose. Mr. Reyes, now a member of the ministry's full-time staff, said the county social worker who directed him to Camp Alandale was not a Christian: "She sent me for the same reason so many other social workers send kids-the benefits."

OCSS learned of such benefits in the camp's first year of operation, when a child in a catatonic state-unresponsive due to extreme trauma-experienced breakthrough. After moping through three days of camp in silence, he opened his mouth, said his sexual abuser's claims of love for him were fraudulent, and proclaimed, "Now I know what love is." Where two years of county-sponsored therapy failed, Camp Alandale's largely volunteer-run program succeeded. Deeply impressed, OCSS began funneling all the children in its charge through the camp.

The program at Alandale matches its message-simple, focused, effective. Counselors need not hold psychology degrees if they demonstrate capabilities in other ways, nor is any camper placed on behavior-altering drugs. For many, camp is an escape from clinical approaches to healing that have unsuccessfully been tried on them. Alandale's ratio of one counselor for every two campers allows large blocks of one-on-one time for establishing trust and teaching biblical truths.

Mr. Reyes recalls his first impression of camp at age 13-a rush of overwhelming kindness that was "so different from the rest of my life. I wanted that." The personal and intimate interest counselors took in him was enough to draw Mr. Reyes back for a weekend in the winter. Most summer campers follow that pattern. Many return in subsequent years, taking advantage of the free program until they are no longer eligible after high-school graduation.

Almost a quarter century since founding Alandale, directors Robin and Karen Wood plan to expand their model to five other counties in southern California by 2010. A second camp is already underway in San Diego County, allotting space for 400 abused children per year at the two facilities. "We don't do any official advertising because there's such a need," said camp vision promoter Jeff Taylor. "There's never a shortage of campers."

Funding shortages are more common, though not overtly problematic. Camp Alandale brought in $555,000 from individuals, churches, foundations, and companies last year, enough for moderate expansion. Government funds could significantly increase the organization's growth rate, but despite Alandale's documented success and healthy relationship with OCSS, such money will never come-not even from President George W. Bush's Faith-Based Initiative. "We are explicitly evangelical, so we would never qualify," Mr. Taylor said.

The White House list of dos and don'ts for faith-based charities seeking government funding precludes using "any part of a direct federal grant to fund religious worship, instruction or proselytization. Instead, organizations may use government money only to support the non--religious social services that they provide." For ministries promoting spiritual renewal as a means to overcome social ills, the Faith-Based Initiative is off limits. Religious organizations can use the money only to provide material handouts.

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