By Emily Williams
For many children living in affluent Over the Mountain communities, summertime is a time to have fun, leave school days behind and, most importantly, camp.
There are day camps for seemingly every hobby or interest. But for kids living with significant financial need, spending days filled with fun, exciting activities and experiences at summer camp isn’t typically an option.
In the eyes of Vestavia Hills residents Jennifer and Terry Slaughter, it should be.
Founders of the Simon Cyrene Foundation, based in Homewood’s Rosedale community, the Slaughters transform their home atop Shades Mountain into Camp Rockhurst for two weeks each summer. The day camp serves kids in the community ages 6 to 12 and is free to attend.
“The basic goal of this camp is to let the kids who have never had the privilege of going to a traditional camp have that experience,” Jennifer said.
Rockhurst will be entering its third year this summer when it takes over the Slaughter’s 6-acre property.
Its existence is an example of Terry’s determination. According to Jennifer, when her husband has an idea he is passionate about, he’s going to find a way to make it a reality.
The camp was inspired by the kids who live in Homewood’s historical Rosedale neighborhood.
The Slaughters’ operate the Simon Cyrene Foundation, established in the early 2000s in an effort to support the Rosedale community through missions that include a community gardening program, a weekly Bible study, a housing revitalization initiative and other programs. Their main focuses lie in supporting children and the elderly.
Investing in the community is incredibly rewarding, Jennifer said, but also difficult at times.
“Rosedale isn’t high crime, but there is still crime there,” she said. “There is still drug involvement and gun violence.”
The majority of the children who benefit from the Slaughters’ camp and program have difficult home lives.
“They may live with a grandmother or aunt because one parent may be completely absent and the other might be in prison,” Jennifer said. “But these children are so good. Even with the adversity they have lived through, their spirits are just so amazing.”
The Slaughters see it as a privilege to watch the kids in their camp and programs grow. The kids get to let loose and have fun, but in a structured environment.
“It’s just a passion for my husband and I to nurture these kids and to let them know that there are people out there that love them and are there for them,” she said. “They just need somebody that is consistent in their life, who can guide them.”
In the camp’s first year, Jennifer said she and her husband were flying by the seats of their pants. Last year, they felt much more organized, even with an increase in participation.
“We started out saying we could only do 18, because that’s all we could handle,” Jennifer said. “My husband just couldn’t say no when all these kids were coming up to him at Bible study saying, ‘We want to come, Mr. Terry!’ So, before I knew it, we were at 25.”
The day’s activities begin about 9 a.m. with the Pledge of Allegiance once campers arrive. Afterward, Terry leads a 20-minute morning service, including some singing and Bible study.
The kids then break into three pods that rotate through each activity, with one camper in each group serving as a leader.
“Those leaders are responsible for making sure everybody is safe and that they have some quiet time during the day.”
A bus is rented and another is borrowed from the Slaughter’s church and sent to Rosedale each morning to pick the kids up and take them home in the evening. Otherwise, Jennifer said, “it’s just a simple camp.”
There is swimming, arts-and-crafts, repelling and a host of other experiences, Jennifer said, and even a few field trips.
“We have really wonderful people who support many different activities for us,” she added.
The Slaughters’ friend David Dyson invited them to bring the kids to his horse farm for the day to ride horses and fish in his pond.
Last year the kids were able to take a trip to New Water, a camp at Lake Martin.
“They got to do things like ride around in the boats,” Jennifer said. “It seems simple, but that’s just something they have never done before.”
It Takes a Community
While the camp offerings are “simple,” it takes a family to pull it off – and then some.
Terry serves as camp director, Jennifer is the “director mom” and their daughter, Hayden, helps as well. In addition, Jennifer’s sister comes in from Virginia to help and brings her son along.
“But it does take a community,” Jennifer said. “We need people to come in and help with art lessons, activities and help us prepare the food for all of the kids.”
One of the counselors last year was a graduate of the Simon Cyrene youth program, in which he had participated since the age of 6. Now 17, he has gone on to attend college and is a great role model for the campers, Jennifer noted.
Throughout all of the programming, the main goal is for the kids to leave with some new life skills and help them see what their potential is.
“No matter what their situation at home is, and a lot of times it’s really, really bad, … they can come and have a little peace for the day and just get away from their normal routine,” Jennifer said.
She noted that last year, a few of the campers were in the foster care program. During the two weeks of camp, they were taken away from their current homes and put back into the system.
“The other kids really rallied around these kids and made them feel loved,” Jennifer said. “They would come in crying because they didn’t know where they were going to spend the night that night.”
The campers had been learning about the importance of compassion, that you should always reach out to others in need, Jennifer said, “and, boy, they came through.”
As spring approaches, the Slaughters are looking forward to their camp preparations.
For those looking to get involved in the camp’s operations, the Slaughters said that they are always looking for volunteers to help out with activities.
Those who are unable to give of their time can also donate funds for camp operations, since the camp is free.
“A lot of it is funded through us, but it would be wonderful if we could get more sponsors to help us run it so we can invest even more in the kids.”
More information on volunteering and donating will be provided in the coming months via the Camp Rockhurst Facebook page.