LEESBURG (FBC)—With wide smiles, genuine laughter and wrapping paper tossed everywhere, approximately 200 youngsters celebrated an early Christmas at Lake Yale Baptist Conference Center, where they gathered the first weekend in December for a migrant children’s camp, a more than 20-year holiday tradition for Florida Baptists.
There, the children, aged 8-12, received gifts and learned about Jesus, “God’s present to all of us,” on that first Christmas so many years ago, according to Misael Castillo, Florida Baptists’ field missionary to migrants.
It was a weekend filled with fun and surprises for the migrant children who rarely get much attention. Throughout much of the year, the children work alongside their parents in the fields, moving every few months, often leaving their belongings and friends behind. Many migrant families live in poverty. They can barely afford life’s necessities, let alone anything indulgent. It’s a lifestyle that can be difficult and demanding.
Because of Florida Baptists’ generosity, the weekend getaway is offered free to all campers. With its games, piñatas, music, crafts, Bible study and worship, the camp is designed for the children to relax, reconnect with friends, celebrate Christmas, and hear the Gospel, Castillo said.
In addition to three gifts per child, each camper received a Bible, a healthcare kit, and school supplies.
Counselors have learned that for these children, the “little things” in life, often taken for granted, can mean the most.
One year an excited camper ran from the bathroom area in the campground, gleefully shouting, “We have hot showers!” recalled Joe Maddox, director of missions for Nature Coast Baptist Association, which supports the camp with both financial contributions and volunteers.
Being a part of the migrant children’s lives for even a weekend is a “tremendous opportunity,” he said, as counselors are able to share the Christmas story and God’s love with the youngsters who are “hungry for attention and information.”
For this year’s camp, Nature Coast Association collected $3,417 to help sponsor campers at $50 per child, hosted a pizza supper on Saturday night, and provided eight counselors and nine volunteers.
The association also produced a DVD that was used to recruit campers, counselors and volunteers as well as solicit financial donations for the camp.
Maddox, father of seven, has put serving at the camp on his family’s Christmas to-do list.
“It’s cool to be able to minister to them by just being myself and shining the light God has given me,” said his 15-year-old daughter Hannah, a member of Stagecoach Junction Fellowship in Bushnell. “It’s just cool all the way around.”
Many lives are changed as a result of the annual camp. With 194 campers in attendance this year, 28 made professions of faith. Castillo shares names and contact information of these new Christians with one of Florida Baptists’ 85 migrant ministries. Leaders from these ministries follow up, providing resources and encouraging spiritual growth.
As he travels the state on behalf of Florida Baptists, Castillo often reconnects with campers. Many return to the camp year after year, said Castillo, who is gratified to see “kids growing not only physically but also in the Lord.”
For many volunteers, the migrant camp experience helps strengthen their faith as well.
“It thrills me that God would use me to minister to others,” said multi-year counselor Paul Elwing, Florida Baptists’ state Royal Ambassadors consultant and a member of Bethel Baptist Church in Lakeland.
Some counselors communicate year-round with campers, only to be reunited with them in December at Lake Yale.
Counselor Renda Springs, a member of First Baptist Church in Archer, looks even further ahead to a heavenly reunion with many campers.
“This is our way of bringing the children to know Christ. One day I will get to spend eternity with many children who came to know Christ at Lake Yale. I’m going to be able to say, ‘You’re here because somebody loved you,’” she said.
Quite possibly, because of a “ripple effect” of these young Christians sharing their newfound faith with family and friends, even in their home countries, many others may become Christians as a result of the migrant children’s camp, stated Maddox.
“The camp is all about Jesus. It’s a joy,” said volunteer Theresa Eatough, a member of First Baptist Church in Homosassa.
“We don’t know how far this weekend camp will extend throughout the world to bring people to Christ,” Eatough said.
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