Bald Eagle Boys Camp: our journey up the mountain

You asked me if I’d be willing to share some information on the type of challenges my son has to overcome – the type of camp he is attending, and the care he is receiving. I am happy to share if it can help others find answers and healing. I write carefully and I ask permission, because I do not want to expose Regan needlessly; there is much about how our life used to be that I will not say.

We are filled with hope in the resurrection power of Jesus, and we are grateful for your prayers.

We are driving up a curving dirt lane between the pine trees, and my hands are cold and I am sick. There are three people in this van, and only two will be driving back down.

The back hatch is filled with many large bags of clothes. Summer T-shirts. Winter long johns. Rubber boots. Sandals. Two sets of sturdy hikers. Towels and washcloths. Ten pairs of jeans. Pillowcases and thermal socks. Hoodies and a heavy Carhartt jacket with coveralls. A poncho. Flannel shirts. Enough for a year or more.

Day of arrival: Jan 9, 2019.

My husband and I are Abraham, taking our son up the mountain. My father, where is the lamb for a burnt offering?

But our Isaac chose this path with us, and Bald Eagle Boys Camp does not tie unwilling boys to altars. Our whole family visited for a pre-placement tour, one week ago, after months of preparation – toting our three toddlers all over those trails through the forest, as they whined and stumbled and needed – and our son’s final word is yes. He is ready.

May 2019. The little shelter is protecting an unlit fire laid ready for Powwow tonight. Every day ends here with singing, evaluating, and sharing.

He is excited about the sledding hill and the real Caboose, where the library books live. He has been told about the delights of Chuck Wagon, where the cooks prepare delectably hearty meals three times a day, and the boys sit in the warmth and fill up. That’s every day but Wednesday and Thursday, when the boys choose their own menus and each group holds Cookout for breakfast and supper. Some boys make gourmet pancakes, or Creole gumbo, or deep dish pizza, all cooked in Dutch ovens with hot coals.

This is not how the boys do it. This is how the Zooks do it. I don’t have a picture of Boys’ Camp Cookouts because they don’t invite me. Believe me, I would go.

Bald Eagle Boys Camp is an exceptional place. But we would not have picked this course if we had found another we felt was viable. This is our dreaded Lord-please-don’t-make-us-do-that option. We want our children with us.

Our son has stretched us since the day he turned one and began launching himself headfirst toward the unknown, the sensory, and the forbidden. Our initial bafflement turned to serious concern, then to straight-up fear. We took our turns through denial and rejection and hope and anger and grief.

Families Day May 2019. The Mountaineers prepared this site for toasting Bread-on-a-Stick with all their families. Every topping imaginable, and the best of hosts.

At some point we accept that he is not wired in a way that most would consider normal. He is a brilliant child, always able to learn academically, rarely behaviorally unless natural consequences catch him and deliver a swift sensory jolt. He has no internal checks on his behavior: he needs focused supervision: he has battled rage, deceit, theft, aggression, stealth, impulsivity, and tantrums for years. The most consistent structure and training we could provide for him has not redirected him. We work with the same issues at age eleven that we did at age two, but they have darkened and intensified. He has given his heart to Jesus, but he carries awful guilt, remorse that drowns him after the moment of intensity has passed. He is not happy. Home is not safe.

Wood stacked neatly for the winter. The shelter will be nearly full before snow flies.

As he becomes aware of others’ opinions, he becomes able to (barely) hold himself together in public, but where he is unwatched, he is unprotected. With family he has regular unmanageable times and we are afraid. That final summer, several horrifying experiences with their accompanying “what might have been?’s” force us to realize we cannot go on as we are.

We do not want to be apart. For each member of our family, including him, this is the hardest part of our sacrifice. We love him dearly, and he loves us. He talks to us and shares from his heart, has good times and moments of selflessness. Giving him up is the thing I thought I could never do, and camp is a long-term program. A twelve to eighteen month stay is normal, with four-day home visits in between six-week sessions. Many boys stay longer.

We would not have picked this path. Yet after our son has been here a month, I will wish that each of our boys could experience it. Both our older son, and the son enrolled, dream of attending someday as Chief.

Chiefs work in sets of two, a pair of them to a group of ten boys. There are four groups at Camp, arranged by age: the Mountaineers, the Adventurers, the Prospectors, and the Highlanders. The youngest boys are nine years old, the oldest are mid-teen. They smell of woodsmoke and the outdoors.

Camp is cleaner than I thought, with neatly swept or shoveled footpaths all over the mountain. The permanent buildings are shared by all groups in turn – Shower House, Caboose, Trading Post. But Campsite is where the boys live: one outdoor village per group. All structures there are simple shelters made of skinned trees, twine, tarp. Together, the campers design and build their own group’s shelters – for sleeping, cooking, eating, storage, firewood, and personal hygiene.

The boys show stunning progress, rubbed against each other like so many pebbles grinding off rough edges. Camp gets crazy sometimes. Boys of all stripes with all issues enroll. There are quite a few sprains and scrapes, and a little blood. Chiefs do not punish, only restrain when someone is in danger.

The building blocks of progress are relationships, problem solving, goals, and structure. Personal responsibility is emphasized, along with teamwork and evaluation. Campers do everything as a group, and write their own plans and goals. The boys learn to respect their authorities, each other, and themselves. They are expected to grow into contributors to their group – to challenge the bad, activate for the good, give back to others, become men.

Tin plates, stored clean and dry for Cookout.

Camp believes in hands-on education. The boys travel, canoe, swim, fish, write, hike, budget, explore, research, and play. They make maple syrup and apple butter, see black bears and fawns in the wild, manage their own checking accounts, build great fires, prepare dried fruit and homemade granola bars for long trips, chop endless wood, learn whittling and woodcraft, celebrate holidays with Camp traditions, take prizes in their own woodsy competitions. They sing with gusto, act out skits, cook amazing food, play sports, laugh hard.

My son and husband beside a genuine Native American canoe donated to Camp.

No matter what, when a group problem arises (bad attitude, cruelty, disrespect), the boys stop what they are doing and circle up. There they stay, communicating with each other until their problem is solved satisfactorily – including a good prevention plan for next time.

The Chiefs are gentle and deeply invested in the boys. They bandage pocketknife cuts, check on each child at bedtime, tell stories, plan surprises, and have beard-growing competitions with each other. They are trained, mentored, and supervised by other Chiefs, who have moved on to become Supervisors and Family Workers and Directors. To the boys, all these men are Chief, a term of respect and connection. “Hey, Chief Dan.” They’re good men: solid, dynamic, honest, and godly.

They will be mother and father to our son, pastor and teacher, grandparent and mentor. Saying “we are grateful” is like saying “we miss our boy.”

Along the path to the Mountaineers’ Campsite. American orchid: Pink Ladies’ Slipper

How did we know when it was time to take this route? The short answer is that we didn’t. We are fourteen months into this story, crying out to God for a swift and blessed end soon. We long for our son. We cry. We write books’ worth of letters and emails, our only personal communication with him other than home visits. We count the days to those, and treasure them up. He writes the best letters home.

In fourteen months, we have seen dramatic progress in him. He has had layers and layers peeled off him, and we are able to get to the real boy, down through the strata of behavior to speech to attitudes to values to personhood. He is in charge of himself. He is happier, truer, taking ownership of his choices, starting to help others. We don’t need him to be someone different. We need him to be what he is, what we know Jesus made him.

When he has made sufficient progress at both home and camp, met his goals, and gotten a couple of solid sessions under his belt to solidify his changes, a graduation date will be set and he will transition home.

Based on our experience so far, we would recommend Camp any day of the week, to parents and sons who need a steeper path because the milder ones have failed. We trust Camp’s vision and its people. We’ve found unspeakable relief in being part of a team intimately involved with, and advocating for, our child. We’re not alone anymore. Camp staff will help us arrange ongoing local mentoring for him when he moves home, and they will check in to see how he is doing.

We chose this path because we had tried everything else we knew. But we still don’t know the end of it.

Our drive ended at the top of a mountain, and my husband and I descended alone, choking, trying to see the road. We don’t know how we – how our son – will look back on this time when he is grown. Could it be hurtful in retrospect? Or the best thing that could have happened? Or something in between, a significant passage in a trek toward wholeness?

I’ll take that.

Bald Eagle Boys Camp is licensed by the PA Department of Human Services and recognized by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. They’re considered a residential private school/ alternative education program. Learn more on their website.

Please ask me any questions this raises for you, and I will do my best to answer, or direct you to someone who can.

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3 years ago

No questions. Just tears and hugs- from one mama to another. Thank-you for baring your brave heart to us. We are honored to hold that heart, and will do with great gentleness.

Brenda Broschart
3 years ago

Beautifully written. We are only 3 months in on this journey. I have seen your son and the first thing I noticed was his beautiful eyes. My son shares a tent with yours. I’m very thankful knowing he is with someone like him. Our home was not safe either and we need to heal. Thanks so much for sharing. I hope we meet some day.

3 years ago

Hugs and heartfelt tears, Shari… it’s real… tho recently our 15 month journey abruptly ended… before the anticipated finish and graduation. But the progress was vast… and the regret real at having lost the opportunity to finish well. Was it worth it? Absolutely, every moment… and we are all richer for having journeyed and gained needed tools for life.

3 years ago

Thank you for sharing your journey. Hugs to all of you. You are brave. God bless.

Crystal Zook
3 years ago

Bless you for loving him enough to let him go for a time!! Prayers for all of your family as you navigate.????????

3 years ago

I ache for options like this in the country we are raising children in. We need it so bad. ???? What a privilege is yours. Hugs…

3 years ago

Bless you for your sacrifice, only a devoted mother could go thru that! You wrote such a good description of camp! We are on the board of Ohio’s wilderness boys camp, and I think the setup is amazing! We daily pray for the staff and progress in the boys. Your son looks like he loves it! His smile is so genuine, he looks so much like you!

Kim Z
3 years ago

Beautiful! We so admire you guys & love you to pieces! Praying God will sustain & keep you in the palm of His hand. You are so loved!

Another Mrs Zook
3 years ago
Reply to  Shari Zook

I hold only amazement, wonder, and hope for the path you have walked. We came within a hairsbreadth of searching out such a camp once. I know just a little of the pain and agony you describe. May Jesus heal and restore All things!

Twila Beachy
3 years ago
Reply to  Shari Zook

Tears & hugs for you, Shari! I don’t know what to say. Although our son is at a boys ranch in Missouri and the setup different, I know the heart wrenching pain of needing to do this. Remember Romans 8:28. Our son was scheduled to come home for a visit this weekend but that’s been postponed cause of the coronavirus. He’ll come home to stay probably in June and we’re holding tightly to God’s hand!

3 years ago

I read this with tears (of various emotions) in my eyes. You have captured camp life and the emotions of a parent so well! I have a story of my own to tell, on the side of the parent. All three of my boys went through the program at Cameron Boys Camp in NC. (They are in the same conference as Bald Eagle and I have been blessed to have had the opportunity to meet many of the Bald Eagle leaders). In our years of being a part of Cameron Boys Camp (2009 – 2014), they became part of our lives forever. I, too, wish every boy had the opportunity to experience camp. The separation from family can be incredibly hard, but it is life changing! AND… My oldest son (who is now 24) has dreamed of going back as chief someday and is currently in his third week of chief training! He has committed to a minimum of a 2 year term. That just really does something to my mama heart! I am so grateful for the doors that opened for us to allow camp to happen for us!

3 years ago

What a beautiful post! What a brave heart you are.. and we love you and your son!

Regina S
3 years ago

Thank you Shari for sharing your story with us. I know it had to be hard to let go of your “baby” boy for a season.
I believe the Lord is watching over your son and working on his heart. I can’t wait to hear when he comes home for good. Bless you dear friend!????????

Twila Beachy
3 years ago

An add on: I just felt like crying. You have spoken my feelings & emotions so well! BUT GOD can make beauty out of ashes. Our son is thankful he went & feels he’s been rescued.

3 years ago
Reply to  Twila Beachy

Bless you, Twila. I think of your son and will say a prayer for him and you in this extra-long time of waiting to see him again. ❤️

3 years ago

I have no words. Only hugs and tears and enormous love, respect, and care for you and yours.

3 years ago

I loved reading your written account here of the last 15 months. Love you and am so proud of the way your entire family is engaged in this ‘camp journey’.

Your words carry pain but so much hope too!!!

This was my favorite line about what you wrote about camp:
We’ve found unspeakable relief in being part of a team intimately involved with, and advocating for, our child. We’re not alone anymore.

3 years ago

Two of our sons have been chiefs there with your son and they have also grown in amazing ways. Camp is good for everyone, young and older. I thank God for this avenue of growth for many people. Just a note. I know nothing about your son except what I learn through you. The men at camp do not talk about their boys, except to God.

3 years ago

I think what you have done is one of the bravest, scariest things a parent can ever do……get help for one’s child. Suddenly, everyone knows; things aren’t going well, we aren’t the perfect family, we aren’t able to handle this child on our own. You know you are opening yourself to speculation and criticism from church, family and friends/peers. It can be painful. People will misunderstand.

But the alternatives?? Frantically maneuver appearances, avoid reality, employ subversive control tactics on child and surrounding encounters with real life?? Suppress, stifle, pretend???

You can. You can choose that and yet you will not be able to avoid the consequences, years down the road when the payoff is more than you can bear.

My son isn’t in camp but you were so kind to encourage and advise me last year with the painful things we were facing……..God has provided help (and some of it was in your healing words) but it took a choice on my husbands n my part to ask for it and be honest and open with where we were at with him. We couldn’t hide it and try to look perfect and get help at the same time. And the messages it would have sent him would have been so damaging!

Thank you for the hope and encouragement your example and writing is bringing to others. Thank you for modeling the difficult truth that being a good parent does not mean a carefully guarded and groomed presentation of oneself and ones children. Thank you for doing the difficult, necessary action…….because you love your child….because it’s what he needs.God bless you. I still pray for you and your son and family.

2 years ago

I re-read this post today and wanted to say thank you for being so open about your journey. I love hearing stories like this. I could have written the same very same words about our former foster son, except his story isn’t that far in the making yet.. He is at Fairplay Boys Camp in SC right now (they’re in the same organization as Bald Eagle). Working with his mom, with camp, with him has been an incredible amazing journey and I’m so thankful he gets this opportunity, but it’s also been a bit discouraging in a strange way. I love him so much, and want this to work for him but there’s much working against him – concerning his background and family issues etc. Pray for him if you think of it.

11 months ago

What was the end result of your son being a student at Bald Eagle? Would you recommend it for another family? Has your son intimated any kind of fear or trauma under care at the program? I want to help my son but I don’t want to traumatize him either. I’ve read absolutely horrific things about some other well renowned programs.

10 months ago
Reply to  Heather

Hi Heather. First of all, I’m sorry for the delay in my reply. I’ve been out of town for a few days. Secondly, how heartbreaking that some of the programs that try to help also hurt. I’m so sad about that. 💔

For us, our experience at Bald Eagle was a clear and definite positive. It was a lot of hard work for our son, but he received genuine compassion and support during his time there. For our family, it gave us a much-needed break and regrouping time, it taught us some new skills, and it helped us walk alongside our son in the new skills he gained at camp. Our lives have never been the same. We are so grateful for what we were given!

I am saying a prayer for you and your son. May God give you the wisdom you need!

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