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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.