An hour or so after arriving at summer camp, seven-year-old Brian* is in tears. Spotting Kathy, Brian launches himself into her arms, repeating, between choked sobs, “I want to go home.” Kathy has a son named Brian, but he isn’t the blond little boy who has wrapped his arms around her – he is the boy’s father. This younger Brian is her grandson.

Boy pulls suitcase up drivewayKathy doesn’t take her grandchildren fishing or for sleepovers on Saturday nights like some grandparents. Instead she cares for him full-time. She is the only mother Brian’s ever really known.

She is also raising Brian’s older sisters, Marnie (13) and Miley(11). She wishes she could be more of a true grandmother to them but she’s also grateful she’s there to be the mother they don’t have.

Their mother is missing. She disappeared while hitchhiking in 2017. Their father, Kathy’s son, has a drug addiction.

In 2016, Brian Jr. was found alone, with no clothes on, having crossed a busy street to reach a convenience store. News reports described the toddler as being “very hungry” and his mother as being high on drugs.

Camp counselors conferIt was Kathy who came to get Brian Jr. that day. She was already caring for his older sisters. The kids call her Gran Gran. She’s 59, with gray hair and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). She spent much of her life working in factories and now survives on disability and food stamps. If camp wasn’t free, she wouldn’t be able to afford it.

While the kids spend a week fishing, swimming, and crafting in Lebanon Junction, Kentucky, Kathy will be 25 miles south at home in Louisville, doing nothing. She repeats the word, “Nothing. Just do me.”

Camp Freedom

Enabling caregivers to “do nothing” is one of the missions of Camp Freedom. Providing a week of rest for foster parents and family members caring for children that are not their biological children can be a priceless luxury for these families.

Lions pins name tag on camperFounded in 2006 in partnership with Kentucky Foster Care Agencies, Camp Freedom is the largest of four free week-long camps held each summer at Lions Camp Crescendo, a 185-acre camp facility Kentucky Lions have been operating as a non-profit since 1996. Like the other free children’s camps – for those who are visually impaired, hearing impaired, and those infected or affected by HIV/AIDs – Camp Freedom is designed to serve Kentucky children who are not otherwise being served. Operating the camps at Lions Camp Crescendo is one of the Kentucky Lions two major projects. For Lions Camp Crescendo Administrator Billie Flannery it’s something more.

Woman stands in front of welcome signFlannery has been with Camp Crescendo from the start, living on the property much of the time. A Lion and Lioness for so long she’s lost count – either 35 or 45 years – Flannery has never held office in the organization. “I hate bureaucracy,” she says. “I hate politics.”

Awards are also something the tough octogenarian ignores, although she has received an International President’s Certificate of Appreciation and a Melvin Jones Fellowship award. “That’s immaterial,” she says. “That’s not why I do this stuff.”

She does it for the kids

As the oldest of seven children Flannery has spent much of her life taking care of kids; first her siblings, then her own. She had two children. Her son died of a virus when he was 20 months old. Her daughter, Lisa Bellamy, is the camp nurse. Then there is her foster daughter, Marie, a teenager who lived with her for two years around 50 years ago. During that time Marie was like Flannery’s shadow, trying to learn everything she could from her. When Marie left at 18, Flannery thought she would be OK. Then she got a phone call. Marie was in jail. Next came a letter from a women’s prison. Later Marie called to say she was married and living in another state. Flannery hasn’t heard from her since.

“I’ve wondered lots of times where she is and what she’s doing,” says Flannery.

At camp, Flannery doesn’t have to wonder how the children are doing. Many of them return each summer, especially those being cared for by their grandparents. There are more of them each year.

Grandparents take on parenting duties

At camp this summer about half of the 60 children were being raised by their grandparents. In Kentucky, 1,300 kids are in out-of-home care with relatives, says Eric Friedlander, Secretary of the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services. He believes there are even more that aren’t reported.

Girls jumps and dances with other kidsSome children’s advocates estimate the number to be as high as 70,000. It isn’t just Kentucky where children are being raised by relatives other than their parents. Around the nation approximately 2.7 million children live with their grandparents or family members other than their parents, according to the 2020 State of Grandfamilies Report by Generations United, a network of organizations dedicated to improving the lives of children and older adults.

According to the same report, more than 30% (around 133,405) of all the children in foster care in the U.S. are being cared for by family members, a number that has increased by eight percentage points in the last decade.

One reason for the increase is growing recognition of the advantages of keeping children with their extended families. Another reason is the skyrocketing opioid epidemic and other associated addictions. And when parents end up on drugs, grandparents, often with limited mobility and income, end up caring for their grandchildren – a task that often proves much more physically demanding the second time around.

“So having this (Camp Freedom) is a great opportunity,” says Friedlander.

But camp is still all about the kids

For many of the children ages 6 to 15, “This is their big thing for the year,” says Camp Freedom Director Daniel Coe. In the weeks before camp began Brian’s sister Marnie was already counting down. “Twenty more days until camp.”

Boys play rock paper scissorsOn the second day of camp Marnie is lined up for archery with Shauna, 14. They wear their brown hair in matching Dutch braids and spend more time talking than trying to hit the bullseye. Four years ago, when Marnie first came to camp, she worried she wouldn’t make friends.

“But, like, everyone comes up to you and talks to you, so you don’t even have to worry about it,” she says.

Unlike other places where people “ask why and a bunch of questions” when she tells them she lives with her grandmother, at camp no one says anything. They understand she is stable and doesn’t have to worry about anything when she’s with her grandmother.

Shauna remembers having to care for her little brother before she went to live with her grandparents in Louisville. That was around eight or nine years ago. Shauna started attending camp soon after. Her grandparents worried she would have separation anxiety and call home daily. They never heard a word. Next year Shauna wants to become a counselor-in-training. She lists off the other children and counselors who have been coming to camp for years.

“It’s like a family,” she says.

“Kids like me”

Shauna’s own family is more complicated. She hasn’t seen her little brother since she began living with her grandparents. Her grandfather, Chuck, remembers Shauna coming back from her first camp announcing, “Grandpa there are a lot of kids like me.”

Group of kids walking on boardwalk“From that point on she doesn’t feel like she’s the only one,” says Miller. “It’s a great venue for those kids.”

Shauna has anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Talking with friends is what keeps her sane.

“When I came to camp, I realized I wasn’t the only kid going through what was going on,” she says. “And there’s a lot of kids that have it a lot worse.”

Camp nurse Lisa Bellamy sees the result of trauma and loss in the behavior and the medications of many of the children who come to Camp Freedom. In some ways, the Freedom children are more difficult to handle than the children with physical disabilities that she works with in other camps.

“You can’t slap a Band-Aid on an ODD (oppositional defiance disorder) child,” says Bellamy. “It just doesn’t work. It takes a lot of finesse and patience and love.” 

Lions bring in the love

Among those doling out the love are plenty of Lions. Bellamy is one of them. It was the camp that brought her to the organization.

Family huggingAfter seeing members of Lexington South Lions Club cooking, cleaning, and repairing at the camp she decided to join the club. Then she recruited two more counselors to join her. Camp Crescendo board chair David Moose belongs to Louisville East Lions Club, as do the directors of the Camp for Blind and Vision Impaired Youth.

Lions don’t only give their time. They also give money. Flannery estimates that Lions fund about 30 percent of the cost of Camp Freedom. The rest comes from grants and donations and renting the facility to other camps. COVID-19 meant there were no camps in 2020 and thus no revenue stream from other paying camps. Because money is pooled it is hard to determine the cost of individual camps, but food alone for Camp Freedom was US$6,000 or US$7,000 in 2021. And that was with 40 percent fewer campers.

Then there is electricity, water, gas, and two employees – a cook and a lifeguard. Pretty much everyone else is a volunteer, including Billie Flannery’s husband Don Flannery, who can be found most weekends on site taking care of maintenance issues. Like his wife, Don is 82 and belongs to Frankfort Lions Club. He hasn’t had a weekend off in years and it has been more than a decade since he and his wife have had time to relax at a home they have in Florida.

For Billie, camp and Lions are intertwined.

“Service is what Lions are about. Find me a better way than serving children and I’ll join that effort too,” says Billie.

Divide and conquer

Among those children is Jackson B., a red headed eight-year-old who can’t read and had to repeat first grade. His grandmother, Jennifer, 56, has watched him struggle. She believes some of his delays are a result of what happened to him before she and her husband Greg, 62, started caring for Jackson when he was 15 months old.

While under the care of her oldest son, James, and his girlfriend, she says, Jackson was left in a playpen in front of the television and fed only a bottle, with no solid food. James had been diagnosed with schizophrenia in his 20s and the medicine he was prescribed caused extreme weight gain and left him lethargic, so he stopped taking it and started self-medicating, according to Jennifer.

By the time Jennifer realized how bad things were, James and Jackson’s mother were on heroin, and Jackson was on his own, jumping around a playpen.

“He could do flips, stand on his head, but he couldn’t walk because that’s what he was used to,” says Greg.

The couple, who live about 45 miles south of Louisville, worked on catching their grandson up.

“I don’t really have any friends my age, because they’re going on trips. They’re approaching retirement,” says Jennifer. Meanwhile she is taking Jackson to the fair and swimming lessons, struggling to keep the active boy busy. “We do the divide and conquer,” says Greg.

One of them will watch Jackson jump into the pool shouting “cannonball.” The other one will take him to the lake to walk. Trying to keep up with the little boy, whom Jennifer describes as being driven by a motor, became even more difficult during the pandemic with Jackson struggling to learn remotely. Raising her grandson, says Jennifer, “Is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

Catching frogs

A few hours later Jackson is pouring Dixie cups of water over his head to keep cool in the heat, a huge smile on his face. The next morning Brian is thumb wrestling another little boy at breakfast. His older sister Marnie is off on her own, keeping her eyes on the ground. “I’m not really into the activities, I’m just into getting frogs,” she says.

Everyone here is unique and different, says Shauna. Some are quiet; some are hyper. Some like to be alone. Some like to be in big groups. What they have in common is they all support each other, says Shauna. Kind of like a family.

When Marnie is sitting apart from the group one evening, her sweatshirt hood pulled up, Shauna brings her a cup of water. They have all lost things in their young lives, but here, at camp, they have found each other.



*All camp participants’ names have been changed to protect their privacy.