Camp Heartland


Three weeks before  I left prison I went out on my last Restorative Justice program.  R.J. is generally the only time we left the compound.  Once per week, nine of the 17 in my squad got excited about going out into the community to help those in need.  We’ve done everything from cleaning windows in a nursing home, to removing concrete by hand, to shoveling shit after a county fair.  So naturally when It was my turn to leave, I was looking forward to a good day.  Well I got what I asked for.  We packed all of our gear and headed out to Camp Heartland in Willow River.

It is a very beautiful campground.  I didn’t know anything about the place until I got there.  We piled out of the van and lined up and stood at attention and received our orders for the day.  It’s almost always some sort of cleaning detail and that is exactly what the plan was for that day.  Then an employee told us who goes there, and why.  Originally it was set up as a retreat for children with H.I.V.  Now it’s for any child with a life threatening  illness.   We were given a brief tour in which he pointed out the cabins we would be cleaning.  They were small but functional and full of dead and living creepy crawly insects.  Nearly all of the beds had a ‘waterproof’ sheet which startled me a little because there’s really only one thing you need that for.  Enough said.  At that point we gathered our supplies and got to work.

After a couple cabins, the officer in charge came and got me and said there was a project inside I could do, so I followed him in and I ended up cleaning a huge sort of room with a stage, costumes everywhere, and lots of muddy footprints.  To back up a little, on the way down to the basement, covering the walls from top to bottom were drawings and kids’ names and dates when they were there.  There were thousands of them, and later I would find even more outside.  I kept looking at the walls as I cleaned, and I started to notice other things about them.  And that’s when shit got real.  Next to or on the paintings themselves were little white crosses and dates.  I realized what it meant, and I couldn’t believe how many there were.  I decided to take a little break and wander around and I just kept seeing more names, more dates.  I felt emotion for the first time in a while.  I couldn’t believe that all of those kids had been here and left not knowing if they would ever make it back.

It was then that I really felt guilty about how much of my life I had wasted when these kids were dying off left and right.  How could it possibly be fair that I was out dealing drugs and being completely irresponsible in every situation and never got killed along the way while these kids were literally fighting for their lives?  I took some time to read a lot of the writings on the wall.  Every one of them was positive about their situation; little kids who truly appreciated whatever time they were with us in this world.  It is even making me a little misty-eyed as I type this.  I don’t ever pray, and I don’t believe in God, but right there, right then, I said my version of a prayer in my head the words of which only myself and they will ever hear.  I continued to clean.

For over five months I had been eating only prison food which sounds and tastes exactly like prison food.  That day, the employees that were there (there were no kids there when we went) cooked up a feast for us.  All things we hadn’t seen since our sentencing.  We sat around a table and for the first time in years I sat at a table with people and ate.  I ate three brownies for dessert after eating as many fresh vegetables, slices of garlic bread, and I’m drawing a blank on the rest of it but it was amazing, and we all felt like humans that day.

As we were leaving, I saw even more names.  These ones engraved in the sidewalk that circled a water fountain.  All of the had two dates, and I had to walk away after I saw the name of a four year old that had died the day before his birthday.  I can’t waste any more of my life, it’s just not fair to them.

If you ever are looking for a good organization to donate to, I recommend Camp Heartland.  Let them show these kids some fun before they leave us way too soon.

1 thought on “Camp Heartland

  1. kappe004

    This is a very moving post, Vince. I’ve heard of Camp Heartland but that’s about it. Your description makes it real. I attended Bible Camp as an early teen so I was able to see the cabins and space you cleaned. The pictures with dates made the camp vividly real. You’re a good writer. I look forward to continuing posts.



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