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Beauty For Ashes

“To all who mourn in Israel, He will give beauty for ashes, joy instead of

mourning, praise instead of despair. For the Lord has planted them like strong and

graceful oaks for His own glory” (Isaiah 61:3).

Isn’t it true that our Father can take difficulties in our lives and orchestrate triumph

and great glory for His name?

Twenty-five years ago, the Lord blessed Darren and Melinda Edwards with a baby

boy. The two parents were devastated to learn that their newborn had Down syndrome,

guaranteeing a lifetime of taking care of this young one. At the time they couldn’t foresee

the beauty of God’s plan for them.

This couple already had a love for the Lord and His work. Through the years, He

used Tom, that sweet baby boy, to make their hearts tender and compassionate for less-

fortunate children. God was laying the groundwork for Darren and Melinda’s lifework.

At just the right time, the young-children’s minister at their church attended a

conference and heard about a camp for abused and neglected children. He was moved to

pray for someone to make the commitment to start and direct such a camp for the North

Central Texas area. He knew it was a task only the Lord could make happen. While his

heart still burned for this cause, he happened to run into Darren and Melinda on a

Wednesday night as they worked in the children’s ministry at church. He asked Melinda

and she said she was willing if Darren said yes. She had previous experience with church

camps and camping in general with her family.

Darren, busy with work and raising a family, was a harder case. He just couldn’t

imagine adding anything else to his already full plate. The children’s minister asked

several times that night as he wasn’t ready to give up. With Melinda onboard, he was

only encouraged to keep talking to Darren. His persistence paid off. Darren finally agreed

to watch a video, and he took the book written buy the founders. Darren later admitted

doing this so the minister would stop asking.

After his children were bathed and tucked in for the night, Darren sat down and

fulfilled his promise. As the video ended, he knew in his heart this was something God

was asking of him. He told Melinda, “We’ve got to do this.”

So Darren and Melinda got in touch with the national office to sign up for director’s

training. However, all training camps were over for the year. That meant waiting another

year. Darren told Melinda this will really be a “fleece” of confirmation—confirmation

that this was meant for them to do if they still desired to go to training a year later.

In 1998, Darren and Melinda and three others from their church attended a training

camp in California. By Wednesday night after training and fellowship had ended, their

group stayed up past midnight discussing who back home could fill all the staff positions

for camp in 1999. The group was determined to have camp that year. The biggest

obstacle now was finding a camp facility and funding.

After returning home from the training, Darren spoke to an elder committee, the

mission’s group, and several ministers about starting a camp in 1999. The elders

approved a budget for the first camp. Now it was on to finding a camp facility. Darren

and Melinda looked up close to twenty camp facilities. They called each place to find out

if they could do camp there in 1999. There were several rejections in the form of no

weeks available, can’t guarantee a closed camp, or the group was not big enough for

closed camp. However, there were two camps that agreed to meet with them to discuss

the possibility. One camp was forty-five minutes away, and the other was two-and-a-half

hours. We first visited the closer one and left knowing we could rent a closed camp for a

week in late July of 1999. We had two weeks to accept or lose the week. We were not

thrilled with the setup of the facility but thought if we had to use it, we could make it

work. Next, we traveled to the facility that was farther away. Upon arrival, the woman

showing us around mentioned that she was unsure if she had a week available as she was

waiting to hear back from an annual renter. That visit started on a sour note, but we took

the tour of the facility and along the way began to pour out how wonderful camp is for

abused and neglected children. We shared some stories that had been shared with us at

training. The woman was so moved that she decided to make room for us and tell the

other client to come another week. God worked a miracle that day. We really did not

know what we were doing other than sharing information and the need of these children.

Two days later we received a contract in the mail for a week in June. Two weeks later,

we learned that the first facility had declared bankruptcy. God really had his hand in what

we were doing.

The first camp in 1999 was so exciting! We were taking seventy-two children (there

were six no-shows) and 80 volunteers. Camp training suggested a first camp of forty

children. Camp was crazy; none of the volunteers really knew what they were doing. We

were just following the manual, sometimes to a fault. By a fault, we mean we followed

the exact schedule and timing as indicated in the manual, which meant organized games

were in the hottest part of the afternoon in east Texas.

As a director of camp you hope you never have to send a camper home, but we had

to the very first year. It was so hard on the leadership team to make that decision and then

fight the doubts of our action the rest of the week. The silver lining is that the boy came

back the next year and had a great camp. God was once again working where we

couldn’t.

Another story from the early years concerns a boy who had been sexually molested

by his dad, uncles, and cousins. He came to camp and wanted to do nothing we had

planned. He was very untrusting, as expected, and had very low self-esteem. We spent

time with him where he wanted to that year, but the next year he came off the bus and ran

up to me asking if he could be the emcee for the variety show at the end of the week.

What a change! He did emcee the show, and he was active in everything planned at

camp. God is so good!

We changed the time for organized games in 2001. So there was someone, Darren,

not being flexible, a definite no-no for camp. The camp for 2000 had more than one

hundred children and volunteers, and it has been that way ever since.

After camp in 2003, a core group of volunteers came to us and said we needed to do

more. We asked what else we should do. They told us that we needed to do something for

the children that had aged out of camp. Following Paul Harvey’s saying, we wanted to

know the “rest of the story” with the children we had served at camp. Darren went to

meet with a group of church elders, and he was told that the church would help us set up

a nonprofit organization and we could move out from under the church umbrella. But we

would need to find our own insurance, which turned to be a non-issue as God led us

through that decision.

And so, in December 2003, Our Father’s Children was formed. We had the first

Onward and Upward retreat for 12–15 year olds in February 2004. There were thirty-nine

teens and thirty-four volunteers. We developed a curriculum based on character traits of

godly men and women with drama, small groups, and an application session format. We

grew in numbers over the next year and now average somewhere between sixty-four and

eighty teens, with appropriate numbers of volunteers. The two-to-one teen-to-counselor

ratio is maintained at these retreats, which happen in February and September.

Toward the end of 2004, Darren and Melinda met with the chairman of the board and

discussed the strain on their family. They felt the solution was to hire Melinda as the sole

employee of OFC. The chairman agreed and over the last two weeks of 2004, enough

funding was received from new donors to cover Melinda’s salary for 2005. Melinda left

her teaching job in January that year to begin our lifework.

After camp in 2005, a group of twenty volunteers came to us and asked if we could

lead a second camp with more volunteers from their church. Darren and Melinda agreed

that it was needed based on numbers of foster children in our area. But it also meant

another meeting with the board, because Darren could not take two weeks off from his

job to lead camp. Prayer and discussion ensued about Darren becoming an employee of

OFC. The decision was made to back Darren leaving his job with one caveat: Darren

would have to complete a ministry curriculum offered by Ministry Ventures out of

Atlanta and go to a seminar provided by Henri Moreau offered by the founders of RFKC,

Wayne and Diane Tesch. Darren once again felt led by God and truly at peace. He gave

his notice to leave his job and begin full-time work on his lifework.

So in 2006, there were two camps for 6–11 year olds, one in June and one in July.

The July camp started with seventy-five children and eighty-four volunteers. The July

camp now serves more than one hundred children with more than one hundred

volunteers. Darren and Melinda’s lives were further enriched and blessed by all the new

volunteers and children who attended that first July camp.

Toward the end of 2006, we were approached by another group of volunteers who

wanted to be with the teens aging out of the Onward and Upward retreats. Upon prayer

and meeting with some of this group, we decided to start Summit Retreats for 16–18 year

olds. The curriculum would be focus on life skills, such as money management, goal

setting, and support systems. There would be a one-to-one teen-to-counselor ratio, and

we would meet in May and October each year.

In our camp in 2010, we met a young man who had some limitations caused by

having his feet held on a hot plate after being knocked unconscious by his mom’s

boyfriend. Half of each foot had to be amputated, after which he endured two years of

therapy and follow-up surgeries. He was so cute, and had an infectious smile and a great

attitude. He had trouble moving through camp, especially during organized game time.

His feet hurt. One of our nurses got involved and, after looking at the socks he wore,

decided to take action. She suggested we purchase the softest and thickest socks we could

find at the local Walmart. We did and she took them to him. His reaction was tears of joy,

being thrilled that we cared so much for him! But isn’t that the Royal Family way?

In 2012, a mentoring club was started for the 6–11 year old age group. It meets every

month school is in session and follows a mentee-mentor structure. Organized group

meetings are held each month, and then the mentors spend two to six hours outside of the

group meeting with their mentee. The club started with twenty-five children that first

year, and hopefully forty children will be involved in 2014.

Also in the fall of 2012, the OFC board agreed to purchase a fifty-acre site that has

some buildings and infrastructure. The facility was purchased on October 5, 2012. OFC

has been a capital campaign to raise $3 million with $1.63 million raised to date. OFC

named the facility Camp Akiva. “Akiva” means to protect or shelter in Hebrew. The OFC

leadership and board thought that was a great name for a place for the children we serve.

New buildings are going up and some existing buildings have been refurbished. New

infrastructure such as new electrical lines and water lines have also been completed.

When completed, Camp Akiva will sleep 360 and have five possible meeting sites. Camp

Akiva will be rented to youth groups and businesses when not being used by OFC.

More than seventeen years have passed since that night when a minister was

persistent. The camps for 6–11 year olds have changed the lives of more than 3,500

hurting children. More than 3,800 people have served in various volunteer roles, many of

them returning repeatedly.

The next leap of faith will come when all activities are moved to the facility entirely

owned by Our Father’s Children in 2015.

Darren continues to dream about how OFC can do more for the children of abuse and

neglect: “Holiday homecomings” for the children-turned-young-adults who have stayed

in touch and need a place to go and a family to share holidays; a third week of summer

camp for children from the counties around the new camp facility; family retreats in

which both foster parents and children are ministered to and loved with a common goal to

do what is best for the children. There are so many possibilities. Our prayer is that God

will continue to bless and grow what He started so many years ago.

“Now glory be to God! By His mighty power at work within us, He is able to

accomplish infinitely more than we would ever dare to ask or hope” (Ephesians 3:20).

 

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