“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
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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