The bright sunshine lights up the smiling faces of these children who all arrive at the Royal Family Kids' Camp carting emotional baggage of unhappy times, abuse and neglect. Facing her first summer without her husband and fellow camp founder, a grieving Jan Krueger of Batavia manages to add her smile to the mix as well.
"We see him all over," the newly widowed Krueger says of Bill Krueger, her high school sweetheart who died of complications from a lung infection in February, four months shy of their 50th wedding anniversary. Together, they led the effort in persuading the First Baptist Church of Geneva to start this camp a decade ago, and add similar camps for middle-schoolers and high school teens.
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The national Royal Family Kids' Camp began with a single California camp in 1985 and now offers a network of 152 camps, sponsored by local churches, in 37 states. The local camp spearheaded by the Kruegers and operated by the First Baptist Church of Geneva is designed for suburban children in Kane County whose traumatic lives put them in contact with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. To protect privacy, the camp doesn't reveal locations, dates or names of children.
"Our goal is to give a kid a week of good memories," Jan Krueger says.
Now under the leadership of director Carol Weber of St. Charles, this year's camp uses 68 volunteer staff members, three nurses, three social workers and dozens of part-time volunteers to create those memories for 55 kids between the ages of 7 through 11. "A lot of people take a week off work. This is their vacation," Weber says of her volunteers.
"I caught me a big old perch and a bass," a boy says proudly as he makes sure his catches are included on the chart keeping tabs of how many bass, catfish, pike and perch are reeled in each day.
"Fishing is one of the most popular options," notes Danny Sarros, a 57-year-old volunteer from Geneva, who mans the waterfront and teaches kids how to safely bait hooks and release their catches. "One kid caught 12 today."
The boys and girls, who sleep in bunk houses, are offered a full schedule of activities to keep them busy, says Weber, as she leads the way to today's special "Spa Day" area, where gaggles of girls opt for manicures and pedicures.
"Actually, I think I want to do orange for my fingers," says an 11-year-old girl, whose toes already have been painted a pinkish color called "Dreamy Poppy." Another girl gets a different color on every nail for the rainbow look.
First-time counselors must complete 12 hours of training, and returning counselors undergo another eight hours of training every year. That pays dividends, says Nan Harris, the veteran "Crafty Lady" who takes time from her Decorative Expressions, LCC interior design business in Geneva to oversee the camp's craft projects.
One girl became frustrated with her drawing efforts and tried to ruin her artwork by drawing Xs all over her pictures.
"One of the counselors said, 'Oh, you're putting kisses on your painting,'" Harris says, adding how the counselor explained to the angry young girl that people use X's and O's to represent hugs and kisses. "She didn't know X's were kisses, so it reshaped her thinking."
The wood shop manned by retired carpenter and general contractor Carl Johanson, 67, of Elburn and his assistant Davin Ayarzagoitia, 19, of Geneva lets kids build projects or just experience the emotional release of pounding nails.
"For me, I get a thrill because there are certain children, boys or girls, who are timid. I will start a nail for them and they'll finish it," Johanson says. "There's a joy in seeing them smile and come out of their shells."
With their four sons grown and on their own, the Kruegers became counselors in 2000 at their church's Royal Family Kids' Camp near their home in Michigan. When the couple, who raised their children in Sleepy Hollow and St. Charles, moved to Batavia for his job, they decided to recreate the camp experience for suburban children. The camp includes Bible stories and stresses the message of God's love, but is open to children and volunteers regardless of their faith, says Weber, who works full time on the camps from January through the summer and focuses the rest of the year on fundraising. It costs about $400 to send a child to camp, and that money comes from the Feets of Strength 5-K race in May in Mooseheart, local clubs and businesses, foundations and individual donors, Weber says.
Providing positive role models and showing the children that people don't need to be paid to care about them makes an impact, Weber says.
"You don't know what picture will be taken by that child that will stay with him forever," Krueger adds.
Each child goes home with a personalized photo album and other souvenirs of camp.
"I still have all my photo albums, all my T-shirts, all my wood crafts," says an 18-year-old counselor who used to be one of the camp kids. Raised in foster homes, the teen now goes to college and lives in Elgin with her father, who is paroled from prison, sober and employed.
"It's just my way of giving back, I guess," the counselor says, noting that her background helps her make connections with kids. "It's like a vacation. It's a lot of fun. It's a little escape from reality when you come here."
Always one of her favorite weeks of the year, Jan Krueger says the start of this year's camp was tough for her without her husband.
"Bill always rode up with the kids, and he was the first to step off the bus," Krueger says.
A bench dedicated to her husband's memory was installed where the kids fish, but his spirit can be seen throughout the camp, she says.
"At the end, I'm looking at all the people and all the kids, and it was really great," says Krueger, who made sure to soak it all in. "Love, that's what it's about."