By Leonard Favela
Featured in BCFS’ annual together magazine

After being removed from their parents by CPS, youth in foster care often spend years struggling to overcome their experiences. But, when 32 Texas youth from foster care gathered around a Colorado campfire last summer, roasting s’mores, stargazing, and challenging themselves in leadership-building sessions, it was their unique skills and abilities that were front and center, not their limitations.

For youth who journey to the Rocky Mountains in search of their inner leader

After being removed from their biological parents due to abuse, neglect or other family difficulties, youth in the foster care system often spend years – sometimes an entire lifetime – wrestling to overcome the trauma they have experienced. Statistically, youth in foster care are less likely to graduate college, and are more likely to experience teen pregnancies, unemployment and generational cycles of poverty.

Though when 34 Texas youth primarily from foster care gathered around a Colorado campfire this summer, roasting s’mores, stargazing, and challenging themselves in leadership-building sessions, it was their unique skills and abilities that were front and center, not their limitations. The goal was simple but profound at the camp, “The Leader in YOU: No Limits” – inspiring youth to seek and find the strong leader inside them.

BCFS Health and Human Services organized a weeklong camp that was fully underwritten by its parent organization, BCFS, and held at the agency’s Silver Cliff Ranch in the Colorado Rocky Mountains.

“Many of the participants had never been out of the state, much less in the mountains of Colorado,” says Stacy Lee, BCFS Health and Human Services Program Director of Youth Services. “They were empowered being out of their element. I saw a definite rise in their self-confidence in just one week.”

A convoy of buses picked up youth from BCFS centers across Texas, traveling from McAllen to Corpus Christi, to San Antonio, Abilene, and Lubbock before finally heading into the Colorado Rocky Mountains loaded with teens and youth, plus staff from BCFS and the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

“At the beginning of the camp, we asked the youth to name leaders. We got names like Barack Obama, Michelle Obama and Oprah,” said Lee. “By the end of camp, they understood there are different types of leaders, like a quiet leader or a supportive leader. They realized they could be leaders too, and it’s not just for popular, powerful or out-of-reach people.”

The 34 youth were selected from thousands BCFS serves across Texas as a reward for maintaining high grades in school, successfully completing life skills courses, and staying focused on their goals under the guidance of their BCFS case manager.

Campers scurried into the woods and across the campsite on a leadership scavenger hunt, gathering items symbolizing the core values of a leader: communication, confidence, a positive attitude, inspiration, creativity and being a team player.

Between candid and emotional group discussions, the campers played team games, hiked in the woods surrounding their log cabins, and completed a ropes course which one young camper called his favorite camp activity because it gave him “a chance to help everybody.”

“Interacting with the other campers was my favorite part,” said the teen. “I learned that nothing is impossible. There’s always something you can do.”

Former Major League Baseball pitcher Jimmy Morris, whose story inspired the Disney movie “The Rookie,” led exercises that helped the youth recognize their individual leadership style. Morris distributed awards to the campers, who were eager to snap photos with the ex-pro and get autographed baseballs. Morris serves as BCFS’ Motivational Specialist for children, youth and families throughout the BCFS system of health and human service nonprofits.

“Jimmy asked some of the staff to get in front of everyone and share their personal trials and triumphs to show the youth that everyone goes through hard times,” says Director of BCFS Health and Human Services – Community Based Services, Miriam Attra.

On the last day of camp, the youth were encouraged to show off their hidden talents in a talent show. Attra says she witnessed several young men and women who were initially shy, transform into enthusiastic participants.

“One of our youth opted to share the testimony of her life,” says Attra. “She said the whole camp experience allowed her to open up for the first time, and now she feels more comfortable letting her guard down and trusting people more.”

“This trip helped me look at things from a different perspective, like the way I think of myself,” said another teen camper. “My teammates and my leaders were very encouraging, and they pushed me to do things that I never thought I could do.”

Another young woman said her camp experience inspired her to share what she learned with her peers back home: “I did things that were out of my comfort zone… things that I thought I couldn’t do. I hope to one day help other people grow the way I grew.”