September 17, 2014

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Annual Girls Power Camp treats girls to old-fashioned fun

Jayla, 12, of Lorain, slides through the obstacle course bounce house during the 18th annual Girl Power camp held in Hinckley on Tuesday. KRISTIN BAUER/CHRONICLE

Jayla, 12, of Lorain, slides through the obstacle course bounce house during the 18th annual Girl Power camp held in Hinckley on Tuesday. KRISTIN BAUER/CHRONICLE

HINCKLEY — Music coming from the gaming truck relaxed all who heard it.

Nearby, two girls wearing white protective helmets swung padded lances at each other in a game of jousting. In another part of the campground, two other girls raced each through an inflatable obstacle course.

And those were just the evening activities during the second night of the Lorain County Children Services-sponsored Girl Power Camp. Seventeen girls are spending a few days away with their caseworkers.

Earlier Tuesday, they enjoyed crafts and swimming. Monday, they took a trip to the duct tape factory in Avon. Today, they will make pizzas at a local Pizza Hut.

“I like how they have so much for us to do,” said 12-year-old Jayla. “I’ve never been to camp before, but if this is what it’s like, I like it.”

To understand why girls like Jayla not only deserve a camp experience, but need one, it’s best to ask Deanna Juhasz.

“It’s a different way to have these girls see us,” said Juhasz, a caseworker. “We are not asking questions, being serious and doing an investigation. We just want them to have fun.”

The long-running Operation Open Heart, which is spearheaded by law enforcement agencies, often is the program people think of when they think of camp and Children Services. But it’s for boys. In Lorain County, Children Services has for the past 18 years taken a similar approach with the four-day, three-night Girl Power Camp at the Brooklyn Exchange Camp in Hinckley.

“It really does enhance the entire well-being to have the kids have fun for a few days,” agency spokeswoman Patti-Jo Burnett said.

In the beginning, the idea was to boost self-esteem and empower the girls to recognize their own strength. The activities were structured around motivational speakers and power-building activities.

But soon caseworkers realized they could accomplish the same goals with good old-fashioned fun.

“We just want to get those girls out here and let them see what they can do,” said Christina Bulgarella, who oversees the direct services and independent-living programs at the agency. “Some — not all — of these girls have never been out of their neighborhoods, let alone Lorain County. It’s just Medina, but it’s a new experience for them.”

With new experiences come life lessons.

“I’m not as shy as I thought I was,” Jayla said. “I was dancing here and everything. That’s something I never do because I’m so worried about what people think of me.”

In a flash, the preteen girl darted off to dance and run with another camper.

Savannah, 9, likewise was new to camp. She was sold on coming when her caseworker said there would be swimming. And, as odd as it seems, Savannah has a goal for camp: She wants to learn how to build a bonfire before she leaves.

“When I have kids, that’s something I can teach them,” she said.

Not all of the girls at camp are in foster care. Many still live at home or with relatives, but caseworkers are involved in some aspect of their lives.

Others soon will grow out of the system and are learning to live on their own. Those girls were given special roles during camp of organizing activities for younger campers.

Hollie, 17, said she was unsure of what to do with the girls. “We just wanted to make sure it was fun,” she said.

Hollie reconnected with a younger girl she once shared a foster home with but hadn’t seen in a long time. She couldn’t help but marvel at how big the girl had grown.

“The young girls really had fun, but we did, too,” she said. “You are never too old to make a bracelet or play with duct tape.”

Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or lroberson@chroniclet.com. Follow her on Twitter @LisaRobersonCT.