It’s a cool Friday evening in February, and 25 young families have gathered at Headwaters for a weekend they cannot quite imagine. Many are from single-parent families who have come to Laity Lodge Family Camp with one of three San Antonio social service agencies. But kids are kids, and parents are parents. And a vacation is a vacation, however it comes.
On this weekend, Nicole Peche-Buenrostro has returned to camp with her four children, along with several other families from San Antonio Metropolitan Ministries (SAMM). Peche-Buenrostro, a single parent who once resided in SAMM’s transitional housing facility, has come to share her story. She and her children once boarded a bus bound for the Canyon, too, and weren’t at all sure what to expect.
“The first time we came to camp with SAMM was in February of 2013,” says Peche-Buenrostro. “We’d only moved in there a couple of months earlier, so we were very reluctant to go.”
A parent faced with homelessness or struggling day to day to make ends meet might not want to board a chartered bus and travel two hours to a place they’ve never seen. What exactly happens at a “Family Camp weekend”? Where will we sleep? What will we eat? Will our family fit in?
“But we fell in love with it,” continues Peche-Buenrostro. “What God has done from that one weekend—our first with SAMM—is unbelievable. And we only decided to go at the last minute. My caseworker literally talked me into it. ”
Three years later, Laity Lodge Family Camp Senior Director Cary Hendricks invited Peche-Buenrostro to Headwaters to share her story with other at-risk families: a six-year-long history of failed marriage, addiction to prescription drugs, poverty, and, ultimately, homelessness. She describes a resolute determination to make her own way, refusing help and denying her addiction. And she recalls the shame of failing her children and the firm belief that God wanted nothing to do with her because of her actions.
As she speaks, heads nod. These families get it. They’re living it now.
Once at SAMM, Peche-Buenrostro continued both to work and to attend nursing school. Her children were with her and safe. Their basic needs were met. She re-examined her relationship with God and began to follow him again.
“I told him I’ll go wherever you want me to go and do whatever you want me to do,” she says. “I imagined maybe someone would give us a house or something—but we ended up living in a shelter. And when I look back on my journals from those two years, what I see over and over is thanksgiving. I thought everything was great—I was working and in school and we had a place to live—but we were really homeless.”
Through SAMM, the support of a local church community, and the help of family and friends, Peche-Buenrostro’s family life began to stabilize. And that earliest trip to Family Camp proved to be the first of many.
“I learned about summer camp scholarships from Emily,” she recalls. “And my kids came back that next summer.” They have been going every year since then. “We returned to Family Camp three more times with SAMM and several other times on our own—two fall sessions and two summer sessions. And then we came again this weekend to help Cary.”
“Nicole has put herself through school and is working as an emergency room nurse in San Antonio,” said Hendricks. “She and her family have moved out of SAMM and closed on a home of their own.
I asked her to bring her family again, this time to share her story.” She said yes.
Three times a year, Laity Lodge Family Camp partners with established local agencies (currently SAMM, Family Services Association of San Antonio, and Good Samaritan Community Services, also of San Antonio) to offer camp exclusively for vulnerable children and families. Individual donors and foundations underwrite these weekends so that guest families (and their sponsoring agencies) pay nothing.
“This is another way for Family Camp to live into our mission, and it’s exciting. We want our work to reflect what we believe the kingdom of God to look like,” he explains. “And to do that, we must continue to broaden our reach.”
Peche-Buenrostro’s family no longer needs convincing when camp time comes around: “All I hear all year long is how they can’t wait to go back to camp. And we get to share those relationships and awesome memories as a family. That’s something no amount of money can pay for.”