Episcopal Diocese of Maryland

The Road to Camp Amazing Grace

By Val Hymes

The first week-long Episcopal camp for children of prisoners was created in the Diocese of Rio Grande in 1995. The Rev. Jackie Means, director of prison ministry for the Episcopal Church, issued a challenge: “We must do something for the children. A high percentage of them will someday be incarcerated. We must break the cycle.”

The Rev. Steven R. Caldwell, took the challenge and the week-long Camp Grace was founded. “To our utter amazement,“ he said, “attitudes and behaviors do get altered in that brief time. Campers are surprised to discover that our love for them is unconditional."

Since then, as many as 27 dioceses have started camps or have explored the possibility and many of them have expanded their ministries year-round for the children.

In 1998, the Maryland Diocesan Convention created the Prison Ministry Task Force, co-chaired by the Rev. Mimi Mathews and the Rev. Phebe McPherson and coordinated and directed by Val Hymes. In 2005, Means addressed the Convention and pressed the task force to create a camp in Maryland. She urged the Rev. Eddie Blue – who was, years before, a counselor at a camp she served as a nurse – to become director. The Rev. William H.C. Ticknor agreed to be the first chaplain.

Camp Amazing Grace opened in 2006 at the Bishop Claggett Center in the hills of Western Maryland near Frederick.

The children, 8 to 12, were recommended mainly by mothers imprisoned at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women. Other children’s names came from parishes, clergy, Girl Scouts Inside Prisons and word of mouth.

Linda Rines of St. James’ Parish, Lothian, was director for the second camp in 2007 that hosted 29 children. Deacon Patrick Arey was director for the 2008 camp with 21 children. Will Pass of the Cathedral of the Incarnation directed the camp for 22 children in 2009. Rick Conover, St. John's, Ellicott City, joined him to co-direct camp for 17 children in 2010, and Maria Robinson- Conaway served as executive director of the 2011 camp for 24 children.

Themes for the camps have ranged from "Journey to Friendship Island," "Yes I Can" and “Make a Joyful Noise” to “I Can Make a Change” and "The Best I Can Be."

Robinson-Conaway, a retired social services employee, retained her leadership position in 2012, working to plan for the August 13-17 camp and Camp Amazing Grace Forward, a year-round program. The first such event, Friends and Family Day at the Claggett Center, was held in the fall.

A fundraising art auction was planned for April. Expenses for the free camp and reunions average about $20,000 annually. The money has been raised through foundation and corporation grants, small donors, parishes and the Bishops Appeal.

In the last three years, because of sufficient donations for scholarships, some of the “graduates” have been able to attend Claggett camps for older children. Robinson-Conaway was exploring a joint camp experience as 2012 opened.