HOLIDAY — A summer camp for homeless and at-risk kids that began in 2007 is returning for a second year, and with the economic downturn, organizers say it couldn't happen at a better time.
"The need is tremendous," said the Rev. Dan Campbell, pastor of Community United Methodist Church, which is hosting the Joining Hands camp.
Campbell can say that with authority. Not only is he a pastor of a church in a low-income area, he is vice president of the county's homeless coalition. The group commissions a countywide count of homeless people every two years.
The most recent report, taken in January, revealed a countywide homeless population of 4,074. Of those, 1,425 were children. The count did not include 1,510 people who were living with other families or 250 jail inmates who indicated they have no home to return
to after their release.
Coalition members say they think the numbers have increased as more homes go into foreclosure and gas and grocery prices continue to soar.
Campbell said the camp worked out well last year, drawing 90 campers and 200 volunteers. Last year, 40 agencies and about 10 other churches joined to sponsor the camp. Church leaders decided to host the event as a way to reach out to the community, which sits just north of the Pinellas County line and is heavily populated by families who work in Pinellas but can't afford its high cost of living.
"We found ourselves in the middle of the mission field," Campbell said.
The Florida United Methodist Conference featured the camp as part of a video showing the denomination's commitment to children. With scenes of children playing outdoor games and eating a wholesome lunch, it aired at the group's annual conference this year.
Volunteer Pam Nutty was among those who went on camera. She reported being especially touched as she watched the children perform songs for their parents.
"I sat in the back and just cried," she said.
Most churches offer half-day vacation Bible school, which is of little benefit to single parent families or those in which both parents must work. Community United chose a full-day program to accommodate those families.
The church has continued to serve the children, collecting new socks and underwear as part of a "Sunday undies" program. The campers will receive the items to help them start the new school year.
Lisa Buie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4604.