We were still waiting for one 7th grade girl and were now behind schedule.
“Has anyone seen Jessica?” I called out to the group of middle school campers. They were loading their luggage on the buses as we prepared for the weeklong summer camp.
“Jessica is still in the car. I don’t think she is coming,” said the voice of a woman behind me. I turned around and the woman introduced herself as Jessica’s mom. We had never met before because they had just moved to Minnesota from Kansas.
She continued, “I’m really sorry. Jessica says she doesn’t want to go to camp now. It’s been a tough morning.”
Jessica’s mom went on to explain that they had signed their 7th grade daughter up for camp thinking it would be a great way to meet new friends before the school year began. But now, Jessica wouldn’t get out of the car.
“Maybe…maybe, you could talk to her?” she asked hesitantly.
I walked over to the car and knocked on the back door. I gently opened in and looked inside. There sat Jessica with tears on her cheeks.
I introduced myself and asked her why she no longer wanted to go to camp. She explained that she didn’t know anyone and would never fit in. I understood. Moving to a new community and a new school can be pretty rough on a kid.
It didn’t help that Jessica was one of only a few 7th graders who signed up. Most of the girls on this trip were 9th graders who were sophisticated and cliquish. They looked like they were already in high school, while Jessica looked like she was still in grade school.
I did my best to try to convince her that camp would be awesome and that she would love it. I didn’t have any success.
Then I said something that I knew I would regret. “I’ll make a deal with you. Get on the bus and come to camp. If by dinner time tomorrow night you still don’t like it, I’ll drive you home.” What was I thinking? Camp was almost four hours away! I’m not sure why I said it, but as soon as I did she turned to me and asked, “Really? You’d do that?”
There was no turning back on my offer so I said, “Sure I would.” At that point I was bound to my word.
Jessica opened her door and grabbed her pillow. I grabbed her suitcase and we headed over to the bus.
As she boarded the bus it was crowded and loud. I could see the fear in her eyes. One of our leaders smiled and offered her a seat. Finally, we were on the road. I checked on Jessica a couple times during the drive. Each time she looked up from her book and said she was okay.
We weren’t at camp for more than an hour when Jessica came up to me with tears in her eyes. “I don’t want to be here. I want to go home!” My heart broke for her and I tried to encourage her. “Hang in there. You’ll be fine. It will be alright.” I prayed that she would settle in and that the games and laughter would help ease her anxiety.
I kept an eye on her the rest of the evening. While she didn’t seem totally engaged, she was surviving.
The next morning, I saw her at breakfast. She came up to me and said. “I can’t do this! I want to go home!” I reminded her that our deal was that she would stay for 24 hours. This was not turning out the way I had hoped.
Later on that morning I saw a couple of our 9th grade girls. I pulled them aside and told them that I was going to have to leave tonight to take Jessica home. I asked them in the meantime if they could just be really nice to her and help her feel welcomed. They told me that they had tried to talk with her but Jessica just didn’t respond. I thanked them for trying.
I spent part of the afternoon making arrangements to borrow a car so I could bring Jessica home. I figured that if we left right after dinner, I could make it back to camp by 1:30am. I was not excited about driving for eight hours and missing so much of camp.
As soon as dinner was finished I went outside to look for Jessica as the 350 campers and leaders exited the dining hall. When it seemed like everyone was out and I hadn’t spotted Jessica I started to worry a little. Where could she be?
As I scanned the crowd, I heard one of our campers call my name. They said something to me but I ignored them as I was focused on finding Jessica. The voice called my name again. This time I quickly turned and said, “Hang on a minute. I have to find someone.” I was now standing on a flower box to look for Jessica from a higher vantage point. There was a tap on my arm and a voice pleading for my attention.
Finally, I looked down and I saw a young girl I did not recognize. “What is it?” I said in a polite but irritated tone.
The girl looked up and said, “I don’t want to go. I want to stay.” I just looked at her. I didn’t have a clue who this kid was and I did not know what she was talking about.
I started looking around again for Jessica, when I stopped and said, “Wait. What?”
Again she smiled and said, “I don’t want to go home. I want to stay here at camp.”
Then I looked behind her and I saw the entire cabin of 9th grade girls with giant grins on their faces.
That’s when it hit me. The girl who kept interrupting my search for Jessica…was Jessica. I looked at her again and I still could barely recognize her. mercy
Earlier that morning, our camp speaker told the story of the Good Samaritan. He talked about the commandments to love God with all year heart, soul, mind, and strength. He talked about what it means to truly love your neighbor and to show mercy to those in need. And he challenged the kids to show that kind of mercy to other.
The 9th grade girls in our group really listened. During the afternoon free time they sought out Jessica. They invited her to come to their cabin and hang out with them. It started out with someone offering to paint Jessica’s fingernails. She had never worn nail polish in her life. When they were done with that, one of the girls grabbed her make-up bag and started doing Jessica’s eyes. They talked her into ditching her glasses and putting in the contacts that she had but rarely wore.
The makeover was just getting started. They cut over four inches of her long, straight hair and the curled it. Then they dressed her in a whole new wardrobe. mercy
The transformation was amazing. But it wasn’t the hair, make-up or clothing. It was the way she lit up. It was in her smile. She had the look of pure joy. She felt loved. She felt accepted. She felt cared for. She felt like she belonged.
I’m not sure those 9th graders could have anticipated that the mercy they showed would have such an impact on Jessica. Like the Good Samaritan, they looked beyond themselves and saw someone in need. They didn’t start to do anything on a grand scale, just a little fingernail polish. They invited her into their group and became like big sisters to her.
Later, Jessica’s mom told me that camp was a turning point for her daughter. She came home excited to start school. Throughout middle school and high school, Jessica grew into one of the most compassionate and loving people I’ve ever known. She had the unique ability to make everyone feel loved and cared about. She could spot the hurting and lonely better than anyone and went out of her way to reach them. Jessica understood the power of mercy because she experienced what happens when kids learn to show mercy. mercy
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
By Pete Larson
Husband to Lynn
Father of two sons
1 Corinthians 13 Parenting Team Member
Executive Director of Family Fest Ministries