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Monday, December 25, 2000

Photos courtesy of EcoRanch Hawaii Camping for Children at Risk.
The shoreline provides a breath of fresh air on a recent
camp outing for children who live in domestic-violence shelters.

Finding shelter
. . . in the outdoors

Camping trips give children
in shelters a chance to run free

By Rod Ohira

having provided armed security for The Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Iron Butterfly and other celebrities during the '60s and '70s, former Californian Bob Wilson never imagined he would be unable to protect his own family in Hawaii.

Living in fear of the abusive husband of his eldest daughter, Wilson, his wife, six children and grandson were forced to seek safety at domestic-abuse shelters.

Wilson moved his family seven times among four shelters from 1996 to this year.

He's come full circle now, having recently moved his family back into a home.

Photos courtesy of EcoRanch Hawaii Camping for Children at Risk.
Camp activities bring joy and fun to children whose lives
normally involve domestic violence and the constraints
of shelters.

From the experience, Wilson gained a vision of what his life's mission is and has dedicated himself to realizing that goal with the help of Rita Martin, director of Hale Ola Windward Abuse Shelter.

"It's been a wild four years," Wilson said.

"If it were not for the domestic-violence victimization of my family, I would never have met Rita, my family would have never been in a shelter and I would have never known what it was like for a child to be in a shelter."

Everyone in a shelter lives in fear, said Wilson.

"At a shelter, you're constantly frightened, and I saw children literally flipping out, going crazy, because everything is designed for protection," Wilson said.

"Shelters do a wonderful job of protecting children, but they're encaged there."

So Wilson and Martin set out to do something that would give kids a break from shelter life without compromising their safety.

They decided to organize an overnight camp. Martin found the site and Wilson set up the security.

In April 1998, they took nine children from Hale Ola for an overnighter at Camp Kokokahi.

Photos courtesy of EcoRanch Hawaii Camping for Children at Risk.

Since then, there have been 29 other camps, including a first-time two-nighter in December.

The highlight was a Christmas party hosted by Xerox Hawaii employees.

"We're doing it once a month and getting 45-65 children per camp now," said Wilson, noting that funding from the Hawaiian Community Foundation helps to defray costs.

"You can see it makes such a difference in their lives.

"The trauma of abuse in children's lives changes them forever. But the camps let them be children again. If you come from an environment of anger and violence, they'll project that if that's all they see."

The camping program has reached 230 children, ages 7-12, and it's not only for shelter kids anymore.

"We invited kids from the streets, who were living in cars, for the first time this year," Wilson said. "What we try to do at camp is nurture them and give them time and space to rest. When other kids usually go to camp, there's a program set up for them. We don't do that."

Spend time how they like

Simple activities like playing in a grassy area with a ball, going swimming or taking a walk don't happen in the presence of danger.

"We let them know the balls, food and everything else is for them," Wilson said. "They can fish, hike or do nothing at all.

"It's always interesting the first time out to see them at meal time. They fight for food because they're so used to fighting for what they eat. We tell them there's enough for everyone and they will be eating three meals a day."

Photos courtesy of EcoRanch Hawaii Camping for Children at Risk.

More than 100 Xerox Hawaii employees and their families rode into camp aboard trolleys, singing Christmas carols. As part of the company's Community Involvement Program, they purchased and wrapped gifts for 107 kids at camp and also prepared a meal.

"It just warms your heart when you can bring some joy to someone," Xerox Hawaii employee Carla Fabella said. "It was just awesome."

A day earlier, Wilson as Santa handed out gifts donated to the kids by the Marines' Toys for Tots program.

"I love the kids and all of 'em are part of my family," said Wilson, whom the kids call "Uncle Bob."

"When we give them a toy at Christmas, I feel a glow inside because I know their situation -- that each of them is a victim of abuse, torture, violence, the whole nine yards."

Establishing a ranch where at-risk homeless youngsters can stay until their families can get back on their feet is what Wilson and Martin are working toward.

"You know the hardest part about camp?" asked Wilson, president of EcoRanch Hawaii Camping for Children at Risk, a nonprofit organization that he and Martin started. "It's having to send the kids back when I know I'm sending them back into jeopardy.

"We'd like to have a place where we can keep them more than overnight. These children don't have a place of refuge. They're literally in the wind.

"If we had a place where we could take them away from the legal hoops and just nurture them, they could just be kids," Wilson added.

Wilson envisions a ranch -- Malaekahana would be a perfect site, he said -- where children can experience caring for livestock, gardening, hiking and camping in a natural way on a daily basis for a period of time.

"The key words at our camps are tolerance, decency and ohana," Wilson said. "Through this nurturing, we can put values back in their young lives."

A father's instinct

Life for Wilson would have been very different today had he followed his natural instincts.

"In 1996, my oldest daughter was attacked and almost murdered by her husband of 10 years," Wilson said. "If you saw your daughter beaten severely, her nose broken, her jaw cracked, bruises from head to toe, how would you react?

"I wanted to kill him and it wouldn't have been hard. The police advised me not to go after him."

But the man continued to threaten his family. Wilson finally confronted his former son-in-law when the man broke into his house for the third time.

"I was ready for him," Wilson said. "I could have killed him.

"But I heard something from deep inside of me saying, 'No, Bob.' My Christian faith was being tested."

Wilson let the man live.

He then swallowed his pride and sought refuge for himself and his family at a domestic violence shelter. At Hale Ola, he met Martin, whom he calls "my hero."

"We had to run and hide because it was hard to protect as many children as I had," Wilson said. "I was hurt the deepest you can be inside, and Rita literally saved our lives. "Through her, we were able to stay out of his way until we could get him in court. It took two years to get him through the court system."

The man was convicted of offenses not related to the Wilsons and is in prison.

"We've been threatened by people who were with him in prison and we know he'll come after us when he gets out," Wilson said.

But the path Wilson is on now doesn't lead back to the past.

"What I'm doing now is an affair of the heart," he said. "And Jesus is at the center."

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