By Dedra Cordle
Joedean Small walked across the grass at the small park and garden next to her home, documenting the happenings with a camera in tow. As she zoomed in to get a better view, she gushed about the momentous occasion.
“I never thought I would see anything like this here,” said the Hilltop resident as she watched children, some of whom were her relatives, doing activities at an overnight camping event. “To see them smiling, having fun and to hear their laughter is just a wonderful thing.”
It was not so long ago that Small believed good things would never be seen in her neighborhood.
For years, she said, she had been living by an alleged dope house and was stricken by the pervasive sadness emanating from the property. She said she began to have a little bit of hope that things would change when the house was demolished but soon realized the vacant lot was also a beacon for those who wanted to purchase and use drugs.
“It was awful,” Small said. “Just so awful.”
Whenever she would step outside her home, she would see trash, alcoholic beverages and discarded needles scattered across the ground. Sometimes she would even see people shoot up.
Like before, she began to lose any semblance of hope that good things could happen.
But the environment slowly began to evolve when the land was donated to community activist Esther Flores and the non-profit organization 1DivineLine2Health a little more than two years ago.
“When I was told they wanted to turn this property into a garden and eventual playground for children in the community, I was kind of against it,” Small admitted. “I thought the area was unsafe for kids.”
Then she started to see the vision Flores and her band of volunteers had mapped out for the location and got on board. But there was hesitation once again when Flores told her she planned an overnight camp outing for kids last year at the Hilltop Butterfly Garden.
“I thought she was crazy,” said Small. “But I have a lot of faith in Esther and her mission.”
Last year, more than 25 children throughout the Hilltop area participated in the overnight event known as Camping in the Hood is Good. It was very much a “winging it experience” said volunteer Megan Hackman.
“We kind of didn’t know what to expect last year but we had such a blast anyway,” said Hackman, a senior at Bishop Ready High School. “When I heard Esther had planned to have another outing this year, I was super excited and got several of my school friends to volunteer.”
She said what she loved about the experience last year was seeing children who might not have had the opportunity to go camping before have a similar experience in their own backyard.
Savanna Anderson, 10, was one of those children Hackman referenced.
“I learned a lot of new stuff (last year),” she said.
She said she couldn’t wait to participate again.
When the time finally came for the second annual Camping in the Hood is Good event on June 22 and 23, Anderson brought along her younger cousin Arayah Mayle to experience the fun firsthand. There were 23 additional children who participated as well.
Their day started early on June 22 where they were tasked with setting up tents. Unlike last year, they were not setting up their camp at the Hilltop Butterfly Garden but rather the large and fenced-in backyard at Small’s home.
“I offered up our property because our yard is soft and we have more of it than this space,” Small said, motioning to the garden that now has a very active playground area. “I don’t mind that 20-some kids and adults are going to be sleeping in my backyard tonight. I wouldn’t care if they spent the whole week here. We need more of this here in the Hilltop.”
After the tents were set up, the children aged 6 to 13 had a busy day full of activities like making wind chimes and bird houses and writing inspirational messages on poster boards and spray painted motorcycles made out of tires. They were treated to balloon animals, face painting, a meet-and-greet with reptiles and catered lunch, dinner and breakfast. They had informative safety lessons with members of the Columbus divisions of fire and police.
They were told stories about perseverance around the campfire by John Rush. And best of all, said Flores, they got to smile, laugh and have fun while knowing they are loved by the entire community.
“These kids here are the future,” said Flores. “They need to know that people out here in the community are there for them as they try to make something of their lives.
“So many of these kids, and not just here at this camp, are growing up in trauma. We live in a food desert, we have high rates of poverty and some of these kids have experienced the horror of losing a parent or loved one to drug addiction,” she added. “What our mission is with this camp is to give them a day away from it all, a day where they can play with kids their age, breathe in the fresh air and create.”
Liz Underwood, a local resident who had two grandchildren participate in the outing, said she is thankful that Flores and the local businesses and non-profit organizations pushed forward through the outing pushback last year and held the event once again.
“A few years ago, I didn’t even want my grandkids to go down the street, let alone sleep out in tents at night in the neighborhood,” she said. “I think this camp is a wonderful idea because it is bringing a lot of kids together and even the community. It really is the best thing to ever have happened here.”