A feature piece on a parent empowerment organization, published in The Florida Times-Union in December 2007.
A pickup truck trundled along a dirt road in a forest near Callahan, two dozen or so people sitting silently, shivering on a hay wagon pulled by the truck.
At a fork in the road, a blue tarp announced ominously: “Welcome to Camp Consequence. Soon you’ll be thinking ‘There’s no place like home.’ ”
For the 14 children ages 6 to 17, this cold November night in isolated tents probably looked like nothing short of a nightmare.
For their parents, life at home had become a nightmare.
Six years ago, Glenn Ellison founded the Empowered Parents program and Camp Consequence. It has become a last chance for parents to learn how to influence their out-of-control children before it’s too late.
There, children and parents work in the forest, clearing areas of underbrush, painting fences or cutting firewood. The goal is for parents to realize that their children are capable of doing what they are told, and for kids to not want to do anything that will have them come back again.
“Camp Consequence is boring and uncomfortable. Horrible is the second trip,” said Ellison, only half-jokingly.
At 60, the former Oakland Raider takes full advantage of his intimidating stature to get the children to respect him. But in front of the parents, Ellison is more a mentor than a scary camp counselor.
The children are not allowed to communicate with their parents during the camp. But once the kids left for their tents, the parents were finally able to talk. The main topic of conversation? What brought them there.
From drugs, fits of violent rage, blatant disrespect and suicide threats, they had seen it all with their children. One volunteer who used to go to the camp with her child said she used to wish there was a way to resign as a parent.
It was the first time at Camp Consequence for Annette Weerts and her stepson.
“We’re just at wit’s end,” she said, voice wobbling. “He really isn’t a bad kid, he’s just a wonderful manipulator.”
Most parents had no idea who to turn to before finding out about Empowered Parents and Camp Consequence.
“We tend to … [turn to] the policeman, the state attorney, the Department of Juvenile Justice, and none of these can help until your kid’s in their system,” said Ellison. “And no good parent wants to wait until their kids get out there.”
Ellison made it clear that the camp was not just about the kids.
“We’re not a boot camp, we’re a parent camp,” Ellison said.
Parents become volunteers
Many of the volunteers at Camp Consequence are parents who went through the camp because of their situation at home.
C.J. Wright, a facilitator and the mother of two daughters in their 20s and a 6-year-old girl, recalled how unbearable life was at home. Her youngest daughter was in trouble in school nearly every day and the two argued incessantly.
“I started out as just another screwed-up parent,” she said. “My then 5-year-old was eating my proverbial lunch. I was miserable.”
Wright first found out about the Empowered Parents program during the summer of 2006, when Ellison spoke at a conference at the First Coast Christian Center.
“The whole time, my heart was breaking inside of me realizing how wrong I had been for so long and how simple the solution was,” she remembers.
Wright said the reason why some parents wait so long before asking for help is because they are ashamed or feel guilty.
“Not only do you not know what to do, but you don’t want to tell your friends and family what you’re going through because it’s humiliating,” she said.
The lonely, only parent
Like others at Camp Consequence, Wright is a single parent.
“When you have dysfunctional families, unfortunately a lot of that originates from that scenario,” Wright said.
Tonya Thomas, a mother there for the first time with her teenage son, concurred.
“It’s difficult when you’re the only parent. You get exhausted so you cave in, you give in to the behavior,” Thomas said. “In this program, you have the support of the other parents, giving you advice, pushing you on.”
Wright said her life has changed drastically since she first began attending Empowered Parents meetings and going to Camp Consequence.
She mentioned how a recent visitor commented on how peaceful her house was.
“Trust me when I say two years ago no one would have said that,” she said.
For the whole family
Camp Consequence is not a punishment for the children who misbehave. Michael Bowlus, a volunteer, said he went to Camp Consequence with all of his daughters, even the better-behaved ones.
“It’s supposed to be a family experience,” he said. “It’s not like if you have trouble with one child you should just bring him, because the changes the program is supposed to accomplish are for the whole family.”
Camp Consequence alone is not enough to change things completely at home. Attendance at parent support groups and parenting classes is asked before going to the camp. The meetings take place around Jacksonville, attracting people all the way from Kingsland, Ga. The meetings are listed on the Empowered Parents Web site, ihelpparents.com.
But attending Camp Consequence can be daunting. Bugs in the summer, cold in the winter, not to mention the proximity of animals.
During the most recent camp, wild hogs could be heard grunting and squealing in the bushes by the road, and a father killed a rattlesnake close to the parents’ parked cars.
A show of commitment
For Ellison, going to Camp Consequence shows the parents’ commitment.
“There’s only three things you need to change a behavior. Number one is desire, number two a plan, and number three, support,” he said. “I can do the last two, but I can’t bring desire to the table.”
Ellison also told parents that going to Camp Consequence wasn’t enough if they didn’t act differently at home. And sometimes, it can take more than one trip to make children understand what’s expected of them.
On a recent Sunday morning, exhausted, dirty and unkempt parents and children sat in front of Ellison on wooden benches under a tarpaulin frame tent. When Ellison told the children they could go ask forgiveness to anyone present, all rushed to their respective parents for a hug. All but one teenager.
And Ellison had a warning for that one.
“For the ones that don’t care, don’t give a flip, you’ll get to know me really well, I promise you, because they [the parents] are my friends now, and I will not let them down,” he said.