A group of high school students descended on the in Annandale on the morning of Tuesday, Aug. 9 for Camp L.I.F.E. 2011. The two-day camp featured lessons in life skills, workshops on financial literacy, how to prepare for college, meal planning, a career fair and encouraging words from guest speakers, including Thon “T.C.” Chol, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. L.I.F.E. is an acronym for Learning Independence for Future Empowerment.
Chol, who came to the United States as a refugee, served as the ceremony speaker for the event. He told the teenagers about the importance of believing in themselves and having the right attitude. Chol shared stories about his life in Sudan as a child, talked about friends he lost along the way to tragedy and other challenges he faced such as leaving his war-torn village to live in refugee camps for years.
“I spent two distinct periods at two different refugee camps over the years, from 1987 to 1991. I was at a camp in Ethiopia, then I was sent back to Sudan. From there I was sent to another refugee camp in Kenya from 1992 to 2000," said Chol. "I saw people die. Friends met tragedy. At the refugee camps there were thousands of people. We had to survive on one meal a day. There were many children from the villages at the refugee camps who became like siblings because we shared the same experience." In coming to the U.S. Chol said he remembered his family and wanted to succeed for them.
In 2000, Chol arrived in the U.S. as an unaccompanied refugee minor and was placed in foster care in Michigan through Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and partner Bethany Christian Services. Chol said he thrived in the foster care system and realized that although he discovered that he’d been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he did not ignore the resources available to him.
"The system works well for those with the right attitudes. It’s up to you to utilize resources available. I realized when I was in foster care that this was important, they told us that we had these resources available to until we turned 21 years old. I knew that I would be turning 21 soon and be on my own so I chose to be appreciative and to take advantage. I saw other youths not doing anything with what was being given to them," said Chol.
Chol encouraged the teenagers to find mentors for areas of their lives where they might need advice. He also stressed the importance of education, noting that one had to choose whether it would be traditional college educational path or a vocational path. “Choose one, don’t just sit,” said Chol.
Another guest speaker, Tamara Orellana, 19, also a former foster child, shared a similar view to Chol’s. In her discussion with the youth she talked about being responsible and said education was essential in the world today. Orellana, a single mother, said she beat the odds to complete her high school education and is looking forward to going to college.
“It isn’t the upbringing that guarantees success. It’s what one does with it through determination and dedication” said Sam Orellana, 18, also a guest speaker and Tamara's sister. Sam graduated high school with a 4.0 GPA and has been accepted to Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Sam also stressed the importance of initiative and taking advantage of available resources as well as being prepared to pick oneself up when one is down. “Striving, “ he said, “is not the goal, but thriving.”
The camp was coordinated by 18-year-old aspiring actor Michael Flagg and another student. They both felt the experience and the stories they heard were inspiring and would help them in the future. “Hearing other people’s stories showed me that others have also been through a lot; it inspires me to keep moving (to not give up)” said Flagg.
PHILLIPS is a private, special education school that focuses on behaviorally challenged youth. This group also offers a therapeutic foster care and adoption program as well as parent training courses. Camp L.I.F.E. program is part of the PHILLIPS Teaching Homes Program, which receives generous donations from the Bartlett Foundation.
For more information about PHILLIPS programs, visit their website.