By Zoe S. Erler

Mike and Kathy Spencer thought they were entering the empty-nester years when they received a startling phone call from a distant relative telling them he was losing custody of his children and asking if they would consider adopting his three- and five-year-old daughters.

“We can’t! We’re old!” thought Kathy, who was 50 at the time.

Three years earlier, they had noticed the girls at a family reunion … without their parents. The youngest was just six weeks old at the time. Over the next several years, the couple heard through the family grapevine that the children were being shuffled around among various relatives, friends, and foster care placements.

“We knew they were in peril,” says Mike.

Despite the initial fears and self-doubt, the Spencers, members of New City Church (Indianapolis), said they knew that God was calling them to welcome these two little girls into their home.

As the Spencers started learning about TBRI, they began realizing that their daughters’ behaviors stemmed primarily from fear, not rebellion.

Milk and Tears

Perhaps no couple was more uniquely equipped to welcome children from a troubled background. Mike, a ruling elder at New City and a marriage and family counselor with more than 20 years’ experience, had walked with many families through tough situations. Kathy, a reading instructor with the Dyslexia Institute of Indiana, had tutored many children with special needs. On top of that, they had raised three children. But they were unprepared, they admit now.

Mike describes breakfast the first morning after they brought the girls home in July 2013.

“One of the girls asked for more milk. I said we were out of milk in the kitchen and that I had to go to the garage to get some more. But all they heard was ‘We’re out of food,’ and they flipped out. They started screaming and crying.”

Campers and their buddies at Camp Courage

The couple soon realized that no matter how much they tried to reassure the girls that there was plenty of food, the fear that they would go hungry had been etched into their experiential memory.

The next weeks and months unfolded like a crash course in childhood trauma, as the girls’ tantrums often escalated into violent outbursts. They once even pushed Kathy down the stairs in anger.

Engaging Fear

Before the adoption and during these early tumultuous days, the couple and the girls met with Patty Jewell, a licensed clinical social worker, who introduced them to the concepts of Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI). Developed by the late Dr. Karyn Purvis of Texas Christian University’s (TCU) Institute of Child Development, TBRI is an approach to therapy for traumatized children that uses trust building as the basis for healing.

As the Spencers started learning about TBRI, they began realizing that their daughters’ behaviors stemmed primarily from fear, not rebellion.

“Their anger and outbursts were attempts to keep themselves and each other safe,” Mike explains. “Their caregivers had been unpredictable and had been ever changing … and as far as they were concerned, we were just these people that they weren’t connected to. They just needed to figure out how to keep themselves safe and survive.”

Out of this deepening understanding of trauma, the Spencers began to shift their parenting strategy.

Training Christians to understand and better interact with children who have experienced trauma makes them an invaluable resource for their churches.

“We had raised three children already … But the way in which you care for and discipline children that have been through trauma is totally different than we had parented our others,” says Kathy.

“[Our other kids] weren’t afraid of us,” Mike picks up where Kathy stops. “They weren’t afraid they we were going to run out of food, that we were going to leave and not come back. TBRI taught us that fear looks different than you think. It looks like anger. It looks like not listening to you, ignoring you, tuning you out … It helped us understand that there was a need to be committed to calmness at all times. We could be firm, but we had to be calm. That’s no small feat.”

Over time, as the couple implemented the new strategies — trying to be calm in high-stress situations, sitting with the girls and being comforting instead of sending them to their room for “time outs,” and playfully helping the girls re-do undesirable behaviors — the girls seemed to settle down, begin opening up to them, and start calling them “Mom” and “Dad” instead of by their first names.

Back to Biology

In 2014, Mike applied for a scholarship to be mentored in TBRI techniques through the Institute for Child Development. While at TCU, he attended a camp training for adopted and foster children that implemented these techniques. The camp had come about as TCU needed to conduct research on the effectiveness of TBRI and discovered at these camps that the intervention strategies not only changed the behavior of these children “from hard places,” but also impacted their biology. Tests of children’s brain chemistry indicated that the experience of camp decreased their stress hormones and excitatory neurotransmitters while increasing their inhibitory neurotransmitters.

What this meant, Mike explains, is that “[children] are not only looking under control, but they’re actually feeling safe, and they’re actually gaining control over their bodies.”

Returning from Texas with hope and enthusiasm, Mike reached out to Jewell to see if she would partner with him to introduce a similar therapeutic day camp for foster and adopted children to the Indianapolis area. She agreed and in the summer of 2016, “Camp Courage” was born.

Accompanied and Connected

According to Child Welfare, approximately 10 percent of U.S. adoptions fail each year. For Indiana, that means around 400 adoptions annually. Mike says he hopes that Camp Courage can bring that number down by helping children better connect with their emotions and helping parents better connect with their children.

At camp, children are paired with adult “buddies” who spend the week with them competing in relay races, making crafts that provide sensory stimulation, and engaging in role playing that helps them work out their feelings.

Campers work on crafts together at Camp Courage.

Parents have reported back that they have noticed that camp has helped their children develop an increased empathy towards others, even apologizing for past behavior toward their parents or siblings.

While the kids are at camp, parents gather for conversations about effective bonding and attachment, as well as an opportunity to share frustrations and victories in their adoption and foster care journeys.

“The biggest thing for them was finding community with other adoptive parents, people who knew, who got it,” Mike explains. “[And] sending their kids to a camp where they weren’t going to have to apologize for their kids’ behavior.”

Every year, Mike and Patty receive cards and letters from parents thanking them for reminding them that they aren’t alone.

A Collective Challenge

Since 2016, Camp Courage has been able to welcome about 20 kids every summer, but Mike says their growth is limited by the number of adult “buddies” who are willing or able to go through the necessary training and give up a week of their summer to work with these at-risk children. Most volunteers come from local churches, many from local PCA churches, including New City.

“I think one significant takeaway for me, after the long and exhausting days, was the realization that these parents and families deal with these struggles day in and day out,” says Emily Taylor, a member of New City. “It made me want to support and encourage adoptive families in my community.”

Training Christians to understand and better interact with children who have experienced trauma makes them an invaluable resource for their churches, Mike explains. It can also be a valuable ministry tool for any believer who wants to be better equipped to minister to those in the wider culture, children and adults alike, who have lived through complex developmental trauma.

A camper and her buddy at Camp Courage

“Camp Courage has raised awareness in our congregation about the impact of trauma on children, even long after the events take place,” says Roger Williams, teaching elder at New City. “It has also given us opportunity to see the healing power of community at work and participate in ‘binding up the brokenhearted’ though service, love, and skillful shepherding.”

Kathy adds, her voice teeming with the emotion that comes from five years of walking that road “Sometimes Christians especially encourage people to adopt, without knowing that it’s not easy. It’s a costly road.”

“It takes a deep and broad level of support for a family to be successful,” Mike concludes.

Visit https://child.tcu.edu/about-us/tbri to learn more about Trust-Based Relational Intervention. Visit http://www.campcourageindianapolis.org to learn more about Camp Courage.


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