Jim and Phyllis Quist of Ferndale have one biological grandchild plus 628 they have "adopted" over two decades during a weeklong summer camp in Whatcom County for children with a history of being abused or deprived.
"That's how many children I have counted that we have served as the camp grandparents," said Phyllis, who is looking forward to her 21st annual Bellingham Royal Family Kids' Camp in June. "Royal Family Kids is an international, faith-based organization that does wonderful work with the children."
The Quists, both 77, have lived in Whatcom County since 1966. They have two children.
Question: What is the camp?
Phyllis: We don't publicize the exact location or dates of the camp to protect confidentiality. It's an overnight camp sponsored by Hillcrest Chapel. The camp serves children 7 to 11 years old who have been placed in foster homes or group homes after experiencing abuse, deprivation and neglect with their biological parents.
Q: Can the public support the camp?
Phyllis: All of the Cruisin Coffee locations will take donations on Friday, May 10, for four hours in the morning, with KAFE Radio doing a live, on-location broadcast. All of the baristas donate their tips, too, and we get support from many other churches.
We make $20,000 to $30,000 to support camp costs for food, activities, and so on.
Q: Is everyone at the camp a volunteer?
Jim: Absolutely. We've grown from about 26 kids at our first camp to about 70 now. And they get wonderful attention from about 110 volunteers. They include nurses, counselors and support staff. Some volunteers use a vacation week to work at camp. We've served as camp grandparents for 20 years.
Q: How did you become involved?
Jim: Bellingham was the seventh camp founded. The founders of Royal Family Kids, Wayne Tesch and his wife, Diane, founded the first camp in Costa Mesa (Calif.). They came to Hillcrest Chapel to see if a camp could be established and sponsored in Bellingham.
Phyllis: It wasn't long before we heard that no one had volunteered to be the camp grandparents for the first camp. Jim and I looked at each other and we knew that was for us.
Q: Do many kids return?
Phyllis: About half of the kids return at least once. We love them as much as we can for that week. We don't always see the kids again, but we never forget them. We recently attended a wedding shower for a 23-year-old woman whom we met in camp as a child.
Jim: One Halloween, a girl who came to our door saw Phyllis and shouted "Grandma!" in excitement. That was great. When former campers turn 16, they are eligible to return as "counselors in training."
Q: What are the kids like?
Phyllis: Many of the kids have trust issues. We see some kids arrive scared, angry, withdrawn. By the second day of camp, it's so wonderful to see them smiling and laughing and having a great time.
Foster parents see the changes. Kids are given memory books and CDs with camp songs.
Jim: Every year we have a huge "birthday party" for everyone, since some of the kids have never had a real birthday party. It's a little different set-up, since the kids are given gifts to wrap and give to someone else.
Q: How does all this make you feel?
Phyllis: We really feel blessed to have this awesome opportunity.
Jim: We have the best job in camp, being grandparents for all the children.
Michelle Nolan is a Bellingham freelance writer.