The tune is unmistakable, the words unforgettable: “When you wish upon a star, Makes no difference who you are, Anything your heart desires, Will come to you.” Hannah Thomas has found her own magical experiences in the mountains of Appalachia and it’s not a fairytale.
“People look at Disney as the most magical place on Earth, but for me, the most magical place on Earth is Camp AJ,” said Thomas, an intern with Christian Appalachian Project’s (CAP) Youth Empowerment Services Program. This includes summer camp, teen leadership, and in-school tutoring. She knows the magic of Camp AJ more than most, having attended camp as a child alongside family and friends. “We give these kids everything we've got to make sure that at least for that week, they don't have to deal with a rotten home life or struggles. They can come to camp and just be kids.”
Camp AJ is one of two overnight camps that CAP offers as a retreat for children in low-income families in Appalachia. For Thomas though, her journey with Camp AJ began long before she was an intern.
When she was just 6 years old, soon to turn 7, Thomas attended Camp AJ for the first time the week of her birthday. She had no idea that during the week, campers and counselors would be celebrating her birthday with cake and banana pudding.
“I had just met the camp staff so they were basically strangers to me. So, I was shocked that they would take the time to celebrate my birthday,” Thomas recounted. She still remembers their kindness from that very first week and throughout her childhood. She attended Camp AJ every summer she could.
She grew up hearing stories about Camp AJ and seeing the difference it made in her family. Many of her cousins, aunts, and uncles have also attended over the years and one of her cousins gave Thomas her camp name, a fun, silly name by which all camp staff and volunteers are known in the summer.
Thomas knows that Camp AJ transformed her life. She still remembers the day that she was invited back to camp as part of a teen leadership retreat and her surprise when they invited her to become a junior counselor. Those milestone moments cemented in her the value of service.
“Camp AJ is a big part of who I’ve grown to be,” said Thomas who is majoring in sociology at Eastern Kentucky University. “It definitely built my confidence because dealing with kids requires a mature mindset.”
She is still pursuing a happily ever after, but she is not waiting on a fairy godmother. Thomas has learned to make her own wishes come true. She plans to continue the good work that CAP has done for her community and family.
“CAP has impacted the community in so many ways,” said Thomas who hopes to transition from intern to long-term volunteer. Her dream is to one day work full-time at Camp AJ. “The big picture behind it all, is the smile that is behind the help provided.”