SAN ANTONIO — They came thinking they’d spend a month swimming, sleeping late, hanging out — all without parents nearby to nag.
They didn’t know that by 5 a.m., their young hearts would be racing from pre-dawn calisthenics; that their biceps would bulk up from hitting the ground and doing 50 every time they messed up; that being a leader would mean taking the heat for those out of line; and that aching muscles and tired bones would yearn for lights out at 11 p.m.
And they hadn’t counted on counting on God to get them through 32 tough days of physical training, manual labor and studying.
It wasn’t the vacation they expected. It was something much more.
Would they do it again, given the choice? Absolutely. No question.
“The first three days are very hard. They make you run laps and work you hard to see if you’re gonna break under pressure. I almost quit the first 30 minutes I was here.”
Jessica Sanchez wasn’t alone. Her cousin, Sara Hernandez, was ready to quit, too, not to mention most of the 40 other girls, ages 13 to 18, attending the monthlong Christian Boot Camp at a Northwest San Antonio church.
By the end, six would drop out.
For most, attendance was voluntary. Others had no choice; their parents or minor crimes such as truancy put them there.
Jessica said she and Sara, both 13, learned about it at a church they’d just started attending. After they’d been running with the wrong people and getting into trouble, Jessica said, their parents thought the camp would do them some good.
“When we got here, I was thinking, ‘What am I doing here? This is not for me.’ I wanted to go home and hang out with my friends,” Jessica said one morning as she and the other girls sat on mattresses on the dorm floor, studying for a leadership test.
“I had my hands to my face and I was getting real mad ’cause I was tired of everything they were making us do. The girls started telling me, ‘It’s OK, we’ll work together as a team.’ That’s what made me stay.”
Looking back, Jessica’s glad she did.
It made her a better person, she said. She used to have pent-up anger and she’d “give people attitude.” Now, she said, she’s disciplined. She lost 20 pounds, she stopped cursing, she learned to respect others, and she learned to enjoy studying.
“Before, in school — when I would go — I would sleep in class. I didn’t write notes,” she said. “Here, I’ve taken lots of notes. … I understand now how I was a bad influence on people. I don’t want to be that. I want to be better.”
Charles Flowers started the Christian Boot Camp four years ago to show at-risk teen-age boys that “God has led them to be mighty people on Earth.” Flowers left the United States Air Force after 12 years to start the program at Faith Outreach Center, a nondenominational church where he is an associate pastor.
The camp, which Flowers believes is the only one of its kind in the country, grew from 26 boys the first summer to 120 this year. The girls’ camp, which ended July 4, is in its second year. The boys’ camp, now held at a local Bible college, will wrap up Aug. 7.
A couple days before the girls went home, Flowers, called “Commandant” by campers, spoke of his dream to reach teen-agers who need direction.
“There’s a crisis in America, and you don’t have to look far to see that people have written off kids,” he said softly, sitting in his fatigues in a log cabin cafeteria. “Corporations in America are overlooking them, recruiting in other countries. And, everywhere, every time people are broken down and written off, God has championed them.”
He and his wife, Janice, who was also in the Air Force, set out to help boys, with the help of the church. They founded Love Demonstrated Ministries International, a nonprofit organization that relies on donations from churches, companies and individuals to pay the $600 cost for each trainee. The boys and girls, many of whom come from low-income families, do not have to pay.
“After we got it started, I was thanking the Lord for the product I was seeing and a question came to me,” Flowers said. “Who are they going to marry?”
So Flowers and his wife started the girls’ program last year. Unlike the boys’, the girls’ program includes only teens from San Antonio and Harlingen so far.
The trainees are taught Christian principles, leadership skills, discipline, teamwork and love for the community. To ensure that they don’t fall back into their old ways, each student is assigned a volunteer mentor who meets with the families three times in the next year.
Flowers prays that the camp can someday help teens from Los Angeles to Atlanta. Recently, he got a call from a physician in Monterrey, Mexico, who was interested in the program. And plans are in the works for a boys’ camp in Fort Worth next summer.
“That’s our vision,” he said. “That’s the task I’m assigned to do.”
“It’s weird. We’ve been together for a month, and we don’t know each others’ first names because, like, they’ll address me as Squad Leader Schneider.”
Every morning, around 5, Michele Schneider and the rest of the girls did jumping jacks and abdominal crunches and leg raises and push-ups under the command of Flowers.
On this morning, their T-shirts soaked in sweat, they gathered up what strength remained to do the hardest exercise — liners. Running from one end of the gym to the other at full speed, the girls stopped and turned around at several lines along the way.
While Michele’s group ran, Flowers noticed a trainee lagging behind. “You want to earn your group another one for sloughing off?” Flowers shouted. “Everybody back on the line. She just earned you another one.”
Michele and the others dutifully returned to the line. They sped up.
“Good effort, ladies!” Flowers shouted. “That’s what we’re looking for. We’re not looking for Olympic champions. We’re looking for someone who’s got heart!”
After some stretching and gulps of water, the girls jogged outside, ready to begin their 2-mile run in a neighborhood not yet awake.
The girls took off at the command of Flowers, who runs with them every day. On this still, breezeless morning, the course was taxing.
Those who finished quickly cheered on the ones bringing up the rear: “C’mon, trainee Martinez!” “You can do it, trainee Sanchez!”
Some asked permission to accompany the last runners through the final 200 yards. Grabbing the panting runners by the hands, they pulled them to the finish.
In the early light of morning, a small smile crossed Flowers’ face, proud, no doubt, that the teamwork he’d been preaching had led to this.
“Dear Father, Lord, we come to you tonight to lift up Trainee Carrillo, Lord, and pray that you would please take care of her. … We ask, Lord, that you send angels to surround her…”
Voices drifted off in the thick, muggy air of a San Antonio summer evening as more than 20 girls placed their hands on 17-year-old Karina Carrillo — lifting up in prayer her sister, Blanca.
Blanca, 18, who had been fighting off a cold, was taken to the hospital from that evening’s karate class. One of the toughest, most disciplined and God-fearing girls at the camp, Blanca refused to shirk her tasks.
During lunch, Blanca approached Flowers to ask about that afternoon’s duty. After a second’s glance, Flowers asked what was wrong. When she said she felt weak and dizzy, Flowers and other leaders laid hands on Blanca in prayer.
“He always knows when something is wrong,” Blanca later said of Flowers, as she ate chicken fried steak, green beans and corn. “Every time one of us feels bad, he prays for us. I know the Lord will heal me.”
The next day, still suffering a bad sore throat, Blanca wasn’t about to let the girls deliver fans to senior citizens without her. Community service was what she enjoyed most. But the other girls begged her to return to camp.
“It’s nice that they all care about me,” she said later. “We’ve all become friends.”
“Before I left I had writing on my bedroom wall, with crayon, marker, lipstick, whatever. … I came home and I thought, ‘How can I be this trashy?’ I couldn’t believe I disrespected my dad’s house that way.”
Racheal Blakley, a tall girl for 13, shook her head at the thought of her life before camp.
With just her dad and younger brother and sister at home, Racheal said she’d shrug off her chores, ignoring her father when he’d ask for help washing the dishes or watching the kids.
But these 32 days changed her for good, Racheal said, days after the camp ended.
“Now I want to do everything for him,” she said of her father. “And I talked to my mom the other day, and she said she was proud of me, and I felt real good ’cause me and her don’t get along real well. Now I care what my little brother and sister say. Before, I was, like, whatever. It’s, like, I learned respect for other people.”
When she returned home, she told her dad she wanted to paint the walls of her room. Even though money was tight, she said, her father bought purple and pink paint.
“It looks like a Barney room now,” she said, chuckling. “But that’s OK.”
Change was also obvious in Khristina Beltran, said her foster mother, Linda Brown.
When the 14-year-old girl went to live with the Brown family last year, the problems that come with years in foster homes also came with her.
“She had issues, particularly with adult authorities, and also at school she had a lot of behavioral problems,” Linda Brown said. “Before, when she had a problem in life, she always thought, ‘I’ll just leave. I’ll quit. It doesn’t matter. I can’t do anything right anyway.’ But she stuck it out at boot camp.”
Khristina said she pushed herself the entire time.
“I realized I wasn’t just doing this for fun, I was doing this for changing. … I kept telling myself, ‘I’m gonna change; I’m gonna get myself through it.’ ”
Roxanne Flores was ready to quit just four days before going home. She’d had a disagreement with her leader and figured she’d had enough. In line for chow that morning, she was the only trainee not standing at attention. Her penance? Fifty push-ups.
Flowers urged the crying teen to think about her actions and make the right decision. Roxanne stayed.
“I think she has to go another year,” her father, Luis Flores, said after Roxanne returned home to Harlingen. “I think it changed her, but she was homesick most of the time. Going again next year, she might not be as homesick.
“I’m just happy she got through it so that she can be a role model for other youth around the (Rio Grande) valley. Maybe she can inspire more kids to go.”
For Racheal, camp hasn’t ended. She said she wakes up early these days to run, does stomach crunches before she goes to sleep, and she reads the Bible.
“I never read the Bible before,” Racheal said. “I started living my life for God, like I’m supposed to.”
For more information about the Christian Boot Camp, call (210) 433-2740 or (210) 431-3CBC.