Lt. Dakarai Darby’s Life Journey Shows the Legacy of Love at Camp Paradise Valley
In the summer of 2017, Lt. Dakarai Darby had a lot to celebrate: turning 33 years old, celebrating his tenth wedding anniversary with his wife, Lt. Dominique Darby, and their third anniversary leading the Richmond Salvation Army Corps – all important personal and professional landmarks. He also celebrated something else every day of the summer and every day in his heart – Camp Paradise Valley.
“I love telling my story, especially if it helps others,” Darby said.
It is his personal story but it is also one he knows others share aspects of in their own unique way – that Camp Paradise Valley positively changed their life. Not for a week or a month, but for a lifetime.
“My mom passed away when I was two years old. My step-father physically abused us. My grandmother adopted the three of us when I was 3 years old. At the time, my sisters were ages 5 and 7. I grew up without a father figure. I was a very angry young person. My grandmother put me in camp when I was 6 in 1990 because it was something to do to get away from the environment I was in. So The Salvation Army has been a big part of my life for 27 years. Now I get to go to camp every month. I love camp. Since I was a kid, it was a sanctuary for me. It was the complete opposite of where I lived in a housing project in Chattanooga, Tennessee. We grew up very, very poor. At camp I was able to eat three meals a day and I was able to go outside and play and run,” Darby said.
It won’t surprise anyone that connecting with nature and having free time for unstructured play are two of the top benefits children cite when talking about attending camp. But people might not know that for some children, camp is the first time they experience wildlife.
“I heard crickets and frogs for the first time there. I had never heard those sounds before. At camp it was the first time in my life that I didn’t have to worry about sleeping under a window and bullets flying. I got to be at peace and be a kid. The things about Camp Paradise Valley I think of most are: It is set in one of the most beautiful atmospheres you will ever see. There are so many animals and you get to see the changing seasons. I grew up in a concrete jungle with loud cars. At Camp Paradise Valley you get to see the stars and hear the crickets and the frogs,” Darby said.
Being at peace, also gives kids a chance to do something many long for but don’t know how to achieve without guidance – reinvent themselves.
“I was not a good kid at that age. I had to be tough. Most of it was fabricated but the only way I knew how to defend myself was with my hands. Four weeks in a row that first year of camp, I was sent home but allowed to come back. The people there didn’t give up on me when they had every right to. It gave me drive and perseverance. You don’t want to give up on yourself when others have expectations for you. It molded me to recognize there was more to life than being intoxicated or having money. People can love you if you show up. It gave me something to strive for because they didn’t give up on me. My father didn’t care about me but The Salvation Army kept loving me. It never stopped. They did it because that is what God called them to do,” Darby said.
All the unconditional love helped him to gain resiliency and confidence – two other aspects of attending camp that are often cited as beneficial.
“I didn’t know how to handle it at first. It allowed me to be myself and to see the love of Christ shine. The people at The Salvation Army do a wonderful job of making you feel special and know Christ loves you as your heavenly father and they love on the children there at Camp Paradise Valley. There are no strings attached to that love. It made me want to be a part of it so I can then in turn do it for someone else. At 12 years old, I was saved at Camp Paradise Valley at a basketball court after a fight. The fight was at 10 p.m. It took me hours to calm down. The camp counselor at 1 a.m. showed me the way to Salvation. I would not be the person I am without The Salvation Army and Camp Paradise Valley. ” Darby said.
While in high school, he was asked to attend camp in a new way.
“At 17, I was a counselor at Camp Paradise Valley for the first time. It was an awesome experience. It gave me an eye opener. It made me appreciate what I had. These kids would come to camp and they had no shoes and no clothes. It made me compassionate when I saw this,” Darby said.
Learning life skills to become a successful adult is another component of attending camp often included in lists of why kids should go to camp. In this, too, Darby excelled with the guidance he received at Camp Paradise Valley.
“I learned how to swim. I caught my first fish. It is a hobby I still enjoy. I still go down to the lake at Camp Paradise Valley. There are a lot of firsts for me at the camp. I learned how to play an instrument, how to be a part of a group, play basketball. I could get enough to eat and get seconds and thirds. Through The Salvation Army programs, kids get to experience things they never would because they couldn’t afford it. As a kid, I was always wondering who’s paying for this? Now I know, the donations made it possible so I could have those experiences,” Darby said.
His gratitude to The Salvation Army sometimes overwhelms him as he thinks back on his life successes.
“I would never be an officer in The Salvation Army or gone to college because I wouldn’t have been on this track. ‘Thank you’ is always on my mind. I wish the donors to The Salvation Army and the employees could hear ‘thank you’ a lot more. The only reason I have a relationship with Jesus Christ is because of The Salvation Army. I was in church all the time growing up because my grandmother was active in the Baptist Church and my uncle was a Baptist minister. I knew about Him but I didn’t know what He looked like in action until I became involved in The Salvation Army,” Darby said.
He earned a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 2007 and is now working on his Master’s degree in Business Administration.
“There are so many things I want people to know about Camp Paradise Valley. The one thing that is most important is I would encourage people to come and see for themselves. The door is always open. Come and look. Seeing is believing. We help with social services more than most people are aware. They think of the bell ringing at Christmas but most people don’t know how their donations sustain the social services we provide all year. Most people don’t know how the donations to our Thrift Stores keep our shelters running. Since we don’t advertise, it’s hard for people to know what we do. It’s a lot of loving and caring people who do it because they love people and want their community to prosper. Come see. Take a look and spend an hour. We care about the people who walk through our door,” Darby said.
Camp Paradise Valley often has a generational impact. Darby is experiencing this first hand in his family.
“I’m the father of two, a 6-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son, and husband to Dominique. In August, we celebrated 10 years of marriage. Our daughter went to camp for the first time this summer at Officers Family Camp. She loved it, the singing and the praise and worship. The first time at night she was scared but by day 3 or 4, she was fine,” Darby said.
Reminiscing about Camp Paradise Valley and his recent wedding anniversary, caused him to reveal another important thing the camp has provided in his life…meeting “the one.”
“My wife is from Hawkinsville, Kentucky. She was 10 and I was 11 when we met at Camp Paradise Valley. We were on the same dance team.” Darby said with a chuckle.
Camp Paradise Valley is administered by The Salvation Army Kentucky & Tennessee Divisional Headquarters, in Louisville, KY, directly under the supervision of the Divisional Youth Secretary. Further administration flows from the on-site camp office, in Burkesville, KY. Camp Paradise Valley is accredited by the American Camp Association, having met a set of rigorous national standards regarding safety and training.
If you are interested in volunteering or donating, go to http://www.salvationarmyusa.org/usn/volunteer for additional information.