PEORIA — You could point to several reasons why the Julius De Loatche summer basketball camp wouldn't exist in 2019.

You could start with James L. De Loatche, the senior assistant pastor at Grace Baptist Church in Peoria, maxing out his and his wife's credit cards 20 years ago to start a free basketball camp to honor their late son. Without a corporate sponsor or much publicity, it was certainly considered a risky proposition that the camp would even see a second year.

Two decades later, the camp is still providing participants with a fully equipped backpack with a T-shirt, medallion, certificate and a water bottle. And the Rev. De Loatche isn't in significant credit card debt anymore to oversee such a camp at the Peoria Dream Center.

"We knew it was a leap of faith to even start a camp like this, but my wife and I knew it was important to provide the things this camp needed," De Loatche said. "We had no idea where it was going when we started, but we had to do something. We wanted to honor our late son by helping kids that were in his age group. Now local businesses and churches have made this a successful, but yet still free, camp for our local kids."

Last Saturday represented the first of six weekends where the camp will organize two-hour sessions for basketball players of both genders between the fourth- and eighth-grade level. Saturday also represented the 18th year that Eric Cameron, who leads the coaches during the two-hour sessions, has been involved with the camp.

"It touches my heart to be involved in something that could save just one kid from getting in trouble or get through a rough time in their life," Cameron said.

Cameron couldn't see his involvement when approached almost two decades ago.

"I hesitated about being involved here in that first year because I was trying to stay away from basketball," Cameron said. "I played basketball at several levels as a younger man but immediately realized this is a way for me to give back.

"Eighteen years later, I'm so happy I made the decision to be involved in this."

After his first year, Cameron, who works as a receiving clerk at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center, realized the basketball aspect of what they do for the children is a small part of the program. Cameron now leads a group of coaches that includes participants from the camp's first years of operation.

"You see local businesses closing up and things happening in your community that (aren't) positive, but this free basketball camp to help kids remains as hope for our younger generation," Cameron said.

The camp is named in honor of a 10-year-old boy who was tragically killed in a house fire on March 3, 1999. Four months after burying their son, two grieving parents founded the camp, hoping to give back to their community.

"It was a healing therapy for my wife and myself," the Rev. De Loatche said. "Even though we didn't have our young son, we immediately saw young sons and daughters that we could help through this camp."

Twenty years after founding this basketball camp, the end-of-the-year banquet on Aug. 10 will arrive on what would've been Julius' 31st birthday.

"He is in heaven smiling at this, saying to himself, 'Look at what they're doing in remembering me,' because that's part of the goal here," De Loatche said. "He would want to see all these kids playing basketball and having fun. It was our job as parents to establish his legacy even though he's no longer alive."

Matthew Stevens can be reached at 686-3214 or mstevens@pjstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @matthewcstevens.