Why I Think Young People Should Work at a Special Needs Summer Camp

by GfG on June 26, 2014 · 5 comments

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This is a series on special needs summer camps and how they greatly affect lives. Come see what beauty there is in this experience!

My parents took us camping often when I was a young girl living in Missouri.  When I was eight and we moved to Louisiana, I don’t remember going camping much at all.  A few times maybe.  Pretty sure the heat and humidity (and the bazillion mosquitoes) may have had something to do with that.   Still…. camping meant all good things to me.

It’s possible that is why I was willing to work at a summer camp for handicapped children one summer after my sophomore year of college even though the camp was in a different state and more than ten hours away. Sure, I wanted to work with deaf children, but camp didn’t mean great things to me.  I went once to church camp and wasn’t eager to go back.

Summer camp as a counselor?  Well, it changed my life.  Seriously.

I babysat all the time in high school. Really, all the time.  I was a nanny my senior year, caring for two kiddos every day after school during the school year and the summer.  I loved it!  And I was good at it. I never thought it was hard.  Sure, there were days when I wasn’t all that into it, but in general I enjoyed it tremendously.

Summer camp… well… it’s not much like babysitting, though it seems like it would be.

And being a counselor for kiddos with special needs, well, it’s a whole nuther game.

Why did it change my life and why do I think young people should do it?

  • I had to take care of someone who had issues I was unfamiliar with in general.
  • I learned at a deeper level about how kids are kids, no matter the physical appearance.
  • I saw what it meant to parents that someone else was willing to care for their child 24/7.
  • I had a glimpse of what it means to die to self in so many ways.
  • I was forced to learn about many different kinds of physical disabilities in personal ways.
  • I had to take care of bodily needs that were personal and not my own.
  • I made friends with people who were living life differently than the American norm.
  • I learned that I could do hard things.
  • I found out what it means to be on duty 24/7.
  • I saw close up how different styles of parenting affect young children, especially those with challenges.
  • I wore myself out every day by serving others.
  • I shared a love for kids with kids letting them be kids.
  • I grew in my fondness for the outdoors by sharing it with those who rarely experienced it.
  • I appreciated what friendships built on service and sacrifice instead of age or common interests are like.

Did I love it from the beginning?  Yes. And definitely no.

I connected with some amazing people during training week.  That part was almost immediately amazing.  To this day, some of my dearest friends are ones I made while working at a camp for kiddos with physical handicaps.

But… the being a counselor part, that took a bit not because I didn’t love the kids instantly. It was the work.

I will never, ever forget my first night.

My first week found us with many “conditional campers”.  That meant that many of the campers were attending on a trial basis, to see if their needs were too great for our staff to camper ratio.  It meant that more than half my girls were in wheelchairs and almost all of them needed help with every aspect of self care. Every.

They were also the oldest group of girls.  And four of them were on their periods.  I was the wing leader, which meant I was in charge.

And I was pretty much freaking out on the inside.

I handled check in, dinner, night activity, and bedtime with a smile.  And an appeared sense of confidence.  Then, I left the other counselor on duty (a deaf woman from Gallaudet) and bee lined it for the office.

I walked in bawling.  In between sobs, I said, “I can’t do this.  I can’t do this.  I need to go home.”

The female leadership staff, Mary and Laurel, calmed me down.  Asked me questions. Told me I was doing great.  And asked for me to give it a few days.  I did.

Four years later, during my fifth summer at that camp, those two women visited and said, “You can’t do this, huh?” with huge smiles on their faces.

I will also never forget the next week when we got the youngest campers and I met seven year old Shana.  Oh, my lordy.  She was just about the cutest thing ever. Seriously.

Her long braid.  Bright eyes.  Big glasses.

She stole my heart as soon as she said hello in her East Texas drawl.

We sang The Little Mermaid in the pool.  We read the letters and wrote letters to her mama. We danced and giggled over all manner of things.

She told me all about CP while I showered her (“It just means part of my brain got a little bit hurt and doesn’t tell my body to do things as well.”).

Honestly, she opened the door to what it meant to be a summer camp counselor and especially one for kiddos with different needs.

There was another camper in our cabin who wasn’t as sweet.  She had less physical needs than Shana, but well… she didn’t view her disability in the same way Shana had been taught and encouraged.  This camper had spina bifida.  She could walk and do everything herself, but she had not be taught or encouraged to do things herself nor to do what she didn’t necesarily want to do.

One day as this girl plopped herself down on the nature trail and started screaming that she “wasn’t going to walk another step no matter what”, Shana sweetly said, “You know, you can walk.  That’s sure a blessing and I can’t walk like you.  You should probably just get up and join the group.”

My eyes were as big as eggs, I’m pretty stinking sure.

That girl didn’t get up though and she didn’t see her blessings, her abilities, or her cabin mates… she only saw herself.

I learned more about myself, about life, about hardship, about blessing, about people, about disabilities, about abilities, about doing hard things, and about giving in those ten weeks one summer in Texas than ever before.

And no other experience has taught me what being a counselor for a special needs camp has taught me.

Until I became a mama.

I’m not exaggerating.

Working as a special needs camp counselor is as close to parenting as you can get.

No, it’s not the same.  Parents often don’t get breaks (especially parents of special needs kids, which is another reason I love these camps… come back for that post).  And as a counselor, you know the kiddos will go home and you will get a Saturday off to relax.  So, no… nothing can duplicate the mindset a parent has.

Still… the lessons I mentioned, the lack of significant pay, and the kind of one on one care and comraderie, so very much like parenting.

Which is why it’s hard.

Which is why it’s great.

Which is why it’s life changing.

Which is why I think young people should do it.

Do you know anyone who has worked at a special needs summer camp? 


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