Last year I served as a volunteer camp counselor at a place called Camp Horizon and it all but forced me to quit my job in pursuit of something more meaningful. My experience as a freshman counselor inspired me to write this post titled, “12 Reasons to Engage in Service.”
My experience at camp this year affected me in a big way once again. Today I want to share a few stories from my week at camp (7/21 – 7/28) and what happened when I got back.
What’s important to understand about Camp Horizon is that every camper who arrives at camp has qualified for our programs because he or she is in state custody due to abuse or neglect at home. That’s pretty heavy stuff and it’s no joke. Although the kids have a ton of fun and act like regular, fun-loving kids in so many ways… they all have heartbreaking backgrounds that have landed them at camp in the first place.
Because of their backgrounds, we’re not allowed to take pictures, not allowed to mention their names outside of camp, and not allowed to have contact with them outside of sanctioned camp events throughout the year. These are all necessary safety precautions that serve both camper and counselor, but it also means that a counselor’s entire experience at camp begins and ends with our arrival to and departure from Camp Twin Lakes.
Now that we’ve got the background straight, back to the story:
My camper was the youngest at camp, just seven years old, in a place where the stated age of campers is 8-11. He came to camp because his brother and sister were both attending and he really didn’t like the thought of being left out. He was the first off the bus when the campers arrived to Camp Twin Lakes in Rutledge, GA. I knew immediately that he would be a funny kid to hang out with by the fact that he was wearing the camp founder’s huge clown sunglasses and took his welcome to camp picture with a cool lean and arms crossed.
I don’t know how often you get to hang out with 7-yr-olds, but my camper told me he was entering first grade… first grade! He was still just a child in many ways, not the least of which was that he wanted to be carried everywhere. I don’t mind that fact, but I can assure you that by day 6, constant piggyback rides and shoulder rides wreak havoc on a person’s back. (Note to self for setting my unborn children’s back-riding expectations.)
What made the cricks in my neck and sore back so worth it was the joy that my camper got out of just sitting on my shoulders for a few blocks’ worth of walking. He wanted everyone in the world to watch him getting the treat of riding along on the back of someone who cared for him.
Now, my camper was not just a back-riding little kid… No, no. He wanted to be sure that I worked out my chest and shoulders as well. He quickly found his favorite pool activity was being launched into the air and doing backflips. Think 250 reps of 60 lb front raises at the gym throughout the week. But you should have seen this kid’s face when his little head popped out of the water after every one of those flips. He. Was. Ecstatic.
The flip side of a camper as young as mine is that they have had so little time to learn to recognize, process, and control their emotions. For my young camper, that meant he had a very hard time calming down after he would get frustrated or angry. Having to wait for snack time, leaving the pool, being tired, not being good at an activity… these were all things that caused various levels of frustration.
Throughout the week we had to work as a team to learn how to recognize when he was getting worked up, how best to deal with the frustration, and then get back to having fun. It was exhausting for me. I had to dig to a place within myself that I didn’t know existed to find the patience and caring to help this child become a better version of himself, which is a major goal of camp.
Luckily, with plenty of help from the Camp Horizon staff, we came up with ways for him to process his frustration, use his words to talk about it, and then get him back in the game of having a blast. We learned breathing techniques in yoga class that helped him cool down. He pinpointed drawing as a great way to release some anger when he got worked up. And I learned to pick up on cues that signaled an upcoming bout of frustration. I learned to feel his chest for increased heart rate, and we got better and better about taking preventive measures to keep camp fun for him.
There were so many more experiences that made this past week of camp both rewarding and challenging, but the point is not to give you a play by play of the week. The point is to say that I learned and grew as a person by learning to love, be patient, empathize, support, and have an unwavering sense of commitment to my camper’s growth.
Focusing for 24 hours a day for a full week is so hard… but when we got to the last night of camp and I was sitting next to my camper in our cabin of 8, my camper reminded me why I dig deep, find patience I don’t know if I have, and push myself beyond exhaustion…
We had learned to do a breathing exercise before bed that lasted about 5-6 minutes every night. He would breath in deep over and over as he squeezed different parts of his body and then released the tension. And at the end, he would continue his deep breathing while I had him envision vivid scenes of nature, fun, and companionship in his mind. He was out cold by the time we finished the exercise each night.
On that last night, he stopped me before we did the exercises (he knew he would be asleep by the time we finished). He looked me in my eyes and he said: “I’m gonna miss you, buddy. I’m gonna miss you.”
For every logical, self-serving reason I could give for going out and serving others… My camper’s words on that last night tell me everything I need to know about why I invest in the lives of others. I can’t replace those words with anything else in my life. They come from a place of absolute gratitude. A place of absolute love. A place that knew in the morning he had to return to the life that landed him at camp in the first place. And although it may now be a safe place, it’s never an easy place.
My camper reminded me what it means to be grateful. He reminded me of what it means to serve with an open heart. He reminded me that no matter how much I read, connect with mentors, build a business, or whatever… Nothing in the world teaches so well as the words, “I’m gonna miss you, buddy.”