Monday, July 18, 2011
A Truly Special Summer Camp
They comprise a stigmatized yet ever-increasing segment of our population. Approximately 1.5 percent of the US lives with developmental disabilities such as autism, Down Syndrome, and--I hate this term but it remains the official diagnostic label—mental retardation.
Approximately 1 in 150 children per year (note that some estimates are as high as 1 in 110 and 1 in 70 boys) are born with Autism or an Autism-spectrum disorder such as Asperger’s. Over 350,000 people in this country alone have Down Syndrome.*
All face difficulties with daily living, be it in terms of cognitive skills, language, emotional and social functioning, self-care, and/or mobility/physical tasks. Naturally, depression and other mental health problems are also rampant within this group, and many have survived sexual or other forms of abuse.
Nothing but a twist of genetic fate incites a developmental disability. (Though we are inundated with concepts about the causes of autism, none of these hypotheses has been proven.) There is no cure for a developmental disability, and conditions last a lifetime.
Fortunately, some laws and systems address this groups’ special needs. For one, Ronald McDonald Charities offers camp experiences wherein kids and adults with developmental delays can just be themselves and have a great time.
I recently returned from one of these camp counseling stints. My co-counselor and I managed eight young ladies, ranging in age from late adolescence to the mid-forties, all challenged by developmental delays. What tipped the scales in terms of the intensity of this 10-day endeavor was, not just their constant needs, but the fact that four of them were menstruating. Imagine the level of estrogen in our cabin!
Fortunately, the campers offered at least as much laughter as they posed challenges. I was fueled by their uninhibited randomness and spunk. (Sporadic doses of hot chocolate helped too.)
*Data from http://www.questinc.org/facts.htm
Here are 10 HIGHLIGHTS from the session. [Names have been changed to protect their identities.]
1) When we first met, camper Traci sized me up (literally). “Wow, you’re short. But I don’t mean to make assumptions.”
--2) In the middle of outdoor activity time, Jimmy casually dropped onto the grass at my feet for meaningful dialogue:
“Ekxy6tynmypsi, how about you?” he asked.
“Oh yes, how about you?” I replied.
This exchange repeated itself 23 times.
3) While walking to the lake, Karl ranted about “sh’mucks, sh’mucks, sh’mucks!” I was tempted to commiserate via explicit detail regarding all the sh’mucks I’ve encountered in this lifetime, but – as a chipmunk crossed our path- I astutely realized he was likely referencing those little critters. Phew. Good thing I maintained a professional stance.
4) At the lake, I laid Annie’s towel across a beach chair, adjusted the chair, and told her to try it out. She stretched out on it.
“How does that feel, Annie?”
“It feels like a hundred bucks!”
5) “Okay ladies, let’s drink some water before we leave for arts and crafts,” I suggested.
“Yeah,” Carrie quickly agreed. ”If you don’t drink enough water, you’ll get hibernated.”
6) As Helen dashed out of the cabin to join the group, she bounced with a mixture of cheer and hypochondria. “I need to go to the nurse! I just popped my knee!”
7) In all of her glorious drama, Traci asserted, “Girls can be so dramatic sometimes!”
8) Readying herself to take some pictures of the cabin group, Becca concentrated on highly scientific calculations: “I’ll take half of the group in one shot and then the other half in another picture. Half plus half equals two and a half.”
--“Justin Bieber is 17 and he’s dating Selena Gomez. She’s 18. That’s very bad. They are setting a bad example of teenage dating.”
9) Traci advised the group on Justin and Selena:
10) On the last morning, with sadness pervading the campsite, Becca hung onto me for minutes with a silently somber hug. Suddenly, she blasted my eardrum, shouting “Red Robin!”
Kudos to the campers and their families for facing life with gumption, love and cheer! They're an inspiration!