Have you seen the movie Sucker Punch? No? Well what the hell are you waiting for? You’re missing out on one of the most mind blowing movies of 2011. Unfortunately this blog post isn’t about the really awesome psychological thriller that involves a bunch of steampunk, giant robots, and really hot girls with swords and enough artillery to arm a country for a life time. This blog post has to do with the blow life deals to you when you least expect it. That blow to the face and even the crotch when when you least expect it, the blow that hits you so hard you’ll spend a long time figuring out where it came from when the answer is standing dead in your face like a reflection in the mirror or a zit on your face.
Now at camp we like to make this traumatic event sound as fun as humanely possible. Up there we call it a “Zigger Zagger” or a “Ziggle Zaggle”. Both are fine as long is it sounds fun enough to get someone excited about an unexpected change in a well thought out plan or schedule. We use this often when it rains or we deal with an unexpected weather change that forces us to delay or even postpone an outdoor activity. In the long run, it’s a nice little phrase used to teach people one harsh life reality, shit happens and sometimes you just have to grit your teeth and go with the flow. Unfortunately life delivered me one of the biggest “Zigger Zaggers” I have ever had to endure and unlike the ones we have at camp, there was no super fun surprise activity or movie accompany such a heart breaking sucker punch.
I got into work one morning and fired up my computer as I would each morning. I then opened my Outlook inbox and the first few minutes of that day seemed like business as usual, that is until I was greeted with and email that would ruin my entire day and subsequent days to follow. The subject line read “camp update” and I got excited at first but what I read afterwards would shatter my heart into more pieces than a jigsaw puzzle.
Good Afternoon Everyone,
For the upcoming year, Easter Seals has made a tough decision about camp. We will not be holding Explorers Camp this summer.
We have not made this decision easily. Explorers Camp means a lot to all of us — staff, volunteers, campers and family members.
Explorers Camp was held in New Hampshire at Camp Starfish and was geared towards youth on the autism spectrum or with developmental disabilities. Originally, Explorers Camp was an extension of our traditional inclusive summer camp program, but as we transitioned from Agassiz Village two years ago, Explorers Camp became a one-week stand-alone program.
A major factor in our decision was that we knew we could not provide the best experience possible for our camp community. Easter Seals’ core expertise is providing services in the community where our clients live. With Explorers Camp, we had to rent a camp outside of our community. Having to use someone else’s facility outside of that community did not allow us to provide the best camp experience possible. The resources put into camp, will be used to strengthen our Youth Leadership and Transition programs.
To make a long story short, after meetings and a lot of talking it was decided that Easter Seals Massachusetts would shutter their camp program and shift the resources devoted to that one week to strengthening their Youth Leadership and Transition programs. On paper the decision looks pretty and seems like the right thing to do but in actuality while I respect the decision and the reasoning behind it, I think it’s incredibly asinine. I know asinine seems like a sharp word to describe what seems like a reasonable decision but that one week that got shuttered carries more weight and bears way more significance than people will realize. That one week alone changed lives in ways you couldn’t imagine. Now for those who haven’t read my blogs or those who need a refresher, Explorer’s Camp was a one week overnight camp that catered to children on the Autism Spectrum and those with other physical and developmental disabilities. On the surface it seems like a regular summer camp with the usual activities such a camp fires, sports, canoeing, arts and crafts, etc but underneath it all, this camp was the true catalyst of change in the lives of youth who had never been that far out of their comfort zone. Camp also changed my life in way I couldn’t imagine in some pretty dark times in my life.
For those who haven’t read that far back in my blogs or need a refresher, the opportunity to volunteer at camp came during one of the loneliest times in my life. In 2010 I had been battling with depression as a result of self esteem problems and connecting the dots of years of bullying that I spent years trying to repress. I stopped caring about myself during that summer, put on like 30+ pounds and hated myself so much I contemplated suicide. I hated the person I saw in the mirror that summer and wanted nothing more than to do away with him. When the first opportunity came along I turned it down the first time because I didn’t think I was capable of being a counselor to youth on the spectrum. I eventually forced myself out of my rut and eventually so far out of my comfort zone I would never look back. I never realized that summer that I would connect with those campers the way I did. I completely understood where they were coming from but not because of books, media, or something that I read on the internet. I understood them because I walked an entire life time in those same shoes, maybe not the same exact road but to this day I wear those shoes. They’re welded to my feet and are never coming off. That entire week felt like looking into a mirror only this one was clouded by my own insecurities. In that mirror I saw the best me, I saw the me that no one would ever allow me to see. I saw me in the best light possible. These campers were awesome and I loved every single one of them. It was in that moment I realized, If I love these campers so much then there’s no reason for me to hate myself. It wasn’t an instant change but it would be a growing process powerful enough to slowly regain control of my own life. Camp was such a profound experience that when I got home and had access to my facebook I wrote this.
“Back at home finally, I miss the Easter Seals Explorers Camp so much. It was a wonderful experience that really helped me grow and taught me to embrace having Autism and not to hate myself due to my flaws. I’m truly going to miss all the counselors I worked with and befriended as well as all of my campers. Green Cabin 2010 and forever.”
My boss who I was already friends on facebook with happened to be standing next to the Easter Seals MA regional president and showed it to him, from there my life would be forever changed. Several awards for being a valuable volunteer, meeting some famous people like Doug Flutie, two presidents of the Friendly’s corporation, a tour of the Friendly’s ice cream factory, eventually telling my life story in front of over 500 people and most importantly, for once in my life I had a sense of purpose, for the first time in my life I had a reason to live another day, even through dark times. Camp became a big part of my life and would be for the next four years. I’ve seen myself grow in ways I never thought I would. From a volunteer to a head counselor and finally a Program Director, It was within that environment that I realized that I was capable of being a leader. I wasn’t much of talker until I took that Program Director position but that summer was the most talking I’d ever do in a year. It was a tough job that involved the loss of sleep and a lot of free time but it was totally worth it, it was something that I was more than willing to do again. I was beyond willing to endure the loss of sleep and sometimes even my sanity and all for those campers because at the end of the day, they mattered to me way more than getting a decent amount of sleep or having a full hour at a meal or even having my full rest hour.
Unfortunately just as I was getting ready to make the necessary arrangements (requesting time off from work and making sure the vacation time would be available) to ensure that I could hop on the train for round two they didn’t just kill my hopes, the went to those hopes execution style and made sure they were down for the count. I would’ve rather a world where I wasn’t able to do it due to work but camp still happened because at least those kids would have that one place they look forward to every single year, that one place where they feel wanted, that place where everyday is an adventure, a place where they feel safe but most importantly, a place where they could be themselves. Camp didn’t just change my life, it has changed the lives of many campers in ways school, youth groups, IEP meetings, and doctors never could.
1. I’ve seen campers over come their fear of water by jumping into a giant like from a boat.
2. I’ve seen campers fall in love and share connections with people they never knew until prior.
3. I’ve seen campers who were formerly afraid of heights climbing a ropes course.
4. I’ve seen really quiet campers break out of their shells and become more vocal.
5. I’ve seen campers form a sense of independence they didn’t have prior to leaving home.
6. I’ve seen campers eventually become counselors, volunteers, and have used these experiences to get into more competitive job programs.
7. I have even watched some of the most stubborn campers grow to be as flexible as a sheet of paper.
While youth leadership programs an transition services are a good investment, camp was the best ice breaker money could ever pay for. A decent amount of the youth in our youth leadership programs were former campers and they all benefited greatly from the experience. While I trust that Easter Seals will expand their youth services effectively, it really sucks to see the end of a program that impacted the lives of campers and counselors a like. Below are are a couple testimonies from a fantastic staff I’ve grown to call my family.
“explorers camp has changed my life in many ways. I have learned responsibility, I have learned to certainly have patience and to always be positive in any situation. Meeting the kids has brought joy to my life and I love to see their smiles when they’re at camp”.
” If it was not for camp i would not be able to learn and grow without the family member. I also grow up to go college becuase my friends at camp said that i would be able to do anything that i would like too and that helped a lot. i also learned how to becoming a wonderful co-workers with the staff at camp! My blogging team was the best! Camp was a place for everyone to go and learn and grow into wonderful adults. Camp also provides services to ensure that children and adults with disabilities have equal opportunities to live, learn, work and play”.
” it brought everyone together as a family”
“When I first decided to volunteer at Easter Seals Explorers Camp, I didn’t think it would immensely change my life. After being diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome not too long ago, I wanted to do something to help kids with autism and other special needs. I thought it would be a good experience, but it turned out to be an amazing experience. I got to see first hand how this camp can change kid’s lives. These kids learn so much at this camp. This camp gives them a place to explore and try things that are out of their comfort zone. This camp brought me out of my comfort zone and even though I only went one year, I am very sad that I will not be a part of that experience again.”
“My first summer at Easter seals camp was in the summer of 2010 in between my time studying to be an OT. I didn’t know a soul but signed up to be part of one of the most incredible tightly knit and accepting groups I have ever been a part of. From the first week I felt well educated, trained, and supported by the counselor sand staff some of whom had been going to Agassiz village for 10+ years. Once the campers arrived I knew we were in for one exhausting but the most rewarding and unique experiences. Multiple times I had to rely on myself to make decisions to motivate, excite, adapt, nurture, and encourage these city kids who had a plethora of disabilities and were far from their comfort zones. Due to the close bonds made I returned for two more summers and brought along more OT friends. Still in 2015 i continue to stay pen pals with some of my campers I met that first summer. When my dad passed away this summer I had multiple supportive messages on Facebook from Easter seals explorers camp ranging in location from Boston all the way to Ireland. I cannot thank Easter seals enough for letting me be a part of explorers camp a two week period of time that provides the perfect combination of equal laughs to challenges, and teaches life lessons and the strength of ones self alone and with a team. I respect Easter Seals and know that canceling camp this year was not an easy decision but please if the chance arises to continue this camp don’t hesitate because the rewards for all involved are worth the struggles.
“camp has helped me learn to get along with others and I became a better person because of coming to camp”
“I’m a newbie to Easter Seals Camp – this past summer was only my second time being a part of this incredible group of campers and staff as well as Easter Seals as an entirety, so knowing the weight of my own time there, I cannot even imagine what some of the veteran staff will be able to say about their memories and experiences with this group of people. I will simply say this: I have learned more about children (not just children with disabilities, or children on the Autism spectrum, but children, collectively, as a group) and from children than I would’ve ever thought possible in two summers (a mere two weeks). Because of Easter Seals camp, I will not only be a better nurse, but I am, today, a better person. I am incredibly grateful for the friendships I’ve made and the people I have met because of Easter Seals camp, and I am in awe of the experience that this program provides to children of all ages and from all walks of life. I can’t help but hope that in the future Explorer’s Camp can return and pick right back up from where it left off. Thank you for the wisdom!”
” I just want to say that I had a lot of fun playing with the kids getting to know the campers doing fun things making new friends and having a lot of fun”
“Explorers camp helped me to work better with my coworkers and to help out more.”
“I first started volunteering in 2010. For two years I was a volunteer counselor and then my third year I was a head counselor. I never really thought about a career until I volunteered through a newspaper ad to Easter Seals. From my first summer as a counselor I knew that working with autistic children would be what I would love to do. I wouldn’t even classify it as a summer job; it’s more of a passion. To see the children faces light up whether from the campfire sing a longs, or to see them scream with laughter running away from costumed dressed counselors during a game of gold rush. I would say it’s a thrill to know that you helped a camper conquer their fear of stage fright at the talent show. I loved how I could show campers that it’s okay to be nervous that they can get in front of a crowd and be themselves. To have a child trust you every step of the way is rewarding in itself. A week at camp is like a home away from home for these children. It saddens me deeply that they will not get that week at their second home. However I do understand why this has happened, but what I also do know that these children will be missed by each and every one of their counselors. The campers have taught me so much about life, about love and about myself.
This camp has impacted everyone from all walks of life. I would seriously love to see the higher ups who even suggested this in the first place go to those kids personally and tell them to their face that there won’t be any camp this summer and I guarantee you none of them will leave with a dry eye. That camp was more than just a place to hangout at for a week. That camp was their second home, the staff that graciously sacrificed a week out of a summer where they could have been on a grand vacation were their second set of parents, the campers that they spent their time with were their best friends and even a second set of siblings. At the end of the day we were one giant family and we will always be that giant family, no matter how far apart we are. Changing locations two years ago was a sucker punch in itself but at the end of the day at least we still had a camp and most importantly we had each other. While I haven’t lost my sense of purpose or reason to live, I have lost a really big part of me. We’ve all lost something big and it’ll leave a void larger than the biggest crater. I’m completely aware that what’s done is done and I know that I can’t change anyone’s mind. I’m not here to change anyone’s mind, I’m here to let you know how much it hurts and let me tell you, it hurts pretty bad. I would rather get kicked kangaroo or a donkey than to feel what I’ve been feeling because then at least in the end of those two scenarios we’d still have a camp. I’m also here to tell you that you’ve done damage that can’t be easily reversed.
Unlike all the “Zigger Zaggers” we’ve endured at camp, there aren’t enough surprise activities or surprise movies in the world to distract these kids from the fact that they’re not going to their second home this summer or the fact that they won’t be able to see their second families. At this point I’ve said all I possibly can all while picking up the pieces of my shattered heart. I wish it didn’t turn out like this. In a perfect world the biggest challenge would be making sure I got that time off to work at camp once more but now the biggest challenge is how to stomach this blow. It’s a flesh wound that will stay fresh for a while. I don’t know how long it’ll take for the sting to wear off but hopefully I won’t feel as crappy as I’ve been the last few weeks. Before I go I just want to say how grateful I am to have had the opportunity to be a volunteer, a head counselor, and a program director to some of the best campers I will ever meet in this life time and I am eternally grateful for having the chance to work with some of the best counselors from all walks of life. You guys are all awesome and I love each and every one of you from the bottom of my heart. I’ve never met a more chill, down to earth, and dedicated group of people like you. You all could have been on a vacation to Florida or California or on a cruise but you chose to sacrifice a week out of your summer for those kids and for that I’m eternally grateful. I wish the younger me got to know a group of counselors as awesome as you guys. I can’t stress enough what this camp has done not just for me but for all of us. I can only hope that we can find a way to make this right because while an expansion of our current youth services are great, we owe it to every single one of the kids, teenagers, and young adults to give them an opportunity that will truly change their lives. Maybe one day we can all sit at the table and try to right this wrong for the sake of these campers and the ones whose lives we’ve yet to change. Until next time people, stay classy…..
P.S. Our giant family in a nutshell
Adversity never bothered us anyway…