I want you to look at something for a minute. Not a long time, just a minute or two then come back here. Pictures of people
This is a special place. When I say “special” I mean that in many ways. It’s a summer camp for “special” people AKA People with Special Needs most commonly the Developmentally Disabled. Not children, though it may look like some are children, this camp is actually for people who have “aged” out of the usual summer camp programs offered in their area. These are all actually technically and legally adults.
Look at those faces. Some of them are laughing and happy, aren’t they? But some of them don’t look like that… they look slack, unaware or unimpressed. Some even look unhappy. But the people with them, doing activities right next to them are happy, smiling even so. In some ways, looking at those pictures is disturbing to people because they are incongruent, the pieces don’t add up to a familiar whole and that tends to make human beings uncomfortable. Its okay if those pictures make you uncomfortable. Its even okay if those kinds of people make you uncomfortable. Let’s not worry about that right now. Just listen to me for a little while.
Those people, those adults are “special” as I’ve said. They aren’t cute little children and they aren’t people with clearly defined issues that you can spot right away and know how to handle. Many of them have multiple disabilities. Many of them have physical as well as developmental and intellectual disabilities. Of course everyone knows that this does not make them any less human beings. Everyone knows that people like this deserve to have a decent life with as much help as we can give them. Everyone knows that people like this can be joyful, happy, kind and curious.
What many people do not realize is that people like this can also be scared, angry, anxious and sad. They can also feel sexual, compassionate, depressed and rageful. They are not as limited as their faces make them out to be. They are, in fact, adults in more ways than you can see, even if some of them are “stunted” or “slow” or have lagged behind. Even the ones who cannot talk, cannot walk, cannot hold your hand – they still grow, change and feel just like everyone else. This is something that many people do not realize as well: those “special” children that you see on TV or commercials or even in the park do not stop growing. Yes, all those cute-as-a-button kids you see and feel moved by continue to grow even after you stop seeing them on TV an commercials and the park. They turn into adults.
Look at them again. Maybe you can see more expression than you saw the first time. Perhaps when you look again, you can see beyond some of the frowns, the grimaces, the slack-jaws and the inattentiveness. Can you see the rest of their expression? Can you see how their faces change ever so slightly? or maybe their body language shifts? No? It’s alright if you still don’t see it. Trust me…
Those people are spending three days and nights at a summer camp especially created for them. There is a volunteer for every single camper. There are supervisors for the volunteers. There are nurses and a clinic. There are therapists and guides and sometimes there’s an interpreter too. They all eat in the cafeteria together, they go swimming, fishing, boating and there’s even a miniature train to take them for a ride. Some of them are not able to ride anything so there is a pier with benches bolted down so they can sit on the lake still and feel the gentle waves moving beneath them without fear. Some of them cannot swim so there are special floats they can lie in that allow them to sit partially up but stay strapped to their volunteer. There’s so many things to do…. activites too – some go on horseback rides with horses specially trained to be gentle and careful and patient. Some go on nature trails that are paved wide enough for a wheelchair. So many things and yet even if they stay in the pavillion they can listen to music, dance, shoot a ball at a hoop or do crafts. Each night is a group activity: karaoke, water fight, sing-along…
This camp is rightly named: Camp Dream.
Look at them one last time for me please. Look at the volunteers with each person. See how happy they are? Sometimes it seems like only the volunteer is happy. But that’s just the camera lying.
You see, each camper has their own assigned volunteer. Many times volunteers return again and again. So they get to know the campers (even though it is mandated that they change campers every time) and the campers get to know them. They know about pushing a wheelchair, carrying someone with dystrophy, holding someone with palsy and guiding someone who can’t see. More than anything else they learn, they learn how to help each camper find what they enjoy. They learn how to help each camper find their own smile. And the volunteers smile so wide even when the camper isn’t smiling because they know, that camper IS smiling.
Everything about this place is so special. They take people who are too old to go to public program campes, the people who aren’t “cute” anymore and they let those adults enjoy their childhood a little bit longer. With something everyone needs sometimes: absolutely devoted individual care and love.
These Special Adults are moving into the adult world. Some of them will stay with their caretakers for the rest of their lives. Some will end up in hospice care. Some will end up in specialized homes and programs specifically for their particular issues. Some will get small jobs and live in assisted homes with friends. Some won’t make it to later adulthood. All of them are expected in some degree or another, to stop being children. Even though in many ways they are NOT children, they still respond like anyone would to child-like delights of play, outdoors and exploring,
And this place does not turn anyone away for lack of funds. They find sponsors. Most of those sponsors will remain anonymous. Some will get a small mention in literature. But its not a commercial effort of any kind. This camp is really all about giving.
Look at those people. You may still feel uncomfortable, that’s okay. They are strangers and they don’t trip your social meter the way you are used to. But I know should you ever meet one, you will at least give them the basic courtesy, respect and dignity you would give any other adult human being. If you don’t know how to adjust your behavior with someone like this, you can ask. Ask whoever they are with, ask someone you know, ask the person themselves. You might end up spending more time with that person than you had imagined you could. You might discover your discomfort melts away into a special kind of wonder, joy and giving.
You might be surprised to find out that maybe you can smile that same smile the volunteers have discovered.