Part II: Camp Counselin’
The main reason I flew back to California was to return to Camp Milagros in Sonoma County for my third year as a counselor. In 2008, a college friend involved with the Arthritis Foundation asked me to be a counselor, and I loved it so much I thought it worth flying back to this year. Camp Milagros is a wonderful, week-long summer camp for 8- to 13-year-old children with juvenile arthritis. Though these kids have special needs–and the program does a fantastic job catering to those needs–the camp’s greatest attribute is that it is so completely normal. That’s what I love about it. The campers run around, play sports, swim, do arts and crafts, and goof around like at any other summer camp, and because everybody deals with arthritis or other related conditions, nobody is singled-out. Everyone is just normal. What’s more, Camp Milagros also has a low camper-to-volunteer/staff ratio, about 2:1, so these children are able to receive a lot of individual attention. If you want to learn more, visit the Arthritis Foundation’s page about juvenile arthritis activities, and/or watch this video. Maybe you can be a counselor with me next year!
Wednesday, August 4, 2010
I was pumped to be back at camp. To be honest, my first year was fun, but being a newbie, I was a bit self-conscious. Would the campers like me and respect my authority at the same time? Did the other counselors think I was doing a good enough job? What did the girl counselors think of me. . . ? The second year was better since I was returning with confidence. I knew I could do the job well, so I didn’t worry about everything as much. This year, though, all I could think about was having fun with the kids I knew and who already knew me. There were a few new people, both campers and counselors alike, but the majority of the people were Milagros veterans.
Out of the eight boys (yes, out of 29 campers, only eight were boys), two of them were first-timers. The first newbie had arrived at camp before everybody else, even me. Standing under four feet tall because of the medication he takes and requiring the use of a wheelchair for long distances, this boy was understandably nervous about his first time at camp. He sat silently next to his foster mother while the other counselors and I took turns asking him questions, receiving nothing but one-word answers and no eye contact. This will be a tough nut to crack, I thought. The two bus-loads of kids pulled up some time later, and I tried my best to introduce him to the other guys.
The second new boy came right as everyone was shuffling into the dining hall for lunch. He seemed like the camping type as he was dressed in a fleece jacket and a giant bucket hat. He gave his dad a long, sentimental hug goodbye, and the dad reassured his son that he loved him and everything will be alright. It wasn’t long before I realized his bucket hat was pulled down low to cover the tears in his eyes. Alright, I thought, here’s tough nut number two.
During lunch, the first new boy slowly started to open up to the other boy campers, talking about video games and whatnot. Halfway through the meal, after realizing the other kids wouldn’t treat him differently because of his size, he was dominating the conversation, cracking jokes and asking a billion questions. Though small in stature, he easily had one of the biggest personalities in that room, and that’s saying something. Everybody gravitated to this new superstar.
Bucket Hat, however, just kept crying to himself. He didn’t even get a plate to eat because he claimed he ate before he got there, which may have been true, but I also think he was too shy to get in the buffet line.
(Sidenote: the food at camp is all-you-can-eat amazingness. One of the reasons I go back.)
By the end of the day, the boys were fighting over who got to push Superstar in his wheelchair, while Bucket Hat was telling me he wanted to call his dad so he can go home early. I pushed back his request with the promise of awesome activities to come.
Thursday, August 5, 2010
Every year, we spend a day with Challenge Sonoma Adventure Ropes Course, conveniently a short hike and shuttle ride away from Camp Milagros. The campers learn to trust each other and their selves while scaling giant redwood trees. It’s a ton of fun and, in addition to the camp food, another reason I return to this counseling gig.
Superstar was physically unable to participate, but he was content watching his new friends climb the courses while he did watercolors (his paintings, by the way, were quite impressive). Bucket Hat, on the other hand, wasn’t even down to harness up. I think it was a combination of nerves and. . . what’s the opposite of being out-going? In-coming? Yeah, that. He instead did lanyards with one of the doctors who was also too nervous to do the ropes course. We did see a spark of hope, though, when he taught another camper a card game. This other camper was a second-timer who, last year, was very shy. He didn’t open up until the second-to-last day when I bonded with him over comic books. Since then, he wore a giant, ear-to-ear grin. He came back to camp smiling, ready to play with everybody else. He even put on a harness this year before backing down halfway up the ladder. Still, he tried, which was more than I could say for him last year, or for Bucket Hat this year. If anybody could turn this Bucket Hat, it’d be Smiles.
Alas, after we got back from the ropes course, he closed up again. He once again asked to call his dad. “Why don’t we wait just a little bit?” I suggested, “Tomorrow, we get to write letters home!” That didn’t do much to convince him.
Friday, August 6, 2010
Friday was a bit less hectic than the previous day. There was a lot of free time to goof around, play sports, and prepare for the second No-Talent Show happening that night. The No-Talent Shows are like regular talent shows, but because of the name, encourage the kids to get up and do whatever they wanted without feeling a need to be “talented.” Even still, there was definitely a lot of talent to go around, with kids running up to sing and dance and perform skits they made up. Superstar proved to be quite the entertainer during Wednesday’s No-Talent Show, winning the audience over with his dance moves and great comedic timing. He spent a lot of time Friday preparing more skits and performances with the other campers.
I wanted Bucket Hat to do more than just make lanyards (even though I made quite a few myself) so, after finding out he was pretty much a soccer superstar, grabbed a soccer ball and played a little one-on-one with him. He was fast and skilled and totally in his comfort zone. The entire time we were playing, he was laughing and smiling. I eventually got a bunch of kids to play a big game, and he impressed everybody with his skills.
Still, though, after the game was over, he didn’t do much to connect with the other kids. They weren’t ignoring him at all; it was he who didn’t open up to their interactions. He admitted to me that his only friends were the counselors and I thought to myself, Well, no duh! He still wanted to call his dad and Emma, the camp director, finally allowed him to do so. Bucket Hat’s dad agreed to pick him up the following evening. We did what we could.
Saturday, August 7, 2010
Knowing he was going home later that day, Bucket Hat subconsciously allowed himself to have fun. We organized a huge game of Capture the Flag and, just like in soccer, he rocked at that. When a couple of the other kids were mattress sliding (a camp tradition where they stack up the vinyl mattress and slide across the hardwood floor while counselors nervously watch), Bucket Hat joined in. Sometime after lunch, I was playing ping pong doubles with him and two other boys when he turns to me and said, “This is kind of hard; I think I want to stay now.” I immediately threw down my paddle and yelled, “We’re telling Emma!” I ran up the porch with Bucket Hat trailing and interrupted Emma’s conversation with, “Emma! Emma! He wants to stay!” She immediately left the group, got on her phone, and called Bucket Hat’s dad. She was able to get a hold of him before he left and Bucket Hat got to stay until the end of camp, which, a bit anticlimactically was at noon on the following day. Still, victory!
The night ended with a surprise b0y-girl dance party, a first ever in Milagros history. While some of the younger boys retreated to their cabin, Superstar, Smiles, and the other older boys relished in the opportunity to dance with the girls.
Sunday, August 8, 2010
As part of Camp Milagros tradition, our last (half) day consisted of breakfast followed by a giant shaving cream war. Named the Prank War, they developed this morning-long battle of shaving cream, silly string, and water balloons in an attempt dissuade campers from pulling pranks on each other during camp. If you didn’t do any pranks all camp long, you were rewarded with a shaving cream can and a chance to cover your counselors in white foam from head to toe. Good trade off, yeah? Bucket Hat definitely had a good time running around throwing shaving cream on everybody. Even Superstar, being pushed around by another counselor, participated in the fight. Despite the fact that the morning fog hadn’t lifted by battle’s end and we had to hose off with ice-cold water, it was still, as always, a messy good end to the camp activities.
I had a great time seeing all the returning campers, all of them funny, smart, cute individuals whom I didn’t get a chance to mention in this post, but my best memories were of the great time the two new boys had at camp. This year, sadly, would be Superstar’s only year at Camp Milagros seeing as he’s 13-years-old. No worries, though, he’ll be able to turn his charm on the ladies at the Juvenile Arthritis Teen Retreat in San Francisco next October. 9-year-old Bucket Hat, on the other hand, despite having a rough time getting into the grove of things, reassured us that’ll he’ll be coming back next year. I hope I’ll be around to see his triumphant return.
I’d have felt weird ending this post with photos of Roxy models, so here are a couple photos of the kids I mentioned.
Superstar (left) and Smiles at the dinner table.
Bucket Hat picking and eating blackberries from a bush.