The summer I turned 20 I worked as a counsellor for a camp for youth with mental and physical disabilities. I had never done this type of work before and didn’t know what to expect. But I enjoyed working with kids, loved summer camps where I’d volunteered the past three summers, and assumed I’d be a good fit for the job.
There is a certain popular narrative going around about people with mental disabilities that tends to focus, rather oddly, on how happy they are all the time. (If you haven’t, I urge you to read Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s account of life with her disabled son.) Even if you’ve never significantly interacted with mentally-disabled people I’m sure you can see how this assessment is limiting, insulting, and narrow-minded. I suppose people have their reasons for thinking this; some, I’m sure, even see it as a generous assessment of a positive quality we’d all like to possess. More on this later.
It only took a few days before I started to wonder if I was possibly ruining the campers’ summer. My chargers were not, on the whole, happy. I was failing them, it seemed, failing them in a spectacularly uncool fashion. It probably didn’t help that I was nervous, so nervous sometimes that I found myself standing in the middle of the main field, on my way somewhere, stopped by a train of thought that dead-ended in doubts. I talked to a few veteran counsellors who assured me I was doing fine, that for god’s sake I needed to relax, that I should try to just go with whatever was happening at the moment. If it wasn’t illegal and no one was being injured, what did it matter?
Here is the truth I learned about providing care - you can’t make it about yourself. My concerns in the beginning were about how other people would perceive me. I wanted to be the hip, new counsellor, god help me, that all the kids immediately liked better than anyone else. The more I tried to be that person, the less useful I was to the campers.
So I stopped trying. I let things happen. I forego control and a sense of order for the sort of amazing chaos inherent to a summer camp, and especially prevalent at this one. Here is my favourite memory of that time:
At some of the camps it was important for counsellors to stay with their campers essentially 24/7. However, at some of the teen camps you could spend time wandering around and interacting with the other campers. This is how I met Kevin.
Kevin was a fan of Kenny Rogers, and had become deeply concerned that Kenny’s manager was up to no good, particularly from a financial standpoint. Kevin wanted to write Kenny a letter, a warning of sorts, but I suggested that a song might be more appropriate for the gambler. Over an afternoon Kevin wrote out what he wanted to say to Kenny, and then I came up with a tune, and together we sang it hoping Kenny could hear us. The only lines I remember are one about how the manager is out to get you, get all your money, and then the epic chorus of “Run, Kenny, run”.
If the internet had existed in any useful way back then I would have a) filmed it and b) tweeted at Kenny about his predicament. As it stands, this entire event only exists in my memory, aided by the photo.
I don’t want to speak ill of the organization that funded this camp, because I do believe they do good work and are, on the whole, helpful, so I’ll refrain from using any names. But there was definitely one part of that summer that bothered me and the other counsellors - the annual board member picnic. This was when members of the board of the unnamed organization would drive up to the camp and have lunch in the outdoor eating area.
Nothing wrong with that - most of them had donated large sums of money for these kinds of privileges. What bothered us was that they then requested certain campers be brought by to meet them and pose for photos. I suppose it could have been worse - the campers could have been asked to perform, maybe a rousing rendition of “That’s What Friends Are For”. There was also a lot of gossip as to how the campers were chosen, that lead to some very inappropriate statements made about what is probably just a group of generous men. (And they were all men.)
After the camp I went to work for one of my campers as a part-time caregiver. He was a young man with cerebral palsy, confined to a wheelchair, and also one moody, cantankerous bastard. He was also, by turns, funny, charming, sincere, and brutally honest. In other words, he was as complex as any other human being, and this complexity was singularly unmitigated by the fact that he couldn’t talk.
For the entire first day at camp I was certain he hated me, or, at least was having a really bad time, until I noticed a slight smile creeping over his lips whenever he thought I wasn’t looking. It was then I realized that he wasn’t having a bad time but, like almost anybody, he didn’t like being taken for a fool. I had been talking to him almost non-stop, worried that he’d feel neglected (or, if I’m honest, worried that I’d look like I was neglecting him.)
But as I got to know him I understood how having someone just talk at you and, worse, pretend to answer for you is pretty insanely annoying. So I stopped and just watched him when I wanted an answer to “How are we doing?” or “What do you want to do?” and generally, I think, I got what he was saying. I lost track of Peter a few years after I stopped working with him. I like to think he’s giving someone else the same kind of wonderful grief he gave me, and that that someone is a beautiful woman.