Note from the Author~ I wrote this as to give you a walk in my shoes. I spent a week at Camp Blessing Texas this Summer and it changed my life. The names of campers have been changed to protect their privacy, although they are by far the most uninhibited people that I have ever met. Please enjoy, and God bless!
Have you ever had an opinion, but had no evidence to support it? Well, I have. Before Camp Blessing, my opinion of people with disabilities was this- “I know they are loved and I feel bad for their situation, but I feel awkward around them. They’re hard to understand.” As ashamed as I am of this stereotype that I accepted, if I had not, I probably would not have experienced all that I did. My mindset was changed in those six days, and so was my heart. I also know that I was meant to work the adult week at Camp Blessing. That it was God’s will for me. Why else would I have gotten the last slot available to work there? Looking back, I ask myself, what made me want to work there? My past experience with camps have never been good. I always become ill, or homesick and though ultimately I enjoyed my experience there, camp has never been my thing. All that I remember going through my mind when I heard about Camp Blessing was “Sounds like fun, I’m going to go.” And that was it. No thinking it over, no anxiety of the possibility of not knowing anyone, just a strange peace, tinted with excitement. So, I packed my bags, walked out the door, not expecting much, but what I experienced changed my life.
Pulling into the driveway of the camp grounds, I was astonished to see how many people were there. My eyes were wide with anticipation, my heart pounding. We pulled past one of the stops, only to be greeted by a friendly man with a peachy beard “Hi there, I’m Pop Rocks, we’re so excited that you are here! Have you worked at Camp Blessing before?” Reaching through the car window he shook my hand. I replied saying that no I had not. He then asked me if I had any questions or concerns. Despite my nervousness, I said no. From there, we drove on, dropped off my paperwork, and then dropped me off at my cabin. Lugging my oversized suitcase through the door, I was met by a group of teenagers and cabin leaders, I was quickly instructed that I would be in the room to the right, with Butterfly and Mcfly. I walked into the room being met by five sets of bunk-beds, thin green carpet, and walls that looked like they had seen better days. So I strategically chose my bunk, in a corner next to the bathroom. I felt a little bit uncomfortable, being greeted only by a few, but I was here now, and was going to see it through.
After setting up my bunk my fellow Barnstormers and I headed out the door to do some “Team Building” exercises. After completing these, we made our way to the Chapel for our orientation. We were largely outnumbered by staff and SOTK’s. There were only 20 of us Barnstormers. The definition of our job was cleanup crew. This I would later find out included: waiting tables, cleaning up after meals and activities, dishes, and spending time with the campers. The SOTK’s (Servant of the King) would each be assigned a camper, who would be their “Buddy” for that week. I would later see how selfless this job was, for many of the campers apart from having autism, down syndrome, or spina bifida were either non-verbal, blind, or wheelchair bound, sometimes they all were all three. The orientation provided us with information on the individual disabilities that we would be seeing. I soon realized just how kind and genuine everyone was there. The staff who dedicated their entire summer to serving, the owners and founders of the camp. Everyone. They were also passionate about their jobs, and ready to help any of us if we needed it. Especially my two cabin leaders. They each made a point to connect with us individually. After that evening of orientation, we were given a partner whom we would be working with and the cabin that we would be serving. Along with the SOTK’s and cabin leaders of that group my partner Darcy(name has been changed) and I looked over paperwork that included all of the women that we would be in the cabin that we were assigned to. As I looked through the paperwork, I didn’t just see the disabilities. I saw the people. I saw young women who loved the movie Frozen, whose favorite color was green, or sang songs from The Little Mermaid, and I soon realized that this week, these women were not going to be defined by their disabilities. They were going to be defined by the One who loves them the most. They would be able to live normally for a week, free from the bonds of judgement.
“Welcome to Camp Blessing! Here’s your luggage!” I smiled happily as I struggled to carry large suitcases through the door. It was the second day and the campers were quickly arriving. I had never seen such excitement. The camper’s smiles and pure joy was almost more than I could handle. But it wasn’t until that evening that I experienced true joy. It was at chapel during worship that I was able to see God’s heart for people. The campers so freely worshiped, not caring what others thought. They danced, they sang, and expressed their love for their Heavenly Father in beautiful ways. My heart was overflowing with joy during this time, and I realized that what I was watching and experiencing was a taste of Heaven. Because people aren’t going to care what others think of them when the worship God, they are only going to care about him, and his love. Throughout the entire week I had epiphanies such as this.
It was my third day at Camp Blessing, and I had waited tables, served the beautiful campers, many of which had stolen my heart. That day my agenda included being a “spotter” holding the campers ankles while they rode the horse. This I must say, was one of my favorite parts of the week. Many of the campers were fearful of horses, but every one them got on the huge beast, and rode. They overcame their fear, and once they were on, they were laughing, talking, and simply having a ball. While hanging out with my campers, something started making sense. Especially with one young woman who was nonverbal in my cabin. Her name was Analise(name has been changed), and her “Buddy” had gotten up to go get a cup of water. So, I stepped in and hung out with her for a few minutes. I held a board that had the letters of the alphabet on it. While sitting there, Aislyn began making sounds, I could tell she wanted to say something, so I held up her board and she started tapping on letters. Seeing what she was spelling out, I said “Yeah Aislyn, we’re about to worship.” She proceeded to spell out other words. And then it clicked. Many of these people with disabilities are trapped inside their own body. They are fully aware of what’s going on around them, more so than most people, and there is so much that they want to say and do, and because of Camp Blessing, in many ways, these adults are able to find their voice.
I had never realized how much simply being kind could do. On one the days that I was there I had looked at the assignment board and realized that I was not going to be serving my usual group of campers, in fact I was going to be serving a table of men whose ages ranged from early twenties to mid thirties. So, I grabbed the tray of food, and headed over to the table. I was met by uncertain half smiles, and looks of confusion. After passing out the plates, I stood faithfully in front of the table. Waiting. Waiting for someone to ask me to go get them a drink, or a napkin, anything was better than this. But I plastered a smile on my face, and waited. I soon caught on to the fact that they taking care of their own needs, so, as one of the SOTK’s got up to refill his drink, I jumped in front of him, blocking his path throwing arms wide, I said “Let me get that for you!”. But he turned me down. I was confused by their behavior, it was completely opposite of my usual table, I wondered if they didn’t want me to serve them because I was a female. But I persevered that day, by dinner the campers and the SOTKs of that cabin loved me. Asking for things, teasing me etc. But I suppose I didn’t realize how much they loved me. After that day, I was back to my normal table, but the cabin leaders of that group nagged at me, asking if I was going to be their Barnstormer that day, and I repeatedly had to tell them no. But, they were persistent, and went to my cabin leaders, asking if I would be their server the last day. They allowed it, and as I was walking over to the table, a genuine smile on my face this time, the table started chanting my name at the top of their lungs. “Amy! Amy! Amy!” My heart felt fuzzy with happiness, I had done nothing out of the normal, I had simply been kind.
That week I watched campers who were wheelchair bound, go down 30 foot high ziplines, and pivot so high from a giant swing that it seemed as if they were flying, and those who couldn’t walk, dance. It was a beautiful sight.
“Wanna dance?” I heard from behind me, turning around I found a camper in a wheelchair staring up intently at me. I smiled wide and responded over the loud music “Sure!” I was then spun around, twirled, and did all sorts of moves until I was completely out of breath. The entire evening I danced, and when I wasn’t dancing I was watching. The women campers were all dressed like princesses, their faces glowing, and the young women who could not walk would be picked up by a tall handsome staff member and cradled and twirled around. It was a touching sight. So often we take the simple things for granted, forgetting how blessed we are. I don’t think I’ve met a group of people so happy, and content with life as it is, they accepted themselves as they were. Physically broken. That is hard for most of us to do, even if we aren’t.
I learned so much in those six days. I was able to experience God’s love first hand. The hugs from campers, the smiles, and the peace that I felt in that place was overwhelming. I saw many whose physical bodies were broken, yet their hearts were whole, and they felt joy. Something so simple yet amazing. On the last day the campers were given the opportunity to get up on stage and share their favorite part of the week. When his turn, a camper got up on stage with his SOTK and said “This week, I taught my counselor how to be a good counselor.” and then he went on to talk about to rest of his week. At the time, his statement made me laugh. But now, thinking back, I’m humbled. It’s true, the campers did teach us to be “better counselors” or in my case, a better Barnstormer. They did this by taking our minds off of ourselves. Gently helping us realize that there is more than one person on this planet. Profound right? But there is almost more to it than that, God called us as Christians to serve, saying “Therefore I urge you brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, pleasing to God as your spiritual act of worship.” Romans 12:1. I’ve seen that scripture my entire life, but it was not made real to me until I spent a week at Camp Blessing. Serving is an act of worship. The Bible commands it, and for a good reason too. I realized that week that the more I served, the more fulfilled I felt, and as the week progressed, I can say that I have never felt the presence of God more strongly than when I was serving. Yes, I was tired, my feet ached, and there were times that I went to bed hungry, but at the end of the day, my heart felt whole. I never thought that Camp, of all things, could bring such a life changing experience, but then again, I guess that’s just the way that God works.