Sunday, June 22, 2008

Camp K

Working at Camp K has already been a life-changing experience. It has changed the way I think about a lot of things, as cliche as that sounds. I look at people with disabilities differently, I look at myself differently, and I look at the future differently. I think it has made me a better person, and has made me realize just how awesome of a person I already am. (I mean, who else could remain patient after someone has been in the bathroom for 25 minutes, remaining in there after repeated pounding on the door and hearing "Please hurry up! Someone else needs to use the bathroom!" And then the person who is waiting with crossed legs pees her pants and starts crying because she is so embarrassed and thinks everyone will be mad at her. And just then, the person in the bathroom comes out whistling and carrying a drawing of Ratatouille that they have been working on using the counter by the sink. Who else wouldn't ring that Ratatouille drawing neck?) I now know that if I had a child with a disability, physical or mental, I could handle it. I now know a little bit more just how hard it can be to be a parent.

When I got this job at Camp K, I had a totally different picture in my head of what it would be like. My job title is "Trip Camp Leader." Due to a few mix-ups in communication, and my own assumptions, what I imagined I would be doing is very different from what I am doing. I imagined myself traveling from national park to national park with eight campers and the other trip camp leader, getting paid to see the western United States. I imagined white water rafting on Camp K's dime while helping people with disabilities, but not really having to work all that hard to do it. I imagined it would be like hiking with a few friends, we would all stick together and sing songs in the car and help put up the tents and they would need a little help with directions or we would need to hike a little slower, but it wouldn't be all that hard.

What is it really like? At first I was disappointed to learn that the other trip camp leader and I trade off taking trips, so I will go one week and her the next, each time picking a new intern to take with us. (To reward the interns for working so hard for no pay.) So I was to go on four trip camps and the other leader goes on three, and then we both stay at camp the other weeks, being a group leader here.

After last week's trip, I am more than content to go on ONLY three more camps.

The first week of camp was, looking back, relatively easy. Although I had never changed an adult's diaper, showered an adult, or fed an adult before, I was surprised how quickly it became a non-issue. My group (obviously, I feel this every week) had the best campers, and there were a few who really endeared themselves to me. There was T, the 80 year old camper, who smiled at everyone and made me want to be as fit and healthy as him at 80. Although, I don't want to wake up thirteen times a night to pee. There was B. the guy who answered everything with "Really good." "How's horseback riding going B?" "Really Good" There was J. who was sooooo effing slow about everything! You could get her up and get her started, go change and clothe two other people who needed complete assistance and return to find her just barely getting out of her pajamas. All she wanted to do was sit and draw pictures of Ratatuille. Guess what we let her do all morning Friday when we were so exhausted from working 60 hours already, not counting a night of cabin duty? (I'll give you a hint, paper, markers, and rats were involved) M the whole week asking to please call her mother, crying from homesickness, wanting to go home, and blowing kisses in the air towards the direction of home...and guess what she does on Friday? She lies down on her bed refusing to let us roll up her sleeping bag because she wants to stay at Camp K so badly.

The second week was my first week being group leader. It was pretty stressful. The first week, I had been a normal counselor to get the feel of it, but this week I was in charge. I counted campers probably five times an hour, always nervous I would lose one. It was teen week, so I had good cause to worry. There were two boys in my group with no less than three girlfriends throughout the week and one guy with two girlfriends. They were always wanting to hold hands or sneak a kiss. It was middle school to the nth degree. The boys were little players, trying to get as many phone numbers and hugs as they could (from other campers and counselors alike) and the girls were constantly hysterical because their boyfriend of 45 minutes had dumped them for a new piece of tail. The creepiest part was the camper who always thought he was such a catch and would always say, "Timber....." "Yes?" I would ask, always in a hurry and being pulled in four directions, "Can I have a hug?" He would stand there, getting ready for bed, with his shirt off and arms out....I told him I didn't give out hugs.

PS everyone here has a camp name. Mine is Timber.

It is so hard because you are working all the time. It's not like you just get them up in the morning and walk with them to breakfast, you cajole them out of bed, and pull off sleeping bags and change and dress them, then walk down and then get them sitting down and then dish up their food, and then cram some food in your mouth while you feed a camper, and if you have to help a camper, you take your food with you because they will take it or touch it or eat it, and you have to keep the other kids from saying mean things to each other and/or keep them from going through the garbage for more food. Then you push a wheelchair up a hill to horses and keep the 8 campers occupied and happy while four ride at a time....on and on and on. Swimming is the best part because most of the time you can just lounge in the pool and watch them play, but about half the time, you need to pull a kid out because he refuses to wear a life jacket even though he failed his swim test, and you then have to restrain him from hurting himself or others. You get your hair pulled and they try to kick or bite you, and it's hard to pull a teenager out of a pool when they are all slippery and wet and either limp or trying to kick you in the mouth.

Last week though, undoubtedly was the worst week yet. Before I tell you how hard it was, let me preface it with what happened at the end of the week. Pickup for campers is at 12:00. Since Monday morning at 8:30 am, I had been telling myself, "I can make it till Friday at 12:00, I can make it!" Well, Fri at 12:00 rolled around and four of my campers still hadn't been picked up. I still had to deal with them! I began dishing up lunch and swallowing to hold back tears. I'm not normally a crying person, but I couldn't help it. I had made it till Fri at 12:00. I had made it to 12 o'clock and I needed to be done. For four days I had steeled myself to stay strong till 12 and when 12 rolled around and I still wasn't free, it just wasn't fair. A few hours later, after cleanup we had a staff meeting and the other staff who had been on the trip with me, Rocky, leaned over and said, "I feel like crying, but I don't know why." I said, "It's because we're done. We're finally done!" She nodded her head and broke down into gut-wrenching sobs. Full on gasping for air and weeping for ten minutes. It was exactly how I felt. One more example of how bad this week was before I launch into description, because no description will do me justice. The week after Moab I was working with a very low-funtioning child who had anger issues. While I was changing his diaper, and trying to keep him from injuring himself I got poo on every single article of clothing I had on, and had to throw away a bracelet. I had to go up and change clothes and even, yes, wipe a touch of poo off of my face. (no time for a shower) I did have time to shoot a quick text off to my friend saying that even with that, the week was still going better than Moab.

Ok, anyhow. So Monday rolls around and Rocky and I are all set up with our sign-in sheets and smiley faces. Outside the van is all ready to go, food and tents packed, and a full tank of gas. The first boy to show up is named J. He is a tall, awkward looking kid who is 13. (This week will be all teens) He asks when his friend Steven is coming, and I draw a blank on the name and look down on the sheet to be sure. No Steven signed up for trip camp. In a cheerful voice I let him know that Steven isn't coming, but we're going to have lots of fun anyways. J starts scowling. "Listen, no offense, but you guys really screw things up. You are so un-organized. I should sue you. I mean, I just talked to Steven and he said he was coming, I should sue you." As J keeps talking, I look past J to his dad. J isn't in my custody yet, so I don't feel comfortable disciplining him, but surely his Dad wouldn't let him talk that way, right? His dad laughs quietly, "Now, J, don't say that, you're going to have lots of fun." They then walk away as J continues to moan. A few minutes later, his pal Steven walks past, sleeping bag under his arm and a smile on his face explaining he was confused, he is going to stay at Camp K this week, but it'll still be a cool week, he'll see J on Fri, bye dude!

The rest of our campers check in, none of them really standing out. One girl is deaf, R, and carries a notepad with her everywhere to communicate. I start brushing up on my finger spelling immediately and R helps me make up a sign language name for Timber. As everyone starts situating in the van, the boys shuffle towards the back and the girls (only two) sit up front. L immediately tells us, "If I get too hot I have a seizure. If I get to cold I get a seizure. If it is too loud I have a seizure." Rocky and I look at her. This might not have been the best trip for her. Moab is the desert. The weather says it will hit 105 and at night get down to 45. The rowdy boys in the back are laughing and making farting noises and L keeps shouting at them to be quiet as Rocky and I run back and forth getting last minute things ready.

Finally, it happens, L has a seizure. Just like she said she would. She walks out of the car, and goes to sit in a chair inside the building and Rocky and I find her there. We look at each other. It doesn't look like what we've seen people do in the past when they have seizure. A seizure isn't always a grand mal limb shaking thing, it can be just a temporary zoning out, or a muscle twitch, but L isn't doing that. We wait with her, but as it gets closer to 10:30, and we're supposed to leave by 10, we call the camp nurse over. The nurse tells us in private that although everyone seizures differently, it sure doesn't look like a seizure to her. Another staff comes up and warns us that L is famous for faking seizures. Right. So we somehow get her in the van and when she does she warns all the other passengers that they need to be silent the whole ride or she'll have another seizure. It's a 6 hour drive. With 6 teenage boys. We warn L that silence is not an option.

The ride down takes us from 10:30 to 6:00. We stop for lunch and take over a playground. C climbs a tree, J starts going through the landscaper's wheelbarrow, and N jaw breaks. (Not really, he has these super complicated braces that come apart if he opens his mouth too wide, and then he needs to to get both hands in his mouth to pry them back together. It's a two person job.) We get C down from the tree, J gets all up in my face when I won't let him play with the landscaper's tools, and literally tries to push me over to get past them. He's not a little kid. He's used to getting his way. Not this week pal. We go to get things out of the van and realize that this week is going to suck worse than we thought it would.

The van we take has a wheelchair lift in the back. We don't need it this week, but use the space to store out luggage and food. However, to get in the back you have to put the wheelchair ramp down. The wheelchair ramp isn't working. At all. We can't get in the back of the van. We can't get to the coolers and food. You can put it down manually, but you have to do that from the inside. A skinny person CAN squeeze inside, but they can't crank it down with all the suitcases and coolers in the way, which we can't get out until the ramp is down. So the only thing I can grab out for lunch is chips, bread, apples, and jelly. So we're having jelly sandwiches with chips because of course, no one is touching the fruit.

We get back in the car and start driving again. Whoever isn't driving has to manage the kids in the back, and I don't know how I didn't get the job driving, being the "Trip Camp Leader" and all. N is sitting towards the back and we realize a habit he has. He likes to shout out the names of the trucks as we go past. He is obsessed with transportation. Every time we pass a semi, he shouts out the type it is, "Timber! Timber! Look! There's a Walmart truck! A Walmart truck!" I see N. His favorite, we learn quite quickly are trains, England trucks and Swift trucks. However, no matter what we say or do, we can't get him to stop shouting with his deep voice, "Timber! I saw a train! Where is the train? Timber! I want to see the train! Timber! Look! A swift truck! Swift! Swift! Timber!" This didn't really bother us too much, but the other campers hated it. A chorus of shouts came from the back, "Make him be quiet! Make him shut up! We SEE the truck N! You don't need to tell us every time you see a truck! Why is he like that?" Oh it was a nightmare. One of the times we stopped to pee, two of the boys refused to get back in the van. J especially was irritated. He told Rocky she was a crappy counselor, and grew incensed when she responded that she wasn't even a counselor, she was a intern. He told me that he was going to call his parents, and then the cops, then my boss and get us fired. I gave him my phone. "Go ahead. I don't want anyone having any secrets. You go ahead and call them." Sigh.

Fast Forward to Sept 7th. The job has been done for a month now, and I'm back in school. I tried to come back to this a few times to finish it and write more, but I couldn't do it. That week was the hardest week of my life. I couldn't re-live it in the detail necessary to express how horrible it was, and I couldn't re-live it the number of times needed to re-read through and through. I still don't think I can, and even if I could, I don't think anyone but Rocky and I can ever really know how hard that week was. So I will leave you with a few highlights.

We finally got to Moab. Of course the camp was full where we were supposed to camp, so we drove around until we found another campsite. It was the only one that had openings, and was located right on the Colorado River but didn't have any sort of electricity or running water. We set up the tents, with no help from the campers, although we tried to get them involved. One camper was busy having a seizure, the rest were busy fighting or listening to music on their ipods. As storm clouds started rolling in, Rocky and I got nervous and just set up the two large canvas tents and our smaller two-person tent ourselves. Once set up we realized that the tents are made for four people, and we had two girls and six boys. Six big boys in a four person tent, plus all their suitcases made bedtime a nightmare every night. Plus one kid snored...which didn't help the others sleep....which didn't help us sleep. I realize now that I should have just given them all granola bars and sent them to bed, but it was only eight o'clock and we had spaghetti on the menu. While we were trying to set up tents I started some water boiling for the noodles. We had unpacked kind of helter-skelter, unloading everything to get to the tents on the bottom, so when the dust storm blew up and the wind was so fast that it blew the boiling water off the propane stove and spilled all over the dry goods we had packed to eat. I ran over to try and save some of the food and looked back to see the boy's tent collapse in the wind. At this point I nearly packed up and went home. However, we somehow got everyone fed, teeth brushed, bathroom used, in pajamas, and in bed by just before midnight. Midnight. Rocky and I hadn't had time to eat, I had put some spaghetti in our tent to eat later, and when we got to it, we tried, but couldn't force it down. That set the tone for the rest of the week. Rocky and I never had time to eat anything. The kids would eat a bite or two, then sneak away to push each other in the fast-flowing Colorado river. Rocky and I would look at each other and one of us would round them up, ignore the insults, make them change shoes before getting the van, because they had been walking in mud, while the other would be cleaning up camp, washing dishes and ruing that she spent fifteen minutes standing by the burning propane stove in 103 degree weather to cook a meal no one wanted. Every moment outside was too hot, too dusty, too thirsty, the water we had was never cold enough, the bug spray never worked, the activities never fun enough, etc. R did nothing but ask questions all the time, "why? why? why?" for everything. She was deaf, so you always had to be conversing through writing things down. It makes it hard to keep two boys from fighting, help one boy brush his teeth, and gather garbage from the campsite all at once when you have to be writing things down. We never had time for anything. Neither Rocky nor I brushed our teeth once on this whole week, much less brushed our hair or washed our faces. The kids were never asleep before eleven o'clock. Not because we didn't start getting ready at seven o'clock though.

So I will finish there. And be glad it is in the past and glad that I am a better person for it.