As a junior in high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Now I’m not saying I have it all figured out now, but I have a better idea than I did when I was 16. It seemed that everyone knew where their life was headed- my best friend Jenna was going to get a degree in musical theatre and be on Broadway, my sister Jenny was going to school to be a brain surgeon. Even Max from second period chemistry knew he wanted to be a lawyer and was already looking for the best schools for Pre-Law. But I was clueless.
Until I became a counselor at Special Camps for Special Citizens, a week long sleep away summer camp for kids with intellectual, cognitive, and/or physical disabilities. I had heard that this was a life-changing camp for the campers, giving them a week where they do not need to feel ostracized from society or fear what makes them unique. What I didn’t know, though, is that during this week I would learn a lot about myself.
Growing up, I was shy. Being the youngest of five I was constantly being overshadowed by my older, louder siblings, so I would really only talk to people I knew well. No strangers. In school I sat silently when my teachers called on me to answer a question, when the checkout lady at Target would tell me i had beautiful eyes I just stared at her petrified, and when I went to the doctor or the dentist I was as quiet as a mouse the whole time while mom talked. Essentially, communication was not my forte.
This is probably hard to believe now, being that I am on track to graduate from Saint Louis University with degrees in Theatre and Communication of all things. But until high school I lived a life of public silence. That’s where Special Camp’s comes in.
I stood staring at the bulletin board at the local public library, mesmerized by the neon yellow paper with big boldface writing. “Are you energetic, fun, and caring? Are you ready to make some new friends and have the best summer of your life? Apply to be a Camp Counselor at Special Camps for Special Citizens!” Energetic, fun, and caring? I can do that.
I had been a leader in adaptive P.E, a gym class for students with disabilities, for a year and had always been passionate about helping people so it was perfect, I thought. Except what it didn’t say on the flyer was: must have great communication skills.
Waiting for my camper to arrive, I was filled to the brim with nerves and excitement. My mind was racing and my hands were trembling. Questions flew through my brain one after the other. Would she like me? What if she hates me? What if she doesn’t talk to me? What if I can’t help her with something? Wha-
“Sarah?” The voice came from a bright blue eyed woman with a blonde bob. Behind her, hiding, stood a young brown haired girl with a bright pink flower clip fastened in her hair. That must be Becca, I thought. She looks as nervous as me, and shy too. Oh no, what if she changes her mind about coming to camp?
“Sarah?” Oh shoot, that’s me!
Becca’s cheery mom explained that she suffers from neurological developmental delay. This means I needed to help her do everything, from eating to showering to tying her shoes. It also caused her to lose verbal communication skills sometimes where she would have to result to sign language.
All I could think was: will my week long crash course in sign language be enough?
Though it was difficult, I managed to successfully get through the week with few problems. When Becca would not speak, I would sign what I could. When she could speak, she would ask me to tell her stories, so I would tell her stories about everything: my family, my friends, and about vacations I took. My speaking seemed to calm her down when she would start to get upset, and by the end of the week she was even dancing with me to Hannah Montana’s “Best of Both Worlds” during after dinner free-time.
This made me realize the importance of communication.
Thunder cracks outside the window eliciting a scared gasp from the campers who lie restless in their bunks. The soothing voices of the room chaperones, Debbie and Susan, are no match for the booming from outside. In her bunk, Becca begins to whimper.
“Becca is asking for you.” The sense of urgency in Susan’s voice tells me something’s wrong.
Not wasting time on my umbrella, I jog through the downpour to the girls’ dorm. By the time I get there her soft cries had escalated into uncontrollable sobs. I kneel by her bunk and take her hand.
“What’s wrong, Becs?”
“Just breathe, Bec and tell me what’s wrong,”
In her hysterics she has lost all ability to formulate words. Not knowing what else to do, I try signing to her. Extending my thumb and pinky, I place my hand on my chin – the ASL sign for “what’s wrong?”
Shaking, she signs back the sign for thunder. She’s afraid of the storm.
Knowing there is nothing I can do to stop the thunder outside, I just start talking. About everything, about anything. I tell her to focus on my voice and nothing else. I tell her about how I used to be scared of storms too but my mom told me that the thunder was just God bowling, and the lightning was him turning the lights on and off in celebration.
Her sobs become farther apart.
I tell her how in the morning we were going to have waffles and she could have chocolate chip or blueberry or even one of each.
Her sobs ease into uneven breathing.
I even tell her about how her dog Baxter was going to be so excited to see her when she got home that he would probably pee himself!
I tell her that all she has to do is fall asleep and when she wakes up, the storm would be over and we would have so much fun.
As she starts to give into sleep’s demand, she signs to me “Don’t leave until I’m asleep.” I assure her I’m not going anywhere. Her eyelids become heavy but with her last bit of consciousness she signs my name. Yeah? I ask. Groggily she looks up at me and smiles. She raises her arms and signs “You’re my best friend.”
Communication is key. That is the most cliche of cliche phrases, but it is one that is so true. As much as I helped Becca, she helped me, and I would like to continue to help people like this in the future. I plan to incorporate ideas from theatre and storytelling as a therapeutic device for people with disabilities.
Who would have known that the shy girl with big green eyes would one day talk so much she could put someone to sleep?
“You’re my best friend, too” I say back as she drifts into a peaceful sleep.