An Ideal Community in the Woods

Several years ago I'd written a post about going off to the Easter Seals Massachusetts Explorers Camp. Here is my letter to myself pre-camp, and then post-camp. During those ensuing years much has happened, but here's a quick sum-up of my visit last week.

Last Friday I spent a day visiting the camp, this year it was held in New Hampshire, about a two hour drive away - a drive that I wasn't doing. I was just the excited yappity-yap passenger in the back who on the way back home totally crashed-and-zonked-out from the sugar high from a McDonald's soda. (It was taller than my torso that thing.. three cheers for 'merica!)
Here's my attempt at putting sun-kissed and mosquito-nibbled thoughts into some coherency for you:

"Do you know what's in the town of Shirley?" The staff person driving asked us. I looked out the window and saw only what I'd been seeing for the last hour, the top halves of trees. I shook my head.
"There used to be a boys reform school." I arched an eyebrow at him hoping for a good story.
"... that's where they send the juvenile delinquents... " the rest of the story was not as juicy as I was hoping. Something about his cousin, and we kept cruising along and passed other random towns that all looked the same to me. I was getting antsy in the back seat and just kept chatting about who knows what. At some point I quieted my incessant chatter with a granola bar.
"Well we're just about here..." finally, the words every back seat passenger on any length of a road trip wants to hear. I texted my friends and hoped that they had reception wherever they were, and as I looked out the window I saw only an field surrounded by more trees. Where were my friends? Where were the campers? 

Since the terrain was deemed a little rough on manual wheelchair users I was given access to a scooter, like the kind that I domino-effect aisles of produce with at grocery stores. (The kind that the elderly shoppers at Costco glare at me for because they think I am some bratty child using the scooter as a toy..yeah, that kinda scooter.) I became acquainted with the steering mechanism of it, and someone mentioned that we were waiting for the rest of the group to show up before we would begin the tour. The other folks in the group visiting were some mix of other Easter Seals MA staff members, and also a few board members.
When the tour finally began the first stop was the water slide activity, the young woman in charge of the activity talked about how campers were encouraged to "Try new things and make friends, and have fun.." and as she was talking I did a double take. It was R----! She'd been one of the older girls in my cabin several summers ago as a camper, I remembered her as shy and quiet, always cooperative. Her eyes fell on me in the tour group and she waved,
"Hi Sandy!" I smiled back at her, thrilled that she remembered me but even happier that she'd returned, now as someone leading other campers in various activities. That was when I was eager to not just to see my friends, but became curious to see who else had moved around within this microcosm slice of the disability community.

Because that is what fascinates me about camp. Sure I was excited to see my friends, I wanted to see the human-sized angry birds game I'd heard so much about, I even wanted to see if my old camper with the perpetual crush on that one counselor had returned...but I am not exactly one for woods, and bugs, and sleeping in strange places without access to the glow of my computer monitor. I was drawn to the visit because in my idealistic abstract mind camp is the epitome of what I want the disability community to strive towards. If I were to really push my imagination I'd even say that, in some strange cockles of my heart, there exists the fantasy that our larger society could be like that one week of camp too. It's a place of inclusion, of empowerment from campers and older counselors alike, it's where disabled and those without disabilities are all working towards that same larger goal and as a result of that collaborative environment (filled with all of the typical goofiness of any summer camp experience, and questionable food from the kitchen)  -- even if you just sit and watch, as I did as a visitor for only a few hours, is a powerful experience.
For most programs I think there is a limiting sense of 'program participant' and then 'program staff' - and rarely do many organizations recognize that concept of a 'revolving door' where participants eventually become staff members. Camp is one of those programs where the resources and knowledge from campers is so dexterously utilized that unless you have the benefit of working there over several years, you might not realize it.
It's this piece that in my observations of camp that day is the linchpin that keeps this well-oiled machine running. Those campers having been the recipient of the experience then become the outlets for having their own opportunity to dispense the experience to the next generation, the cycle then continues. A community is then created, the momentum grows and that's where the excitement is! It speaks volumes about a community that it is still able to run smoothly when the knowledge and experience is passed on, this is the mark of something successful. It's successful because it is able to continue and hold true to itself.

Around late afternoon the entire camp gathered on the basketball court before we headed to the field for the much awaited human-sized angry birds game. I saw R---- and gestured her over to the bench I was sitting next to.
"Hey so I just wanted to say how happy I was when you remembered me this morning!"
"Oh yeah. I remember you were my counselor in the Gold cabin three summers ago." She nodded firmly, and I felt slightly embarrassed that I hadn't even remembered which cabin color I was.
"Yeah! And I wanted to say that I'm really proud of you, it was great to see you now leading an activity and helping other campers experience new things."
"Oh thank you, thanks. It has really been great."
"Alright well it looks like we're all heading down to the field now for angry birds. See you there?"

Everyone got up and started heading down to the field. I stayed behind for a bit to talk to the other counselors, a few of the camper bloggers whose job it was to capture pictures and videos throughout the week. One of the camp bloggers was a youth I'd met a few years ago during a presentation I'd made at the MA Youth Leadership Forum. He rolled up to me with a grin and offered a fist pump in greeting. He was eager to show me the videos and pictures he'd captured on his tablet, we geeked out and swapped some blogger tech tips. He just as soon zipped off again to head towards the field with everyone else, not wanting to miss out on getting footage of the afternoon activity.

I swung the speed dial all the way over to the right so the arrow pointed at the bunny. I revved it and raced down the rocky path that slanted down towards the water, turning my head to make sure there were no staff around to see me flying over roots and rocks. "The less time you spend over the rocks and bumpy path would probably be the safest.." said a staff person earlier when I had first climbed into the seat. To make matters more precarious one of the camp volunteers had nudged himself into the seat next to me,
"Yes finally! A woman gets to drive." I snarked.
"Okay well, just don't prove every man right and crash.." he leaned over to the other side and gripped onto the other arm rest.
"Dude quit worrying, we so got this."
After watching the angry birds game (and the actual totally sweet way cool bird launcher someone had built), it became time for me to say good-bye to my friends. They were already getting ready for that evening's activity, the talent show and smokin s'mores over a camp fire, both of which I was sad to miss out on.
In my mind I felt like I fell asleep right after I climbed into the car again. I woke-up somewhere along the way,
"Sandy, you missed the entire town of Boxboro! I was going to show you all the sights of Boxboro. Now I'm going to need to turn around again."
"Nooooo!" I replied sleepily from the back. But a part of me did want him to turn around and head back to camp again, though I obviously knew that was out of the question. I settled back into some state between awake-and-sleep, quietly thinking to myself about my own ideas of sustainable communities and programs. 

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