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Four shirts, seven weeks, three words: “awareness and compassion”

Christin Kloski | Thursday, August 1, 2013

SOUTH BEND, Ind. – I’ve had the same awkward tan lines for four weeks. My arms have a farmer’s tan from the shirt I wear every day, and my legs are three different shades from where my shorts decide to land. I have a line straight across my forehead, reminding me not to wear a bandana when the sun is blazing on my face. My shoe marks vary from wearing tennis shoes or flip flops; the sun decided to be sneaky and leave its mark for both shoe types.

This is the life of a summer camp counselor: awkward tan lines, the same T-shirt for four days in a row and a loss of voice due to overexcitement. In some ways, though, Hannah and Friends is not an ordinary summer camp. Remove the child crying about a bug bite, erase the child who has more than one allergy, take away the all-star who tries to win every game, and add in a child who has a vocabulary of 50 or fewer words, plus a child who cries for no apparent reason, and finally, toss in a child who can only use sign language. It is an entirely different summer camp.

The characteristics of each child with different abilities make any “average” camp seem plain and bland. Summer camp at Hannah and Friends, a nonprofit organization that offers recreational programs and residential services for people with special needs, requires camp counselors to go above and beyond during activities such as cheering, dancing and playing. These counselors must be willing to move and groove shamelessly and to dress up as buffoons while singing as loudly and proudly as they can. At Hannah and Friends, camp counselors truly express who they are and learn to accept their own weird quirks and awkward characteristics.

The first week of camp was full of information sessions. It was a time for the interns to meet one another and to learn more about the mission of Hannah and Friends. As soon as the second week rolled around, the music began and the interns pulled out every inch of energy. The first week of the camp to conquer was Fun and Fitness. When the campers strolled in, their energy levels fed off of the counselors. The exhaustion never hit any of us until Thursday at 6 p.m., the end of the camp week.

Week by week, we began to spring out more ideas for camp days. The energy increased with each week and with any new addition to the group of campers. During the third week of camp, each of the campers had a favorite counselor. The moment when we find a buddy and they find us is beyond memorable. It takes an acceptance on both halves of the friendship; not only must the campers accept our strangeness, but we must learn to accept their different abilities as well.

In this friendship, we learn more about being a friend than about living life with different abilities. We forget what certain conditions or differences they have, and we begin to see how much of a more accepting person they are than we will ever be.

Beyond their daily struggles and certain setbacks, these special needs individuals are incredibly enthusiastic about everyday life. Nothing holds them back; they are always reaching forward.

Working with children with different abilities has taught me one simple thing: to love life no matter what. 

Contact Christin Kloski at cklosk01@saintmarys.edu