In honor of my last day here at Camp, instead of choosing to write a farewell blog I chose to share some of my experiences from this summer. Here is a short essay in reflection on this summer.
by Jackie Popper
As a kid, growing up in the small town of Palm Desert, CA, I leaped at the opportunity to go away for a week or two and experience summer camp. I grew up attending all varieties of summer camps, some that taught specific skills and some that were simply just for the “camp experience.” When I heard about the opportunity to work here, at Camp ASCCA, I couldn’t imagine a better job. Not only would I be spending my summer at camp, like I had in my formative years, but I would have the opportunity to work with children and adults with disabilities. Though I knew this job was perfect for me, when I sent in my application earlier this year, I had no idea just how perfect this match would be.
When I first arrived at camp I was greeted with your typical summer camp campus: lots of outdoor activities, cabins, and the staple of all camps—the dining hall. The only difference here was all of the activities were adaptable to a wide range of abilities. I knew as soon as I stepped foot on the campus, reminiscing on all of the wonderful memories I had made myself growing up at summer camp, that I was going to love spending my summer here. Little did I know just how much this place would mean to me after spending my time here.
After spending a few short weeks working “seasonal” I was thrown in with our Program Staff who arrived in time to undergo training in preparation for working Camp Seale Harris, a camp for people living with diabetes, run by Southeastern Diabetes Education Services. At first, I was a little skeptical of being thrown in with the staff. The returning staff (which made up a little more than half of the group) immediately began reliving last summer, and reforming the bonds that had been created here. As for the new staff, we sat around awkwardly twiddling our thumbs waiting for some form of organized activity so we wouldn’t feel so left out. However, we all became a family pretty quickly—how could we not? We were spending every hour together (including sleeping) living to fulfill the same purpose.
I thought the first few weeks of camp were great; I loved the campers, the counselors, and most importantly, I loved spending all of my time outdoors instead of behind a desk. In addition, I had the challenge of capturing the moments that no one else saw, the smiles from ear to ear that often flashed across a camper’s face after tackling a challenge they didn’t think they could. I was in heaven. I mentioned this frequently when I was around program staff, raving about how happy I was here, but I always got the same response from the returners, “yeah, these kids are fantastic, but just wait until ASCCA gets here.” That seemed to be a common theme in the weeks leading up to the arrival of our counselors, but I didn’t get it, I was already having a great time; how could it get better?
I had spent most of my childhood serving and participating in classrooms and events catering to children with special needs. I have always loved this kind of work, and I can say without at doubt that the hours I spent in the special needs classrooms were the best of high school. Sadly, when I started college I couldn’t find a way to get involved with children with disabilities like I was growing up, so that part of my life had really suffered since moving. Well, the day finally arrived when fifty or so counselors arrived for their week long orientation. After learning what seemed like everything you could ever need to know about serving people with disabilities, ASCCA session one was here. So there I was, standing at a table ready for the first check-in session, when one adorable child after another walked in to register for camp. My heart melted with each one of those uninhibited grins that was plastered on every camper’s face. I knew immediately that I was about to have the best summer of my life.
Week one was filled with so many emotions for me; immediately I was shown an outpouring of love from our campers—a kind of love that you can only experience at a place like this. Thinking back, that week was also filled with a happiness that I’ve never experienced. A feeling that you are in the right place, with people who love their job just as much as you do, working together to make the week the best week in these campers’ years. Throughout that first week I got several messages from family and friends that I was “glowing” in all of my pictures, or that I looked “so incredibly happy.” At the time I didn’t feel like my smile had “changed” or that it was possible for them to tell through a simple photo how happy I was, but now I understand it. Reflecting back on everything I’ve done this summer is a remarkable thing, something I will never do justice to try and describe.
As the summer progressed I fell more in love with this place every day. It is so difficult to have a bad day here, or even just an average day. Every day there is a camper who says something, or does something that lights up my world. I never thought I would be so proud and overwhelmed with joy for someone who, for the first time, dressed themselves, or conquered the zip line even though they were terrified at first. It’s a feeling of pride that swells up from somewhere deep inside that I didn’t even know existed. See, around here it’s not the material things that matter; it’s all about people. It’s about loving someone so much that seeing them open their milk on their own makes you tear up, or never being happier than when watching a camper get out of their wheelchair at the dance to dance with someone. It’s a love for people that is unexplainable.
I knew this place would change my life. I just didn’t understand how much. I didn’t understand that when I left this place I would feel like I was leaving a huge part of me behind. Frequently this summer when I talked to my family and friends they remarked that “I was doing such good in the lives of others,” or that “I was changing lives and doing incredible things,” but I always had to stop them and correct them. These campers, with their kind words, smiling faces, and the never ending supply of hugs have shown me what life all about— loving others. I didn’t change these camper’s lives, they changed mine.
The campers, the staff, the camp itself—this place is one of a kind. This summer has been a remarkable one, to say the least. My life has certainly been changed for the better, and I hope to pass that along to as many people as I can. I know this will not be my last summer at ASCCA, and I look forward to many more wonderful moments here.
Every night we end the day singing “The Good Night Song,” a song that holds so many truths in my life, and in the lives of our campers. The last line of the song reads, “So campers hold hands, and say we’ll never part. For Camp ASCCA, and all our friends, will live within our hearts.” A line that couldn’t be truer in my life—this summer, and this place will always live within my heart.