On March 10, a motley crew of 10 college students and one recent graduate departed Lafayette College at 9:30 A.M., crammed into two minivans on a mission to get to Camp Baker in Chesterfield, Virginia. As members of Lafayette’s Alternative School Break organization, we were spending our spring break at this camp for one reason: to do as much good as we can in the span of a week, and hopefully learn something in the meantime.
Richmond ARC’s Camp Baker is a full-service, handicap-equipped retreat facility located on 22 wooded acres near the Pocahontas State Park in Virginia. It is a fantastic facility, complete with in-ground pool, playground, gazebo, soundstage, basketball courts…you name it. Check out the hyperlink above. It’s a great place.
I wasn’t sure how this was going to go. As a matter of fact, none of us did. We were here to help volunteer with the campers: individuals who suffer from disabilities ranging from autism to Down Syndrome to Multiple Sclerosis. I’m not going to lie and tell you that I was fully thrilled at spending time with them to begin with. I, like many others, often felt uncomfortable whenever I found myself around retarded individuals, and while I was more than happy to volunteer my time and efforts helping out, as we got closer and closer to Camp Baker I found myself becoming more and more nervous.
How was I going to act? What do I do?
Thankfully, it was much easier and comfortable than I imagined. Honestly, I was never really sure how to deal with retarded individuals, especially being in a position of responsibility. It was a relief to have the great staff of Camp Baker there to give us pointers–my biggest takeaway was that you just treat them like normal kids. It isn’t a bad thing when you take a stern tone of voice with them, because, just like every kid, they want to do their own thing. Whether that means wandering off or just being stubborn, you take the same course of action as you would with a non-disabled child. That was a huge breakthrough for me, and really helped me come to other huge conclusions later on. But first I’d like take the focus off my own epiphanies for a second and place the emphasis on the ASB Team as a whole.
As a team, we organized and conducted arts & crafts as well as wellness (read: exercise) activities for an adult group in the morning and the kids in the after school program in the afternoon. The adults ranged in age from 20-somethings to Buddy, a 70 or so elderly fellow. The activities that we participated in included coloring pages, musical activities, and playing basketball–some of the lower functioning individuals could just take a couple laps around the playground for their exercise. For our last day, we organized a St. Patrick’s Day carnival, complete with a hunt for a leprechaun’s gold. I was the lucky individual selected to play the leprechaun, complete with Irish accent, top hat, and emerald tie.
I was so convincing, apparently, that one of the campers asked for my autograph because she “had never met a real leprechaun before.” It was a really enjoyable time. Every single team member created connections with the campers, and most people had a “solid,” somebody who they hung out with consistently. Mine was Kasey (name changed), a girl with autism pictured below.
Working with these people was the highlight of my trip. It made me realize, maybe for the first time, what makes humanity what it is. Humanity is not necessarily the ability to think or reason, as many hypothesize. These individuals obviously had those capabilities limited by their disability, but it was what they could still do that would change the way I thought not only about people with disabilities, but people in general.
My epiphany came while I was working with Jamaal (name changed), an individual with palsy. Jamaal can’t really walk without the aid of another person or a walker, and his speech functions are severely limited. In fact, I don’t think he ever spoke a single word to me. But he didn’t need to. Jamaal communicated nonverbally with me, and it was a challenge figuring out what he wanted. In this case, he was holding on to a railing for support while I stood a couple feet away from him, keeping track but also looking around at the other staff for confirmation that I was doing something right. Jamaal was a short guy, at least seven inches shorter than I, so I towered over him. He kept gesturing down, but I didn’t know what he wanted. I inched closer, asking him what he wanted, but he just kept gesturing down. Eventually, I got close enough where he reached out his hand. I didn’t know what to do.
It wasn’t until he pointed to my hand that I realized what he wanted. I offered my hand, and he took it, then proceeding to pull down as hard as he possibly could. I lowered myself until I was eye-level with him, at which point he let go and gave me a huge smile. He offered his hand for a fist bump, proud of me for finally figuring out what he was trying to communicate. That smile, along with other grins throughout the week, told me so much.
That’s what respect for these individuals is about. I think it’s pointless to act like these individuals are not handicapped, which is why I have such a problem with the term “differently-abled” for the simple reason that retarded individuals don’t have the same capabilities that most people do. They don’t have “different abilities,” they have “dis-abilities.” They have limited mental and physical powers, but that doesn’t, however, mean that they don’t deserve our utmost respect, for the simple reason that they are, in the purest sense of the term, human beings.
But what does that mean? What Jamaal’s smile told me was that he still had the capability for happiness. For love. That to me is what humanity is about–it’s our capacity for those emotions, emotions that go beyond animalistic impulses. It’s the capacity for love and for hate, for delirium and despondency, elation and anger. For all of their disabilities, the one thing that every single person on the planet can still hold on to is their soul. Why should we respect their existence as people less than others who were merely born fortunate enough to have their full intellectual capabilities at their fingertips? The concept that we shouldn’t is nothing less than preposterous.
Earning that smile was an extraordinary moment for me, and something I’ll hopefully remember for the rest of my life.