What if I asked you to take a week of vacation from work, pay to travel, pay to go to a camp, work for long, exhausting hours on little sleep, get cups of water and forks thrown at you, show love and care 100% of the time to people with special needs who at times are uncooperative, and assist with everything from brushing teeth to wiping after someone uses the toilet? I had the privilege of witnessing many do this with a smile while serving at Special Camp 2019, a completely volunteer driven week of fun activities for teens and adults with physical or mental challenges.
I wasn’t planning on sharing my involvement in something like this, but one of the nightly staff meeting speakers urged us to do so positing that we all have an anonymous audience of people popping in and out of our lives that could be encouraged by the positive camp culture of being tirelessly committed to loving others. As a first time volunteer, I could instantly feel the pure acceptance of someone as they are, the warmth to care about everyone else and show them genuine attention, the humility to do so much without expectation of validation or praise, the camaraderie to jump in no matter whose responsibility a problem was, and the drive to work tirelessly on little sleep.
Love. The biggest thing that hit me was just the love that every volunteer shows to meet people where they are and who they are becoming. It was unconditional and proactive. It was patient and non judgemental. One of the simplest things I read in the Bible was to love your neighbor as yourself. It sounds so simple but it’s so hard that very few -- def not me -- end up loving everyone and always. No one was trying to “fix” or change the campers, they just took an interest in them and wanted to be with them.
Selflessness. No one would do anything for validation or praise. When a camper didn’t have a hat, I saw a volunteer give the camper his. When a camper wet his sleeping bag, I saw a volunteer sleep on the floor on a towel and give the camper his bag (which the camper also ended up wetting). There must have been 100 of these small acts of love, some of which I had the joy of witnessing but most done silently with no one watching.
Humility. Everyone was completely committed to what they were doing and presented themselves as they are - the focus was never on them but rather what they were doing and why. As we waited for the campers on the first day, one of my partners mentioned lifting weights when he was younger but now his wife has him running. I later learned “lifting weights when he was younger” meant he was the US representative for powerlifting at the World Games and “his wife has him running” meant he runs 50 and 100 mile ultramarathons. It was amazing for me to see people who were so humble and whose identity was not derived at all from their accomplishments.
Depth of character. Every volunteer and camper I met had such richness to their lives when I got to know them. While I feel quite bad to say this, sometimes at church or volunteering I meet people who are very nice but I struggle to be close friends with them as the only aspects of their personality I get the privilege of seeing is their agreeability and niceness. It was great meeting people who are incredible loving but also have amazing hobbies and even greater senses of humor and savage roasting. I met so many role models I aspire to be like.
Growth & impact. People grow where they’re loved. Unfortunately, some of the campers close up and become less communicative due to people in their regular lives avoiding getting to know them, seeing their disability first before seeing them as a person with just as much richness as you or me. Seeing campers open up about personal issues or seeing them try to communicate more despite whatever challenge they have was very rewarding and a reminder that being loved brings out the best in us.
Culture spreads. The culture that the volunteers created spread to the campers. By mid week, I could see a less physically challenged camper almost motherly guide a more physically challenged camper holding her hand as they walked and danced. I could see another camper mentor a younger, more disruptive camper by calling him his “homie”, putting his arm over his shoulder, and helping curb his behavior. The special needs camp shared a facility with a college camp and the culture spread to them, too. While the college camp could have just had a fun summer and avoided the special needs campers, many of the college campers took to serving and genuinely caring for the campers in the same way the special camp volunteers did. People see what you do and it spreads.
Invite others. Whenever someone asks to give me a hand, I usually respond “don’t worry about it, I got it” to not trouble them. I learned at camp that my response does a disservice to both them and the world. A fellow volunteer showed me how to say “yes” when someone asks to help and how giving them a task lead can lead to the person going from being a spectator to an owner who may then be inspired to make even greater contributions on their own!
Directness of affection. The campers reminded me how impactful direct and genuine communication is. One camper would yell out, “Hi Kevin!” as soon as he heard my voice. Another camper just told me, “I really like you” and another scribbled his number on a Dixie cup saying he wanted to text me after camp. Being present and just fearlessly sharing your love can make a positive impact on how others are feeling.
Hopefully, some of these aspects of camp were interesting to you. The best part is that this culture isn't limited to only camp - you can start spreading it anywhere. For a while I’ve been wondering, “Is this truly it? Have I made it?” while having fun with so many great friends, living in a bougie apartment, driving a sports car, and getting promotions at a great company. I’m thankful I was unsatisfied and led to find this opportunity. Having the honor to serve alongside so many amazingly funny, cool, and truly just good people has taught me the love and presence we show to others is far more important and memorable than any accomplishment could ever be. I still have a ton to figure out, but I hope to love fearlessly going forward and, while I will not always love perfectly, I hope to positively impact all the people around me (including you all who I am so happy and lucky to call friends).
I had no qualifications or experience for this volunteer activity. If you see something that could be growing for you, I’d encourage you to just say yes and be present. Who knows where it will lead. I’m cheering for you and who you’re becoming!