Summer Camp: my worst idea yet?

ImageToday I deposited my child into the hands of complete strangers.  Actually paid them to take her.

That’s kind of bizarre, isn’t it?   Sorta like the first time you leave your kid at a new daycare, except with summer camp, you drive far away from home and dump them somewhere that isn’t close enough to retrieve them conveniently if necessary.

Emily is at Camp Spalding, about 75 miles north of town. Per her instructions, we were packed and ready to go at 12:15 p.m., even though registration/check-in wasn’t until 3 p.m.  As I pulled out of the driveway, she was singing an upbeat, made-up, hip-hop tune about how great it was to leave home for a week.  We arrived at 1:45 and were the first parents/campers to arrive.  I heard one staffer remark, “Are you kidding, they’re coming already?!”

I didn’t mind being early, as it gave us the chance to explore the grounds and for me to see the beach,  mess hall, chapel, trails and much of the grounds, so I can envision where she is throughout the week.  Since we were early enough that there were no other kids to watch, Em even posed for me to take pics at several spots.  By 3 when check-in started and Em still didn’t see her friend Ellie, she began to panic a bit that there was no one here she knew.  “Making new friends is part of the excitement of camp,” I cheered.  She began hugging Lavender Dog, the stuffed animal she brought.

When we finished checking in, we headed to her cabin and were greeted by her camp counselors, Natalie and Sarah.  Em picked a top bunk and I helped her get her suitcase and sleeping bag in place, then she made a sign with her name on it for her bunk, like all the other girls were doing.  We talked with Natalie and Sarah about making sure they had Em’s Epipen whenever they went hiking away from the premises, and Natalie said if it made me feel any better, she’s an EMT.  Yes, that makes me feel better!!  At least the total stranger I’m paying to hang with my kid can deal with an emergency.  (And maybe she’ll tell gory stories about people she’s had to care for, and Em will think that’s cool.)

Reminiscing Gone Awry

To keep from crying on the way home (I know, it’s a bit ridiculous), I reminisced about my own experiences at camp as a kid.  There were the classic camps at Cedarcrest, about 30 minutes from home, which I enjoyed—I mean endured—with all the kids I knew from school and church.  This had to be the Midwest’s most run-down, mosquito- and snake-infested site to send your kids to.  By now, someone has probably burned it down … on purpose.  The chapel/assembly hall was like a huge old barn and it was HOT.  There was a wooden plank “stage” and an antique out-of-tune upright piano, and old straight-back pews that some local church must have donated about a hundred years ago.  The mess hall was small and very basic, and it was where you got to spend free time doing KP as punishment for bad behavior.  (Which I experienced during one week when my dad was Camp Pastor.)  The cabins were havens for spiders and probably rodents, and you could see the weeds through the slats in the floor.  The grounds were pretty weedy and the pathway to the pond left nothing to be desired; then when you made your way to the dock and saw the water, there was no way you wanted to swim in it.

I suppose I owe my ability to camp and survive in primitive conditions to those days at Cedarcrest.  Oh, and it was there I learned that if you crunch up Certs in the dark, you can see sparks inside your mouth.

Me with my brother during "Family Camp" at Windermere, 1981
Me with my brother during “Family Camp” at Windermere, 1981

Eventually, my mother was doing to me what I just did to Emily:  shipping me off to some far-away camp to spend a week with complete strangers.  Windermere was definitely several steps up from Cedarcrest though.  It was located on Lake of the Ozarks, and while no lake in Missouri can compare to the lakes of the Northwest, the Ozark area really was pretty.  There was a long and winding road to Windermere off the main highway and there were accommodations of every kind – cabins, nicer cabins, lodges and even a hotel.  The chapel was beautiful, clean, air-conditioned, and had a nice grand piano that was actually in tune.  The dining hall had AC, too, and two long cafeteria-style serving lines with an assortment of choices.

Still … I did not WANT to be at Windermere.  I did not want to arrive early as Emily did today and I certainly wouldn’t have posed for photos if my mother had asked.  I wasn’t early enough to get first pick and so I ended up with the dreaded BOTTOM bunk, and shared a cabin with a bunch of girls named Jennifer so we had to decide who would be Jen, Jenny, Jennifer and just J.  What I did like about the cabin was how far away it was from everything and so close to the woods and trails.  I also liked that Windermere had a nice snack shop (should I mention air conditioning?) where we could get soft pretzels, nachos, ice cream and other junk.  There was also a boat dock and we could take out paddle boats or canoes.  Windermere turned out to be an okay experience and I returned the next year probably with a little less resistance.  I don’t remember my cabin counselor for that second summer, but I sure remember skipping chapel and hanging out in the cabin with some girl from Versailles, MO (which, in Missouri is pronounced Ver-SALES).  She and her boyfriend (who was obviously not supposed to be in the cabin) would make out.  Actually, now that I think about it, I’m not sure they were really “making out” because I was always there, just one bunk over.  Versales Girl became my pen pal anyway.

This reminiscing has not gone the direction I’d hoped.  I wonder if it’s too late for me to go back to Camp Spalding and get Emily … and a refund.  No, I will wait for a letter.  By tomorrow, she will have put a letter to me in the mail and by the next day, I’ll know that she is scoring friends, soaking up the wisdom from her cool counselors, having a blast bouncing off “the blob” into the lake, rappelling, making s’mores and enjoying those glow-sticks I put into her care package.

She WILL send me a letter from camp, right?

 

 

 

 

 

What I learned in 90 minutes at Las Obras

Or: My “failure” at serving severely disabled kids

Las Obras home in Antigua Guatemala
Las Obras home in Antigua Guatemala

Following a week of service in a rural Mayan village, our team headed to Antigua, Guatemala, for sight-seeing.  It wasn’t all fun and games, shopping and eating, though.  Our leaders wanted us to experience Las Obras Sociales del Santo Hermano Pedro — a hospital/home for the most severely disabled and deformed.

I thought to myself, “I used to take care of people with major disabilities.  I can do this.”  And it wasn’t so hard anyway, seeing how well cared for the patients are: impeccably clean and tended to with such compassion.

Then we entered a children’s unit, and things became a little tougher.  There were kids who wanted to be playful and others who were disfigured beyond belief.  Each one who reached out, Pedro touched compassionately and talked to them gently.  We followed his cue and begin interacting with the children as best as we could.  Next came the infant ward, where we were greeted by a tiny girl who was crying and holding out her hands to be picked up.  We wandered through the room, stopping at every crib.  Two with cleft palates.  One with cleft palate and additional disfiguration of his face.  One little boy lying contentedly, swinging his legs around in the air while lying on his back; he had Down syndrome, and nothing else “wrong” was apparent.

“Why,” I asked the Father,” would a child with something as simple as Down syndrome be in a place like this?  Where is his family?”

“He was abandoned,” said Padre.  “Like most of them.”

As we left that unit, most of us in tears, we turned a corner and there was a large piece of art depicting a person with severe deformities clinging to the feet of Jesus.  I could barely breathe.  Yes, that is the way they must feel – please Jesus, don’t leave me!  These are absolutely “the least of these” of whom Jesus spoke.

On Sunday, after my team departed for LA, I returned to San Pedro Iglesia where the residents of Las Obras join together for Mass.  There were more people in wheelchairs than in pews: people without legs; others with hands and feet turned to unnatural positions; some drooling.  Clapping, rocking, some with flies gathering at their mouths.  Some of them didn’t understand the homily any better than I, but we were together, sharing communion.

Three times, I returned to Las Obras, hoping to talk with the British doctor who volunteers there and to offer some time myself.  With limited Spanish, I asked the receptionist for Leslie, and she replied, “En la manana,” and so, I returned in the morning and went through the same routine.  Finally, on my last day in Antigua, I skipped breakfast and headed straight for Las Obras so I couldn’t possibly miss my connection with the English-speaking doctor.  This time, I didn’t even have to ask the receptionist — she asked, “Leslie?” and immediately got on the phone.  Leslie wasn’t available, but a Volunteer coordinator spoke English, and that was just what I needed!

(a photo from Google) Children in wheelchairs, under nets, to keep flies out of their mouths
(a photo from Google)
Children in wheelchairs, under nets, to keep flies out of their mouths

Soon, I had a volunteer badge and was escorted to the children’s ward.  There were several other Americans present who felt about as awkward and inadequate as I did, not speaking Spanish but trying desperately to do something good.  The children were all in their wheelchairs, lined up in rows around three sides of the courtyard.  Some appeared to be completely unaware of all reality, others were distressed.  I sat next to a teenaged boy, reclined in his chair, who was nonverbal but very alert.  I began singing, and without thinking about it, I was singing “Love in any language, straight from the heart, pulls us all together, never apart…”  He recognized the “I love you” in Spanish and smiled widely, looking at me as if to beg for more.

Then I went to Jessica, a beautiful girl with braids.  I touched her hair and I said “muy bonita,” (Very pretty!) and she gleamed with delight.  Perhaps they don’t often hear people tell them they’re beautiful, because by all means, some of them are difficult for many of us to look at.  I read part of a Dr. Seuss book to one boy and tried clapping hands with another, then one of the workers asked if I would take a crying boy for a little stroll in his chair.  He was so upset and she said the only thing that calms him down is being pushed around in his chair.  So we wandered through the garden and I rocked him slowly back and forth like you would a baby in a stroller and he became restful.

Confrontation with comfort

(photo from Google) This is a girl I visited who was very aware and delighted by attention
(photo from Google) This is a girl I visited who was very aware and delighted by attention

Eventually, some of the men from the American group came into the courtyard, and I made some quick labels in my head about them being straight off a corn field in Iowa.  It was somewhat comforting, in a twisted kind of way, to see others who surely were more out of place than me.  I had secretly named one “Cowboy Nascar” (yes, he was wearing a cowboy hat and a Nascar shirt) and soon was ashamed of my labeling and judgment, because he was WONDERFUL and so natural with these kids.  He made them laugh and soon had a gathering around him.

As much as I tried to feel that comfortable and relaxed myself, it never happened.  I continued to sing to different kids and take them for strolls, but at just an hour and a half into it, I had to leave.  And I felt guilty for that.  A whopping 90 minutes.  What’s wrong with me that I can’t do this longer?  Am I just selfish, unable or unwilling to face such difficult situations?

I was hungry, so that was my ticket out the door.  I turned in my badge, got my purse and left Las Obras with a heavy heart.

What did I learn—about myself—in 90 minutes with “the least of these”? 

Many things, but here are a few vivid lessons.

  1. In case I haven’t heard the old cliché enough: you can’t judge a book by its cover.  Cowboy Nascar was gifted, and he was willing, and he made a difference.  Guaranteed.  And I should do away with hasty generalizations.
  2. In truth, I went to Las Obras to volunteer because I thought doing something “noble” would make me feel better about myself.  Really?  There are so many things I can say about that foolishness!  It was clear that I forced myself to go.  The day before, I so desperately wanted to avoid it that I walked as far as possible and went into a resort where I had myself a spa treatment!  As it turned out, letting someone care for me felt pretty good, and I need to learn to accept that without shame or guilt.
  3. Everybody knows:  we don’t all have the same gifts, and we don’t have to.  The cool thing about Dr. Leslie, the British woman I never got to meet?  I’d heard that she had stopped by Las Obras for a quick tour like my group had, she loved the opportunity she saw, and she never left.  When my friend Mark said “Thanks for your service here,” she replied to him with all sincerity, “Brother, it’s no burden.”

Obviously, serving these vulnerable children and adults is her gift, her calling.  But that doesn’t mean it’s mine.  I don’t have to beat myself up for having only lasted 90 minutes in a place where she’s remained more than a year.

Let’s chat.

I think we could have some good dialogue about this experience, so I’m inviting you to chime in.  What about my vulnerability in this story did you connect with?  Did it remind you of similar experiences where you faced some tough truths?  Let’s talk.

Receiving more than giving

Thursday was our last day in Sehaquiba and we were sad.  In a few short days, these amazing and wonderful people worked their way into our hearts.  They have changed us.

IMG_20140519_130655693Our instructions were to focus on doing one stove installation per team and to do it with great intention and presence … to pay more attention to the family and enjoy their company.  We were quite happy to oblige.  We rode up the hill in the bus a couple of miles and then hiked in to Jose’s little house, which, interestingly, was the first little home on the hill I had noticed when we first arrived in Sehaquiba.  It was there I had seen two little girls watching the bus round the corner into their world.  Those two little girls stood atop their hill once again, and this time welcomed us up to their home.

When the stove was complete and the Monitoring Mothers had done their teaching about its use, some girls immediately set about preparing tortillas.  They pat the meal like pancakes, then add some spiced black beans, add more meal and pat into a perfect tortilla to put on the stove.  Kendra jumped in to participate, and then me.  You would think patting some black bean mixture into a tortilla would be easy, but I managed to make a mess of it, and they laughed when I put mine on the stove!

The room was rearranged and a table set in the middle, with a bench alongside for us to sit and eat the bean tortillas and drink the Moosh.  Fortunately for a corn hater like me, this was 99% warm sweetened milk and 1% corn.  Per our tradition, we gathered for a blessing, praying for the family and their health, and them praying blessings on our families and our safe return home.

DSCN0668Back at the community center, music was already playing and groups were gathering for our closing ceremony.  Like the welcoming ceremony just days before, the facility was decorated and the spirit was jovial.  Women were cooking stew in huge pots in another room, and the marimba men were keeping things lively while the kids danced with us again.

Jose opened the ceremony with a spiritual reflection and scripture, then Enrique (the mayor) gave his speech:

“Thank you for the love you’ve shown us and for your help in community development.  We’re so happy having you here working together with the people – your organization, coordination, empowerment.  We thank God for these Americans thinking about this community.  We have understood the need for these stoves – no more smoke in the house – this is important for our good health.”

The community council representative said “We don’t have anything to pay you back, but we are so grateful for what you’ve done.”  They presented Mark with a thank you note written in three languages.

The last Qiche speaker said,“We love Americans … because they become our friends.” 

They love us not because we brought them a physical gift but because we developed relationships with them.  And while they said they had nothing to give us as thanks, that wasn’t true.  They gave each and every team member a gift – something made with their own hands, for us to take home and remember them by.

After many speeches, gifts and dances, we made our way to the bus, where the Monitoring Mothers and their kids joined us for prayer.  The Mother who prayed (Josephina?) was sobbing, and then were the rest of us.  I watched Ophelia wipe tears from Olga’s cheek.   Such amazing women trying to accomplish so much for their community, and feeling powerless without the support of the Americans and MTI to back them up.  Ironic, really, as THEY are the ones doing the work, providing education and helping their fellow community members to see what must happen for them to experience improved health and wellbeing.

Saying goodbye was SO hard.  I am already dreaming of the day I can return and embrace them with a warm and hearty, “Masalachole!”  (How is your soul?!)

Back in Coban, we had dinner and MTI staff presented us with certificates that have the photo of our team with the Sehaquiba community, and a bag of Coban coffee, too.  More moving speeches, more thanks, more appreciation.

I don’t need – or deserve – all that, because truly, I have received more than I have given.

 

(If you care to hear any more about the experience working in Guatemala, send me a note!  If you want to learn more about the amazing opportunities with Medical Teams International, visit www.medicalteams.org.)