So life has a very funny way of giving you exactly what you least expect but need most. This adage has proven itself to be true over and over again in my life this past year. This is about the time every year that I reflect on my time at Camp Smiles, my favorite place on the earth, and what being there every summer teaches me. However, this summer brought more than Camp Smiles; this summer I had the opportunity to volunteer, travel abroad AND a very exciting career change for me. For those of you who don’t know, I was hired to work at Easter Seals (the non-profit that puts on Camp Smiles) to take over the position of Children’s Recreation and Adult Program Coordinator. Yes, that means that I get to not only attend overnight camp as my job, but to coordinate and facilitate how it runs. I am also co-ordinating various therapy programs for children throughout the year like dance, yoga, and Gymboree, running the Toy/Tech library, running five weeks of day camp, and directing the year round Adult Program for adults with various disabilities in the Houston area.
So I returned from Peru and three days later started my new job – first week of work, Camp Smiles. What a perfect way to start this new life. I know that I get cheesy and sentimental when I talk about this place, and this is going to be no different. However, this note is going to be very different in terms of what I learned and took away from camp THIS year. Being the “head honcho” gives you a completely different outlook on the goings on at camp. It was hard to embrace at first, but truth be told, my first lesson – I really was not there for the kids as much as I was there for the volunteers. The children will always be my motivation and drive, but this year I was working for and serving a different crowd.
I ran most of the meetings with the volunteers and cabin leaders and doing so opened my eyes to what my new role really means. I feel truly blessed to get to provide the opportunity for these volunteers, most of whom are high school students who have no experience working with people with disabilities, to step out of their comfort zones and embrace this population that they might not have encountered before. It is truly a unique experience to witness these same volunteers bond with their camper buddies. They come at the beginning of the week more timid and afraid than the campers and leave with their hearts changed forever. There are not many other opportunities that give you such the chance for total submersion.
Over the years, I’ve talked about how much Camp Smiles has taught and changed me. These children are my heart and soul, so to watch them work their magic on other people is truly inspiring. Our campers teach lessons of patience, kindness, understanding, dedication, and empathy. They bring out qualities in people that they themselves didn’t even know they possessed. I saw it in the high school lacrosse jock who woke up at least five times a night to soothe and comfort his camper who had a very hard time sleeping; and in the beauty queen who returned for another year and requested to be with a camper with more challenges than most, because she felt like they had a connection and that she could help her camper have an amazing year at camp; and in the med student who had a summer off for the first time in four years and used her first free summer to come back and see the kids again because they had left such an impression on her; and in the teenage girl who made her camper feel like the most beautiful and popular girl alive. I could go on and on. These children have such a unique gift and I feel so lucky that my job is to help others see how incredible they are and how much they can learn from helping others.
It feels silly at the ripe old age of 23 to say that I saw myself in so many of the current volunteers, but it’s true. My heart just about exploded when one the volunteers I am closest to told me that when she starts college in the fall, she wants to study nursing with an emphasis in working with children with disabilities. I could not be more excited to serve and work for the volunteers. I want to give them all of the love and support that they need so that they can pour everything they have into working with our children. It really is such a beautiful thing; I get to share what I am passionate about with so many people and they in turn get to experience it for themselves.
So there it is, my end of summer wrap up. Last month, I start working with the adult program and I am excited to see what this new opportunity holds. Life is truly fascinating; Who knew a year ago that I would have the opportunity to work at my dream job with the people who helped me realize what I am supposed to do with my life.
Betsy Keane, Camp Coordinator, Easter Seals