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Through a Camp Counselor’s Eyes

How my short four days as a camp counselor for autistic boys changed my perspective and allowed me to learn more about myself.

by Riley McNett, Snapchat Editor

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Take an exit off Kill Creek Road and take a right. Turn left on 83rd street. Turn right onto Wyandotte street. At the stop sign county road 26, turn left. Proceed approximately two to five miles. Take a sharp right turn onto a gravel road and this is where you will find a part of my heart and soul.

Over the summer, I was a camp counselor at Camp Encourage. Camp Encourage is a non-profit organization and camp for youth 6-18 years old on the autism disorder spectrum. Camp Encourage is my service agency. Coming to camp, I was extremely nervous. I was the only STA girl at that particular camp session, had never been a camp counselor, and never traveled that far on my own. Little did I know, Camp Encourage was going to be the best four days of my life.

First and foremost, a lot of people in this world do not know what autism is and isn’t. Of course there is no way for those without autism to fully understand the autistic experience. Autism is “a mental condition, present from early childhood, characterized by difficulty in communicating and forming relationships with other people and in using language and abstract concepts.” My opinion is that each autistic person is different and there is not one or multiple characterizations that can generalize everyone. I gathered from an assortment of experiences throughout my week at camp and formed a couple of my opinions on what autistic kids are and aren’t and some reasons you should be a camp counselor for kids with disabilities or mental conditions.

Autism spectrum disorder, or ASD kids are just like us and we just don’t realize it. At camp, a group is usually formed of 8 kids with ASD and two or three “peer models.” Peer models are kids without ASD, but the same age. When asking a peer model what he enjoyed most about Camp Encourage, he expressed, “meeting new kids that have ASD and finding out that they are a lot like me.” This quote melted my heart when I read it because no matter autistic or not, they are no less dignified and beautiful than anyone else on this planet. Many of them have full and wonderful lives so you don’t need to feel sympathetic toward them, but once you get a chance to get to know them you realize that they’re just people, and you’re a person, and you’re not that different. I learned to appreciate and celebrate differences and got to see the beauty of uniqueness first hand.

I learned so much about myself from a group of eight to ten year olds in just a short four days. These kids made me reflect on my life and how I look at it. First of all, these kids encouraged me to step outside of my comfort zone more often. Most of the kids have never been away from home for even a night and are very nervous at the beginning of camp. By the end, the boys were completely different people from the first time we met because of them stepping outside of their comfort zone.

            Picture Owen: a kid who is very very shy, always is playing by himself with a stick in the lawn and is very content and doesn’t come close to having physical contact with another person. His mom told us counselors when she dropped him off that he won’t hug or touch anyone throughout the entire camp experience. One day in the sensory room, I was laying on a chair while Owen and another counselor were playing with the blocks. He comes over to me and completely sprawls his entire body on top of me and just stays there. This spoke volumes to both me and the other counselor because of how much a few days at camp encourage can do to a person.

           Oliver was another camper is my group who was being interviewed by a photographer. Each group was assigned a photographer, because the photos and videos were being compiled to make a promotion video for Camp Encourage. With just being told to answer a “few questions for Jill,” Oliver had no idea his responses were for a video. The question asked to him was “Once you can not come to camp as a camper anymore because you are over 18, would you like to come back and volunteer?” Oliver’s response was “Yes! Because I want to encourage and help people like I have been encouraged.” This response really spoke to me because we can all learn from this in that we should give back in the same ways we have been treated and supported.

Camp Encourage was the time of my life and such a great experience that I will remember forever. I learned a lot about myself, the world we live in, and our uniqueness and differences between others. I hope this column spoke to one of you and encouraged you to step outside of your comfort zone and maybe be a volunteer at a camp with kids with disabilities one day.

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Through a Camp Counselor’s Eyes