The alarm clock went off at 7:30 am on a Monday morning on August 2. I reluctantly woke up seeing as though I had fallen into the habit of sleeping in on summer days. Whether I liked it or not, my Camp Sunrise volunteering was only about an hour away. Little did I know, at the end of two weeks, I was able to learn a lot from the camp. Volunteers arrived at 8:45 am and campers started flooding the Smith Middle School cafeteria soon after. By 9:15, all counselors (group leaders), campers, and even volunteers gathered together at the center of the room for openings.
During the openings, volunteers and their assigned buddies listened to the song “Here Comes the Sun” while also performing the song in sign language. This activity not only united the campers but allowed them to practice their listening skills and sign language. To get the campers off their feet, the campers were encouraged to dance along songs such as “YMCA” and “The Macarena”. Dancing forced the campers to remember the steps, which were often repetitive, and it permitted the campers to cooperate with the rest of their peers in an activity. On special occasions, there were field trips.
Within my first week of volunteering, my assigned buddies and I went to Coco Keys Water Resort and Quassy. At Coco Keys Water Resort, Cassandra and I enjoyed the indoor water park by splashing in the water and sliding down the mini slides. At Quassy, Michael and I went on multiple different rides and were able to use a map to navigate our way around the park. On days where no field trips were planned, the campers would spend a day at Addison Pool. At the pool, my buddy and I would swim all around the pool and entertain ourselves with water games such as “Marco Polo” or “Tag”.
As a volunteer for the last week of camp, I had the special privilege of participating in color games. The camp was divided into two teams and competed in mini games. Campers vie against each other in games such as looking for peanuts hidden in the grass, a swimming race, a water balloon toss, and as the final event, a relay. Every day at camp was different than the last but yet all very fun! As with any other camps, Camp Sunrise had rules. The rules were to protect the safety of everyone. A simple rule is to keep all hands to yourself.
At times, campers would neglect this rule and push, shove, and take other aggressive actions against another camper. When this happens, either a group leader or a volunteer breaks this rule in order to forcefully remove the camper. Many times, the stubborn camper refuses to follow the group. In this case, the volunteer and group leader carries the camper in a way that won’t hurt him or her. At the pool, it was imperative to keep an eye on your swimming buddy at all times, in and out of the pool. Most of the campers did not know how to swim and the little ones required a life jacket.
Some campers stayed close while others were eager to scurry around. With whatever the case, it was necessary that the camper’s swimming buddy was close at all times. It was important to not share foods with the campers and teach them to respect other people’s belongings. Campers have allergies and they should learn to revere their peers and that includes other’s belongings. Sometimes the campers were reluctant to engage in the camp’s activities. In order to encourage the camper to join in with the rest or the group I would hold the camper’s hands and lead him in the right direction.
For example, my buddies, a lot of the times, did not want to dance along to the songs during the openings because he or she either didn’t know how to, were shy, or for other reasons. However, when I held his or her hand the camper seemed to be more at ease and willing to dance to their own beat. Another strategy I might try is to coax the camper by telling him or her how much fun the activity is. For instance, I will pretend to pick up some Legos and start laughing. The camper will see me having fun and join me in the activity. Essentially, I will set an example for the camper for them to follow.
In games that the campers are not capable of carrying out, I will engage the camper in a different way. For example, during the cooking activity, Max could not put the fruit loops through the string to make a fruit loop necklace. Instead, I strung the necklace for him and I asked Max to hand me the color fruit loops he wanted on his necklace and I asked him to count how many fruit loops were on his necklace. Another way of including a camper into an activity is to talk to the camper and learn of his interests and then incorporate what he likes to do into the camp activity.
At the beach, Michael initially did not want to go in the water. This was the second time I had had Michael as a partner and knew that he liked to play “games” (play pretend). So I told him that if we went in the water, he and I could pretend to catch lobsters, which is also his favorite food. There are many ways to engage campers into an activity. You just need to find the right strategy for each camper’s unique personality. Campers can get frustrated very easily. They got frustrated if one felt as though he or she was not keeping along with the dance steps or if another camper had a bigger Lego spacecraft.
Alex blamed Ben for his team’s loss during the swim race during Color Games. He complained that he could’ve swam faster would have not lost his team valuable points. In situations like these, I offered the campers reasons as to why that may have happened. I told Alex, “Ben could have been tired. He had to walk all the way from the school to Addison. He might have had a large breakfast and that’s why he couldn’t eat the banana fast enough. ” And it is always important to tell the campers that trying your best is always the most important thing.
I will ask the camper if they had fun during the activity only to hear them mutter a “yes” and prove to them that winning is not important if the activity was fun either way. Not all the campers were easy to control. There were a few problems I ran into. For children who have trouble hearing and following directions, as a volunteer, I’ve learned to repeat myself and to use hand motions. For example, I was paired with Chris (CeCe) and in order to tell him to behave; I’d have to use the sign language for “stop” or “sit down”. I also faced kids who would get frustrated and grow angry very fast.
I would calmly talk to the camper and explain the situation. For example, at the camp fieldtrip to the pool, Adam grew angry and refused to go to the beach. I told him that he didn’t have to and we could just spend time at the playscape onshore. I offered him an alternative option so that he would calm down. I’ve learned a lot at Camp Sunrise. I’ve learned that the campers are just like us and range in personalities. Max can talk all day about George Washington and Wall-E while someone like Ryan I need to poke at him for him to talk.
Michael is shy and likes to be alone and Alan likes to socialize. Cassandra talks quietly and Chris (CeCe) is loud. I find it amazing how the kids who can not speak find other ways to communicate and I’ve shocked myself that I found a way to communicate with them without knowing much sign language. Cassandra talks about how she wants to get married and have a family and Jake and Matt are getting jobs this fall while going to school. I’ve learned that though the kids have disabilities, they are setting goals and putting all they’ve got forward to achieve their goals.
I walked into camp the first day and pitied the campers. However, I walk out looking up to them. They’ve showed me that I should be happy with what I have and not worry about what I don’t have. Determination is what achieves goals. Along with determination, every camper has his or her own special talent. Jimmy is a great basketball player and Adam is a master at origami. These campers proved to me that they are not “special needs” kids, they are special. They also showed taught me a life lesson: perseverance.
If I were to come back to this program next year, there is not much I would change. This experience was very meaningful to me and I’ve learned a lot. But if I had to do something differently, I would want to get to pair up with a buddy for more than a day. I would want to spend a week with each child and get to know them better and let them know more about me. I also regret not knowing all the campers. This is important to me because each camper has his or her own story and I regret not being able to hear each one.