Summer Camp ’13 – Week 1

What a freaking awesome week!

I don’t really  know how else to start, this week was just huge fun, I really lucked out. There is just so much that I could talk about I have no idea how to begin. To understand how all of the different activities went, you have to know about the kids we work with, and a little bit about the individuals, because they are all really different.  I guess I will try to describe my tribe first.

Every in camp tribe has two counselors and one junior counselor in training (Jr. CIT). My co-staff is a second year worker and our Jr. CIT was a first year, like me. Fortunately, the co-staff has experience mostly with the age group that we had with us, and with one of the campers we were most worried about having behavior problems from. [I’m not very good at making up and sticking with replacement names, so I’m just going to use letter combinations.]

KS was the first camper to show up, has been coming to camp for many years, and she was one of our biggest concerns for behavior problems. In the past, she has had complete meltdowns, which have to result in a restraint, up to once every three or four hours. When she is taken away from an activity that she enjoys a lot without enough transition or warning time, or when she is forced to work on a task which she finds too challenging, she completely shuts down and basically becomes a different person – removing herself from the group and becoming quiet, angry, and if not diverted, physically aggressive. And, what really shows there is something physiologically/chemically/genetically (?) different about her is that she doesn’t remember what she has done when she goes down this path and is tragically sorry when she finds out that she has hurt any of us. When not down this path, KS is the happiest, kindest, most caring and energetic girl you could ever expect to meet. When she talks to you, she holds the most intense eye contact I have ever seen from a child, probably anybody. When she accomplishes anything that she has not before, her cheers of excitement are literally the happiest things I have ever heard in my life. Fortunately, this week, she only had one meltdown that we could not divert, but more on that later.

KT is a first year girl who has had a lot of behavior issues in school, but seems like a fairly normal teenager otherwise. When engaged she is very talkative and wants to tell you all kinds of things about home and all of the behavioral things she has gotten in trouble for in the past. Oh, and about her boyfriend. When she shuts downs, she is just very quiet and she was often self-conscious about eating in front of others. While she was here, she did not exhibit any aggressive tendencies, but she did make a lot of new friends, which she was very happy about.

TL is a very sweet girl with some serious maternal attachment issues and a mom who, based on what we know, who is not making those issues go away. The two of them apparently do everything together – she is home-schooled, rarely leaves home, sleeps in her mother’s bed, and showers with her mother. Remember, this girl is fifteen years old. Thinking about this through the week, I wondered about how this situation would be viewed if any of the gender roles were changed, and it really concerned me. The first half of the week had a lot of crying and sadness from this girl, but she came around through the week and actually asked how she could be come a counselor in the future! The worrisome change is that she definitely attached to my female co-staff and one of our campers (KS) to make up for the absence of her mom.

AN was, by far, the most talkative member of our group. A first year camper attending two camps his first summer, he was a huge entertainment. Physically, I would probably compare him to a stork or a spider – very skinny and very focused on consuming anything with sugar in it (apparently he is forced to eat pretty healthily at home…). I think he came in a little nervous, but he definitely left excited to return next week for his second week of camp.

DS was the most frustrating member of our group. A fifteen year old boy, which he is, pretty much describes him perfectly. Constantly trying to bother (flirt with) the girls, so excited by any opportunity to look through creeks and under rocks for salamanders and crayfish, and a very creative artist. He also enjoyed lying and would do it regularly, no matter how many times we would point out that we could tell he was lying, and no matter how many times he told the truth right afterwards. And he could eat, oh my goodness.

JC was a fantastic camper. An eighteen year old, very large, man (could have shaved a couple times while he was here) who used to suffer greatly from depression, but is now an exceptionally sweet, kind, and smart dude. He always was able to come up with really great ideas for solving the initiatives that we threw at them, and usually ended up taking the lead for these activities. He got frustrated a few times, and those were the only times that he became profane – you could hear it in his voice and see it in his eyes when he changed – but after a few minutes of alone time, he would come back and be truly apologetic.

KR was, by far, my favorite camper this week. A seventeen year old with very noticeable developmental delays in motor skills and speech, he struggled with communication and moving around with us, but showed such incredible and inspirational persistence, perseverance, and pure joy. Apparently, he had been very physically aggressive in the past, and usually is, but was an absolute angel with us this past week – giving hugs and be very patient when we had no idea what he was saying. I could feel that he knew exactly what he wanted to say in his brain, but just did not have the muscle control in his face and tongue and all of those other small muscles that are important to speech to express it in a way we could understand. Frustrating, but I felt so good about myself when I was able to figure out what he was trying to say.

Over a thousand words, and I still have six days of activities to talk about… Brace yourselves.

Monday morning was last minute preparations – making sure that everything was ready to go for the week, reviewing the kids we had coming, and, for our tribe, gaining an extra counselor-ish person. A student from a nearby University in a Special Education Master’s program would be joining us for some of the days of the week – helping out, leading an activity, etc., but not staying overnight. From hearing about the week from everybody afterwards, other tribes wouldh have definitely benefited from her presence a lot more. Monday afternoon, the kids started showing up, and we started getting to know them, playing games, developing a tribe name (ShockWolves, after compromising between Shockwave and Timberwolves), expectations for the week, and consequences for not following those expectations. Burgers and hot dogs for dinner outside, followed by more team building type games (including the only one that KS was actually interested in participating in – the Maze Tarp), and some arts and crafts for them to learn about each other and express something about themselves. We mad Fame Tags (an acrostic of your name about you) and Name Monsters (write your name on a piece of paper folded length-wise, cut around your name, open it up, and decorate the other side with a monster). When I made my name monster, I, completely unintentionally, made a combination of a cow and a duck. Thankfully,  I was lucky enough for on of the campers to point out that it was clearly a “Cuck” and nothing else. Phew. As evening settled in, it was time for the first campfire of the week – a half hour or so of songs and skits around the fire pit, accompanied by snack. The difference between OE campfires and Summer Camp fires, is that we don’t have time to plan out campfires in the summer, so you pretty much just jump up and do a song or skit as you see fit. Thank goodness I had a season of preparation under my belt. I did one skit where I pretended to be a bear that jumped up with his paws in the air and roared. After that, I was regularly called “the bear” and KR roared at everyone, all of the time. It was hilarious. After the fire, the kids were taken to their cabins and put to bed. I was lucky enough to be “OC” that night, and didn’t have to help out. We have 4 different night time duties – Overnight Responsibility (OR – sleep in the cabin), On Duty (OD – stay at the cabin until the OR has the kids under control), Off Camp (OC – you’re free), and Camp Out (CO – you’re camping out with your kids). Cabins are split up by gender with, generally, same gender counselors in the cabin. Some girl counselors have to work in boys cabins because have way more boy campers than girl campers, generally.

Tuesday began the real activities. Pick up your kids from their cabin at 7:30a, take them to the bathroom and breakfast, where you meet up with the rest of your tribe, if it is a mixed tribe, and then your day begins. Our Tuesday plan was an all day hike at the nearby farm. Fortunately, the weather was absolutely gorgeous. Unfortunately, we had to try to entertain our kids with little games for 50 minutes while we waited for a transport. The kids were actually really good on the hike. We did probably 4 miles total, seeing the spring which has been flowing out of the hillside for 50,000 years, a variety of plants, farm animals, the cabin where Shawshank Redemption begins, some maple lines, a cave (where a AN, who is really excited about photography, lost his disposable camera), a GeoCache, and walking two one-mile loop trails. While walking around, we also saw a doe and a pair of Pileated woodpeckers! I was super excited about the latter, but the kids were all pretty pooped by then and didn’t get a good look, but they loved the doe we saw. The best part of every day is definitely rest time, where the kids (and mostly the counselors) get an hour to sit back, relax, and (if you’re lucky) nap. It was definitely a really good rest period on Tuesday. We got back to camp before 5, got the kids showered, and went into the woods around camp for our first camp out of the week! Our Jr. CIT got the fire going for us and started cooking (poorly, to be honest, but the big thing was that she moved all of the stuff up there while we got the kids clean). We tried to get the kids to build shelters to sleep in, but they were not particularly interested in doing anything besides laying down after a day of hiking. A couple of the boys (AN and DS) were strongly opposed to bugs and sprayed buy spray all of the way around their tarp that all of the boys were sleeping on. Sigh. The girls didn’t care at all. Mac ‘n’ Cheese was for dinner and the cooking went a lot better once I built the fire up noticeably. That evening we got to get ice cream sundaes for snack (each tribe gets one a week). We also did the trust fall sequence to prepare the tribe for the Giant Swing the next morning and the Ropes Course on Friday! It went surprisingly well, especially for TL, who was hesitant at first, but when directly asked, was happy to do each part in the sequence  (Trust lean, Wind-in-the-Willows, and Stiff-as-a-Board/Light-as-a-Feather). I told the story of the Trids and most everyone went to sleep. AN and DS were rather nervous about sleeping outside and elected to stay up on watch so no animals attacked us. It was only annoying when they decided to try to whisper or shine their flashlights around.

Wednesday morning brought the Giant Swing! An easy and rewarding challenge for the kids. All of the returns had been on it before and only DS was reluctant to get back on, but we convinced him to, and all of the newbies except KT went for a swing. She had some bad memories relating to harnesses and heights that she was not eager to share and we could not talk her past, unfortunately. But we got the two others who were really freaked out about going on to go halfway up, which was great. After the swing, the student teacher with us wanted to lead an initiative activity while being observed by here teacher. We took the kids to the islands area where they have to get their entire tribe from one big platform, across a small platform, to a second large platform using only two boards which are too short to reach all of the way across the gaps, without touching the ground in between. This was one of the first places that JC really shown. After Islands, we went to shoot Slingshots, a big hit with most kids, because they’re getting to shoot pebbles at high speeds. DS really excelled and was very proud. After lunch and rest (for which I was watching the cabin) we got to go tubing down the river. A very chill, relaxing activity which is especially entertaining if your kids aren’t particularly comfortable in water. Lucky for us, we had three kids like that. KR, KS, JC, and DS rocked it out and drifted contentedly down the river. However, AN could not relax, and thus could not balance well in his tube (his lankiness didn’t help either), KT was scared of being in water with fish, and TL was just generally uncomfortable with getting wet (and a missing her mom, per usual). But, through a lot of convincing and waiting, we got everybody in a tube, floating down the river. It was pretty fun to watch. We were thankful we got to tube in the afternoon because the water was rather chilly and it would have been uncomfortable with cooler air. Back at camp, post-tubing, we went and played on the slip ‘n’ slide! KS, KR, and JC were really the only ones participating, everybody else wanted to finish drying off before dinner. Here, is where we finally made our first real mistake with KS. She was having a great time on the slide and, without warning (from her point of view), we told her that this would be her last slide, which she agreed to. Then, done with the slide, I had the group move on to do some relatively simple team building initiatives, starting with the helium hoop, which really pushes communication and cooperation. The group did not start successful, just like any other group performing the task, and after a couple tries KS said “this is stupid” and walked away and sat down. We probably should have done something, but she was sitting on her towel, not causing any more problems, so it wasn’t too big a deal, yet. Then DS dropped out to, refusing to participate and we tried to bring KS back in to the same role she had before. She refused and descended farther away from her normal self, eventually to being physically aggressive, whacking sticks on trees and anything else. My c0-staff went to talk to her while I continued to try to lead another initiative, which the group did pretty well with (mostly thanks to JC). When we saw that KS wasn’t coming out of it easily (hitting and scratching the staff working with her), we got the rest of the tribe away to get ready for dinner. She had to be restrained and talk to the behavior specialists/camp directors for a little bit while she cooled off, and when we saw her again, she was back to normal, and very hopeful that she had not missed out on her free swim opportunity, which we would be doing after dinner. What I learned is that you absolutely have to forgive her because she is clearly so not doing it intentionally. After dinner, we did have free swim, which went perfectly because we gave KS lots of heads up about when she would have to get out of the water. Then, we got the kids showered before the campfire performance. Then, they were off to bed and, as I was OD and only my kids were in the cabin, I was free.

Thursday brought another hike, this one in the state park next to camp. I had originally planned on having us hike out of camp and all of the way back without any transports, but after seeing how they responded to the last hike of 4 miles, and known that such a hike would probably be twice that long, I decided we need a drop off. We went to see all three of the waterfalls, as well as the dam and some other cool stuff. JC was the most opposed to going hiking. He refused to go at all because he didn’t like walking last time and didn’t want to do it again. One of the directors made the deal with him that if he didn’t like it at lunch time, we could get him picked up, and then he was willing to go, thankfully. Luckily, he ended up loving it, seeing all of the waterfalls and things. He even found an owl pellet. KS nearly melted down twice, but we were fortunately able to bring her back from the edge and keep her going. Once, after I had the group attempt warp speed (see how fast they can get a knot in a loop of webbing 360 degrees around a circle) and we got her back by letting her read her book, telling her that the director wanted her to make a good decision, and reminding her that she wouldn’t get to see the other waterfalls if she went back then. The second time, we were on our way back, briefly along the side of the road, and she stopped and would not go further until a car picked her up and took her back to camp. Part of the problem was probably that she somehow managed to lose her socks between the time they left the cabin in the morning and the time we got on the trail, and she was tired and a little dehydrated. Fortunately, I still had a wildflower ID book that I had shown here earlier and she had gotten very excited about. So, I pulled it out of my bag and started looking through it, talking about the cool flowers I saw, and showing them to my co-staff. Then, I slowly moved towards KS, and pointed out some cool flowers to her, telling how she could help me look for them if she walked through the woods. Eventually, she saw one in the book that she wanted to pick for her mom, so she agreed to walk through the woods to find it. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so much relief. We got back to camp, everyone else was a huge trooper. TL helped carry the backpack a bunch, KR fell off of the trail once and (with help) got back up and kept going like nothing had happened, with a “Roar!”, of course. JC had a freaking great time and DS found lots of salamanders and crayfish. AN was always ready to keep walking. KT told me how she wanted to make her parents (who are a little on the larger side) go hiking now! It was a great hike all around. Back at camp, we got ready for our next camp out and I got a fire going while our Jr. CIT acquired our food (chicken fajitas and s’mores). We tried to get the kids to build shelters again, but they tired of it quickly, and resumed sitting around, waiting for food.  I tried to get them to write poetry about nature, and some cooperated, but some had no interest, what so ever. Then, after s’mores, it was bed time. That night was the first time I really got the impression that the whole tribe was becoming friends, to a decent extent, exchanging phone numbers and e-mails. Only worrisome when DS was exchanging info with KT…

Friday morning brought the ropes course, and boy was that the highlight of my week! We could not get KT to harness up, again, but AN made it over halfway up the ladder and I was so incredibly proud of him accomplishing that much, because he did not want to go up at all. The other five made it onto the ropes course and down the zip line, which was huge! JC was up there right away and completed five elements before being the first to zip. DS was very worried, but completed three and zip. TL struggled doing the bridges on her own, but made it across two with me right in front of her, and zipped happily. KR really struggled because of his lack of sufficient muscular coordination, but he really wanted to succeed, and so I and my co-staff helped him across two of the bridges and he zipped so happily. Then there was KS, again. Last year, she had only made it up to the tree house platform, but this year she made it across one bridge and a little of a second before freaking out and stopping. Thankfully, a couple of behavior specialists were around the course with me, one up there. She helped her work her away across while I worked with some of the other kids, praying that KS would not have a meltdown on the course. When she was close to the zip platform, I was able to help her the rest of the way, and from that point forward through lunch, she was the happiest person I have ever seen in my life. She was so proud to have reached the platform and go down the zip line (which she so eagerly went down). KS told everyone at least five times. It was adorable. The whole ropes experience was so rewarding, for them and for us. After lunch and rest, we took the tribe canoeing down the river, which went surprisingly well, after my unfortunate experiences during OE… The wind stayed rather calm and it was just a steady paddle back to our beach. I had AN and KR in my canoe, so had to do some seat changes, which were shockingly successful. That night, dinner was outside again, and after showering the kids, we went to “Songfest”. Songfest is a Friday tradition here at camp where a professional comes in and performs for the kids. Same woman every time, singing kids songs about camp shirts, things that fit in a kids pocket, and many other things like that. It is huge fun for the kids. After Songfest, snack is pizza for the kids, and I was OR. Get the kids into their beds and quiet, then give them the pizza, is the lesson I learned. It worked like magic. They silently devoured their delicious pizza and then I turned off the lights and told them a story while they fell  asleep, exhausted.

Saturday morning, we got the kids packed up after a breakfast almost entirely of sugar, and then went to shoot bows and arrows. We hadn’t had time after sling shots to shoot bows, so we did that then. After shooting, we debriefed the week, talking about what the kids liked, how it made them feel, etc… And the 30+ minute conversation was actually fairly fruitful, I think. It made me happy. The last thing we do at camp with the kids is a ceremony with the parents to learn what their kids did that week. All of the tribes introduce themselves and then break off into small groups to present week awards. Through out the week, we give the kids awards at meals, and then come up with a special award to give each camper at the end of the week that talks on something(s) they did particularly well. This gives them and their parents something concreted to be really proud of and to keep in mind when the kids are acting a little frustrating at home. We talk with parents about their kids and their week and end with a pot luck lunch that all of the families help provide. It is a great way to end the week. After that, the parents take their kids, we get camp cleaned up, and have a brief chat about the week.

I’ve written well over 4000 words now, so I’m going to stop. Hopefully, I’ll get you some pictures soon.

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