Season’s greetings to you all! I wrote this in 2011, after my first summer as a Camp AmeriKids volunteer.
Here’s my story. I was inspired to write it after reading What I Did On My Summer Vacation, a piece on Jesse Kornbluth’s site, Head Butler. Jesse was reading “Justice: What’s The Right Thing To Do?” by Michael Sandel. It got him musing about the thrill of watching his daughter’s excitement in her own creative process while taking a summer class, and his sad awareness that her opportunities would never be available to so many other children, unseen children who will never have the chance to make their creative impact on our world. He referenced Sandel’s mention of a short story by Ursula LeGuin called “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” You can read it here. In summary, Omelas is a utopian city of happiness and beauty, whose inhabitants want for nothing and experience great fulfillment in their lives. The catch: Their good fortune requires that a single unfortunate child be kept in an isolated state of filth, darkness and misery. Its citizens are all aware of this child, and they are shocked and disgusted when they occasionally look in on the child in its cell. But most are ultimately able to come to terms with the existence of this one child as a tradeoff for their otherwise utopian society. A few citizens, however, silently walk away from the city, and no one knows where they go.
I was very moved by Jesse’s piece. I’ve been an art therapist in the foster care division of a large NYC child welfare agency for over twenty years. So I know that kids in foster care might just be the most invisible kids in the world. And aside from the people that work with them, I’m not sure most people really think much about these kids. Occasionally an inspiring film will come along, well-made and well-intentioned. Heartwarming for a couple of hours, but do they really ask us to take a deeper look at the enormity of the gap between us and them, or ask us to get involved? I don’t think they do. I think they’re kind of like Omelas.
Kids are amazing, magical creatures, whether they come from love, stability, and advantage, or from deprivation, neglect and chaos, or from everything in between. But for all of us who work with children in the foster care system, each child is also a fat clinical case file full of abuse and trauma, a placement in one or a succession of foster homes within a deeply flawed foster care system. Kids’ behavioral problems, parents’ behavioral problems, disrupted placements, parent and sibling visits, attorneys, court dates, medical and psychiatric and therapeutic services, hospitalizations, school placement problems, and so much more; this is the stuff of foster care. With all this going on, I think it’s easy too see why a foster care agency cannot very easily create a culture of fun, creativity, skill-building, adventure, friendship, love.
And so it was the beginning of a life-changer for me when I got a message at the end of June from my daughter’s old childhood camp friend, Gaby Moss. Gaby is the executive director of Camp AmeriKids, a summer camp for inner-city children, ages 7-15, infected with or affected by HIV/AIDS. The camp has two one-week summer sessions at a site in Warwick, NY. I know it’s very last minute, but is there any possibility, asked Gaby, that you could be an arts & crafts counselor for the first session?
TOTAL NO-BRAINER! As a kid, as one of the very lucky kids, I went away to camp all summer, every summer, to the very same camp where my own kids met Gaby Moss. And I have been dreaming about going back to camp ever since. As an arts & crafts counselor. Really.
So I took a week off from work and went to camp. Some of my colleagues at work found it amusing that I was taking a vacation from working with inner city kids to go and work with inner city kids. Also that I was going back to camp at age 61. But I just couldn’t wait. I headed to camp, my car piled high with any art materials and recycled junk I could get my hands on. I had read the staff manual, I had traded e-mails with Emma, my co-arts & crafts counselor, I had lots of old tee shirts to wear. I wasn’t sure what to expect. But as excited as I was, as wonderful as my memories of my own camp experiences were, I never imagined what an inspiring, life-changing, FUN week this would be.
There was a day and a half of staff orientation. We got to know each other, we got information, we got loose. We played games. We discussed, in small and large groups, potential problems that could arise with the kids, with other counselors, with ourselves. We sang. We danced. We got our own fanny packs so we would have emergency supplies on hand at all times. We sang some more. We made name tags. We took swimming tests. We danced some more. By the time the buses full of kids pulled up, we were all so ready to give 100% of ourselves, and we could not wait to meet the kids. And oh, what amazing kids they were!
Looking back, the most striking thing for me about camp was that it all felt very in the moment, very immediate. I felt right in tune with Baba Ram Das’s exhortation to Be Here Now. I am pretty much always Here Now when I’m at work, too. But my reactions and judgments and relationships are colored by the fat case file, by the crisis today, by the child’s allegation, by the missing AWOL teen, by the placement disruption. This was very different. Other than the AIDS/HIV factor, I had no information about the kids with whom I was interacting. I also knew little about my co-counselors, since we were always very busy and had little time to get to know each other based on anything other than how we interacted with the kids, how we jumped in to help each other out, by our ACTIONS. We were all, kids and counselors alike, just being ourselves and connecting. And the connections were often instantaneous and felt very true and deep. Speaking strictly for myself, I felt like I was the luckiest person in the world to be there. Although I think I’m speaking for pretty much everyone else there too.
There were many challenges for the campers. Many of them live with a health secret that makes them feel isloated. Some knew trauma and deprivation, physical and emotional. Some were withdrawn or angry, some felt incompetent. It seems amazing that the teen who rarely spoke and made no eye contact on Monday could be an active art group member hugging everyone goodbye on Friday. And I felt challenged too. If you had told me before camp that I would be prancing around on stage with a microphone, I might have thought twice about going altogether. But camp just swooped me up and deposited me up there, and it felt so easy. I think it felt that way to the campers, too.
The amount of activities and personal interaction and fun that were packed into one week is hard to overstate. I can honestly say that I have never worked so hard in my life. Morning line up, with the greatest straightest line competition. Program activity periods: singing, dance, drama, spoken word, music and video production, athletics, arts & crafts, swimming, boating, nature. Mealtimes, during which there was always music, and spontaneous dancing, and singing, and shout outs of appreciation called hula hops, and singing and cheering competitions of all kinds between the cabins, the louder the better, and the daily awarding of the participation spear and speckled plunger for cabin cleanliness, and ridiculous skits by counselors in ridiculous costumes ready to go to any lengths to ham it up to engage and entertain our kids. Stargrams, a messaging system to express appreciation and all forms of good feeling. A theme of the day, with many campers and counselors wearing creative and hilarious costumes. An activity every evening: performances, wacky quiz shows, an amazing luau dance, the final night’s talent show. Beach day, with a long, soapy water slide that was an absolute blast. Carnival. Laughing. And hugging. Lots of laughing and hugging.
This fun, creativity, merriment, madness, pure joy, and unbounded love is inspired by the camp’s program director, an incredible force of nature with a huge heart named Steve Kidd. Steve is a playwright, actor, and educator in the Providence, RI area, and this brings me back full circle to Ursula LeGuin’s story. Steve wrote a one-man play called Sigh/Omelas, based on LeGuin’s story. He used the framework of the story to tell HIS story, in which he brings to vivid life the internal worlds of some of the children he has worked with and loved at Camp AmeriKids. Steve performed his play for the staff late one night at camp. It was heartbreaking and beautiful. It introduces viewers to the hearts and minds of children who are often invisible. It was so filled with love. It, and Camp AmeriKids, could show us the path to a future where we close the gap, where we embrace all children and let them show us their light.
Camp AmeriKids is a non-profit organization, run completely on charity support and donations. Tuition is free for all campers. There is full-time, top-notch, unobtrusive medical coverage at all times. Executive director/total superheroine Gaby Moss, along with a tiny but fantastic full-time staff, spends the year channeling her amazing energy and huge love into raising the money to make all this happen. The staff of Camp AmeriKids comes from all over the country and the world, and from all different types of professions. There is a large group of incredible performance program staff that raise money all year to come to camp for two weeks from Australia. Although the staff of Camp AmeriKids are all volunteers, I believe we all feel very overpaid. The inspiration for these feelings, of course, comes from our incredible campers. Many campers go on to become counselors-in-training and counselors themselves, and I have read some of their very moving writings about the incredible impact camp has had on their lives.
If you have read this far without deleting this, many thanks for hanging in there. You can fault me for being long-winded, but not for lack of passion! If you would like to help, you’ll find all the info you need here. If the spirit moves you, feel free to forward this on to everyone you know. And don’t pass up the chance to see Sigh/Omelas if it ever comes your way.
The very best to you all!