Monday, August 20, 2007

Blogging Camp To Belong!

(This post is long... but remember to scroll down past this post for Mission Monday!)

Hi everyone! I promised I’d “blog” Camp To Belong, so I kept a little notebook with me and I wrote a journal of my time there! It’s a little long… because its 9 days of writing in one entry… but hopefully it will make up for lost time! Here you go! (By the way, all names of campers have been changed!)

DAY 1: Every time I’m getting ready to go to CTB, I start getting all nervous… but once I get here, everything feels so familiar, its like I never left! Camp To Belong Maine is always held at Camp Wigwam, which is really a magical place. Its a regular boys' summer camp that has been around for a century! The owner, Bobby Strauss, lets us hold our camp here every year after the regular camp is finished. Bobby Strauss is tne nicest dude you'll ever meet, and Camp Wigwam is a really magical place. Seriously, its, like, cleansing. Maybe its all the good energy left over from people who have lived here, beginning back when the land was lived on by Native Americans. (When we go hiking, we even get to see a spot where sacred Native American ceremonies were once held!)
I got a ride here from the airport from four teenaged Wigwam staff members. We had dinner. I sat next to Lynn Price’s cousin, Maggie, who is also from Chicago.
We made “I Am” posters as an exercise. They will be hung up around the lodge. The kids, when they come on Tuesday, will also make the posters about themselves. (I was planning on scanning and posting the “I Am” poster I made, but I forgot to get it back before I came home!)
Training starts at 7 am tomorrow, so I am going to stop writing, and go to sleep!

6:15 am… Waking up! It is freezing cold! I didn’t take a shower because I would have to get up at 5:45. Maybe tomorrow.
We have a smudging ceremony this morning! It’s a tradition… we all go down to the fire pit and get smudged, in order to cleanse our bodies and souls for a new session of Camp To Belong! I love the smell of sage… it reminds me of my little brother!

11:30 am… We’ve been doing team building this morning, the usual goofy “getting to know each other” exercises and also some things meant to be metaphors for what life will be like at camp. One of the exercises was to write a fear about camp, then put it in a bag. Everyone drew one randomly to talk about. Some people put goofy things like “farting in front of the group” (which probably everyone totally IS afraid of, especially since traveling tends to make your digestive system back up!) but mostly everyone has some sort of fear.
We also learned that the kids might react in negative ways, but not to take it personally, because they are dealing with a lot in their lives!

4:30 pm… We went to a few hours of training (boring stuff like rules and routines and stuff) and then… YAY!… we got to go for a swim! The water felt so good after sitting in the hot lodge for the meeting. I washed up with the floating bottle of biodegradable peppermint soap. That might be the best bath I get all week!
During swimming, some of us were talking about kids from this camp’s previous summers… like the Lawrence kids (they talked like truck drivers, got into fist fights, and won everyone’s hearts), and Donny and Martin (two boys who were very smart but very angry at the world), and Alex and Eddie (two little boys who used to literally swing from the rafters in their cabin at night!) and others. The “hard” kids tend to be the ones we remember and think about the most… probably because, underneath, they are the ones that are the neediest!

10:00 pm… Tonight was an awesome night! We did a team building exercise that was like a scavenger hunt. My team lost, but we had a lot of fun in the process! Part of the reason we lost was because some of the clues were messed up. But we all shared the prize anyway, so it didn’t matter… and it really was an awesome game!
After that we had a campfire and roasted marshmallows and sang songs and looked at the stars.
People are SO nice here. These few days before the kids get here are part of my favorite times, because I feel like I really do “belong”. This is one of the ONLY places in my life where I feel like that! My favorite thing about CTB is that not only do I finally have a place for MYSELF to belong, but I get to help create that same feeling for kids!
Well, I am going to go to sleep now! I have a horrid headache but Delma gave me an Ibuprofen from England. Its 200 mg. So my head will probably feel better very soon!

DAY 3… 9:45 pm… Well, there just went another day! Today was a great one. We learned about the kids in our family groups and our cabins. In my family group we have nine kids between the ages of 11 and 16. In my cabin group we only have two girls, ages 14 and 15. They all sound like really good kids! I feel like this is going to be an easy and fun week of CTB!
We got to go on a Wal-Mart run before dinner. I picked up some necessities… Batteries, a lock for my closet, some Tylenol, a dry erase message board, and a Dr. Pepper (probably the last Dr. Pepper I’ll have for a while!) and also some body glitter and nail polish for the girls in our cabin to mess around with if they want!
We finished decorating our cabin today. Tammy is the other counselor in my cabin. She came up with a Mexican theme. Some of the other cabin themes are Hawaiin, disco, under water, and some were just festive but with no theme. The people in the cabin connected to ours actually hand-made most of their decorations, and their cabin turned out to be one of the best!
A bunch of us made a parade and went around to all the different cabins to see them all. In my cabin, everyone sang “La Bamba” and me and Tammy danced around with our sombreros and maracas. It was so much fun!
I love Camp To Belong!

DAY 4… 9:30 am… The kids are coming today! Everyone is running around getting things ready. We are supposed to meet on the field at 10:30 to start greeting the kids! Every time a car or van drives up with kids, we all start jumping and clapping and cheering for them to welcome them!
One thing I learn at CTB is to really live in the moment instead of always worrying or perseverating about what will happen in the future or what has happened in the past. You’re so busy with things that are fun but energy consuming, so you have o time to feel bad. When you do get a spare moment, you milk it for all it’s worth… a rare chance to look up at the stars, to soak up the sun, to have a conversation with a new friend, or for me, to write in my journal!
I think that if I lived this way all the time, I’d be a lot healthier! Something to remember when I get home!

6:30 pm… The campers are here! We went for a group swim already, had dinner, and are now having “down time” in our cabins before Opening Camp Fire. It really seems like the kids in both the cabin group and the family group are great kids! A fourteen-year-old girl named Mya is in both my cabin group and my family group, so I’ve gotten to know her the most so far. Angie, the 15-year-old girl in my cabin, comes here every summer, so I’ve known her for a while. The others in my family group are all new to me!

9:30 pm… We had a campfire.. It was very cool. The kids got to have S’mores! Tammy had to do something with her family group, so I took Angie and Mya back to the cabin by myself. I’m lucky they’re both such great kids! Tammy had given us all glowsticks to help us find each other, which worked great. It was dark out when we gathered, but I just looked for the glowing children!

DAY 5… 7:00 am… Three things I DON’T like about camp: Being tired a lot, being cold a lot, and constantly hearing people brushing their teeth!
That’s part of ANY camp though!
Anyway today is the first full day of the kids being at CTB! I wonder how it will go?

12:15 pm… Feet Off the Floor time! Yay! We have Feet Off The Floor Time every day, after lunch, to give the kids and counselors time to rest their minds and bodies before the next activities start. You’re allowed to do quiet activities like play cards or do crafts, but you have to keep your feet off the floor! Angie and Mya are using the time to take a nap. Sounds like a good idea to me!
So far its been a cool day! We played a Life Skills board game in the morning. It was sort of like the Ungame. Then we had free time. I played tennis with Mya and her brother Chase, who is 11, and also two brothers named Simon and Al. I got hit once in the chest and once in the face with tennis balls. And Al got hit in the balls. It was a very wild tennis game!!! ;)
I definitely still think we have a wonderful group of kids. It is great to see them interact with each other… A big brother teasing a little brother, who acts mad but seems to relish the attention; a younger brother alternately tormenting his big sister and clinging to her; a brother and sister who stick together at all times and just talk; a younger brother who comes to his sister’s cabin every day after Down Time to ask if she can play; and a younger sister who writes that her biggest wish is to be able to see her brother “forever.”

9:30 pm… Cool afternoon tofay! We had our first group rotation, the Climbing Wall! Simon, Al, and their little brother Teddy, plus Vanessa and Tommy, and Doreen, all climbed. (The others played badminton, which seems to be a strange obsession among kids here!) The older boys had no trouble with the easy wall OR the hard wall, and the girls scaled the easy wall and then were done. But Teddy and Tommy both were super enthusiastic and super determined about climbing. They both did get to the top of the easy wall. But, try as they might, neither one could get to the top of the hard wall. They never stopped trying, though, until they were made to stop by staff so that other kids could have a chance to try before our time was up! It was very inspiring to watch those two little boys try and never give up, and even when they had to stop, they were proud of their efforts and dying to try again!
We also had a costume party tonight, and then the kids decorated pillowcases. Mya and Chase finished early, so I played cards with them. They probably are the kids I spend the most time with, since Mya is in my cabin group as well. I think she feels more comfortable around me because I am with her 24/7, during family group activities as well as during down time in the cabin.
It was a good day, and here’s to a great rest of the week!

DAY 6… 9:00 pm… I’m SO tired! Today we had a canoe trip in the afternoon. Mya and Chase and I were all in a canoe together. The problem was that none of us really knew how to canoe! I have canoed before, but not for a few years, and when I did it last time at CTB I was with another counselor who knew how better than I did. And Mya said she canoed all the time at home, but she had never tried steering before. So. We started out going in circles, and we never did really catch up with the rest of the group. I was paddling in front, Mya was steering and paddling in back, and Chase was sitting on the floor in the middle. Mya really managed to take the lead and steer us to safety though. She was frustrated with herself because we were much slower than the others in the group, and because she was having trouble steering. I told her she was doing great and was doing way better than I would have done! When we got to shore, I told her she should be proud of herself for being brave, taking the lead and learning something new. That seemed to cheer her up! She also earned an orange “adventure and discovery” bead for it. (At CTB we give the kids different colored beads, which they put on bracelets, to reward them for things like positive behavior, trying new things, being kind to their siblings, etc.)
We had the carnival tonight… a night with a bouncy house, carnival games with prizes, karaoke, tie-dying, and plenty of cotton candy and fried dough!
Then the kids got to make pillows or quilt squares for their siblings to keep. They do that every year. The more times kids come back to CTB, the bigger the project is! First year kids make pillows, second year kids make quilt squares, and third or fourth year kids get to make banners with an iron on transfer of them and their sibling. I guess this is so the kids who come back every year don’t end up with like fifty CTB pillows… they get to have something new every time!
It was a great day, but everyone is EXHAUSTED! In my cabin, Mya and Angie have already fallen fast asleep. I am going to hit the hay too, as soon as I finish writing this!
Good night!

DAY 7… 12:00 pm… Yesterday Linda (one of the counselors in my family group) was warning me that today would be the day where everyone started “hitting the wall”, because camp is halfway done. Well, I woke up not feeling good, and I’ve remained sort of dizzy and spaced out all day. I haven’t been able to eat much or anything. This morning I had a break, and I tried to sleep, but people kept bursting into the cabin to clean or something, so I didn’t get much sleep!
This morning Chase was telling me that he was ready to go home! I sort of agree with him. I love it here, but I’ve been away from MY home and MY routines and MY sources of comfort for seven days now, and I’m just kinda homesick!
But the weird thing about that is, I’m already looking forward to next year!

9:30 pm… Great afternoon today! After Feet Off The Floor time (thank GOD for that time!) I felt much better. We had a talent show today and it was a lot of fun. It was American Idol style, with some of the Wigwam staff members being judges. Each family group performed a skit and sang a song. It was awesome to see the different acts that family groups came up with, and the way they managed to include kids who didn’t fit in as easily. One boy, Davey, has special needs. He didn’t seem too enthusiastic about being on stage with everyone else. So his family group gave him a small one-line part. The skit was a comedy about a royal family who couldn’t find their princess, and everyone in the castle had to search for her, but nobody found her. Finally the king asked, “Did you ask the woodcutter?”
Nobody had thought to ask the woodcutter (who was Davey, sitting alone on the ramp at the side of the stage) so the king walked into the “woods” and found the woodcutter and asked him if he knew where the princess was. Davey said his one line, “Did you look under the table?” And sure enough, when the king looked under the table, there was the princess! So Davey, who had the smallest part and wasn’t even on the stage, got to be the star of the show! He was so proud of himself. As we walked back through the woods, he kept repeating his line to everyone who would listen.
I thought that was the best skit of them all!
Ours was pretty good though too… it involved Smurfs, Saber Tooth Tigers, and Musketeers!
Tonight was also Birthday Night. All of the kids had gotten the chance to choose special birthday presents for their siblings. Tonight they got to exchange presents, while eating birthday cake and drinking all the chocolate milk they could handle! (I drank so much I now feel sick!) The Birthday Night is one of the most important parts of CTB, because a lot of these kids don’t get to celebrate birthdays together. They’re lucky if they get to talk on the phone to each other on their birthdays! So this gives them a chance to be at each others’ birthday party.
It is so cool to see the care they take to pick out the perfect presents for each other! A lot of kids I know at home would probably pick something out that they themselves would like, because they think its cool so they assume other people will love it too. But at the CTB birthday party, you get to see how kids chose something very special that they knew their sibling would love! They really want to make each other happy.
Tomorrow is our last full day! I don’t know how I feel about that. On one hand, I am ready to be home with my pets and my bed and my computer and my TOILET and my SHOWER!
On the other hand, it seems like, compared to CTB, my “regular” life is so empty…

DAY 8… 12:30 pm… This is our final Feet Off The Floor Time… and tonight is Inspiration Night, where we get to view slide shows from our week and talk about stuff. Lots of tears are shed.
A lot of kids are really sad to leave here. And not the usual “end of vacation blues”, but truly sad because they won’t be seeing their siblings again for a while, and definitely not on a 24/7 basis! At least one camper here doesn’t even know where she’ll be going home to, because she’s being moved to a new foster home the day after camp. Angie is going through this right now… the day after camp, she’ll either be going to live with a relative, or to a group home, or to somewhere else, and she’s going crazy because she doesn’t know where she’s going to be 48 hours from now! Other kids say the same thing has happened to them in the past. It seems like sometimes camp is used as a safe-keeping place to buy people extra time to find the next placement for a kid. But can you imagine being a kid and going to camp, and not knowing where you will be AFTER camp? There used to be a joke about kids who went away to summer camp, and their parents moved away while they were gone. No joke, for these kids! No wonder they feel homesick FOR camp, instead of the other way around!

10:00 pm… Tonight was Inspiration Night. They tried to make it shorter and less heart-wrenching than usual, it seems, but still a lot of kids were bawling!
I wanted to tell you about one camper named Tommy. He’s 11, and here with his older sister Vanessa. Tommy always acted crazy, all through camp. He looked for ways to aggravate people. He would scream in the middle of dinner, hit people for no reason, throw rocks at people, stick his hands in people’s food, etc, all the while laughing wickedly. He would be patting the dog gently one minute, and poking him with a stick the next. Unlike most kids with behavior disorders who I’ve known, who act out when things are already going awry for them, Tommy seemed to do everything on purpose. He disrupted everything. Vanessa would alternately try to protect him, and get angry and avoid him. The other kids in our family group gave up trying to befriend him, and started making fun of him.
Then, this afternoon, the kids made “sibling scrapbooks.” During the week they had disposable cameras with them, and the photos were developed, and today they all got their photos back, along with scrapbooking kits. They each get to make a scrap book of camp, to remember all the good times they had!
I have never seen Tommy sit for so long and pay attention. He worked diligently at cutting his photos into different shapes and pasting them on the pages. He wrote captions. And when a man offered him a rubber stamp, he actually said, “Yes, please!” The only time he got upset was when we were told it was time to clean up.
Later, I even managed to get him to say a few words to me in a normal voice, instead of screaming! (I bribed him with glow sticks!)
Then, tonight at Inspiration Night, Tommy spent the whole time sobbing in his sister’s arms.
It seems to me that there is an actual boy… a smart, sweet, sensitive boy… behind that crazy façade.
And that boy’s heart is broken.

DAY 9… 1:30 am… Well, I’m finally home! I ended up being stranded in the Portland Airport for 7 hours, because my plane was delayed. I should have done some writing then, but I was too burnt-out to handle anything heavier than magazines and word puzzles. I even crashed out on the floor of the airport for a while!
Anyway, today was the most bittersweet day ever. I was happy to be going home, but it is always so sad to leave camp. And it is HEARTBREAKING to watch all the siblings saying goodbye to each other as they go to their separate busses and vans and rides! So many of them were crying in each other’s arms. Even though some of them might get weekly visits with each other, it just isn’t the same.
I was thinking about how hard it must be for older siblings who, when with their birth families, had to basically be the de facto parent to their younger siblings. Then they go into foster care, and suddenly you are being told that you are no longer responsible for this child you’ve bene raising! That some stranger can do a better job than you’ve been doing… and now some stranger can tell you when you can even see your sibling. Some kids have even been separated BECAUSE they were too dependent on each other. Isn’t that messed up? If I was a kid, and suddenly my family was in crisis, and I was going into foster care, I would want to cling to my siblings, too!
Tommy was riding the bus back to Portland with me today. I was a little nervous that he’d act up on the bus, but he was strangely subdued. The crazy guy was gone, and a quiet little guy was left.
As we got to the DHS office where the kids were being picked up, Tommy actually came and stood by me! We watched the stuff being taken off the bus. Even after he’d gotten all his stuff. Tommy stayed there. He smiled at me and said, “I want to make sure all of my stuff is off.” His foster parents came up to him, but Tommy ignored them, until it was blatantly obvious that nothing was left on the bus. Then he followed them to the car. He even looked back and waved as they drove away!
Tommy made it very hard for anyone at camp to get to know him… but I liked that little dude in spite of myself! I’m gonna miss him!
I’m gonna miss them ALL… Mya and Chase, Angie, Simon and Al and Teddy, Vanessa, and all the others.
I’m gonna miss singing “Lemon Lime Tuttie Fruiti” and yelling out an “acka-lacka-ching” once in a while.
I’m gonna miss the magical feeling of life at CTB.
I can’t wait until next year!

Well, I did it… I typed out nine days of blogging. Today I am so homesick for CTB… I dreamed about it all night long! Hard to believe that tomorrow I will be back at work. It will seem so gray and boring, without belting out camp songs and being in the fresh air and seeing happy, wild, noisy children everywhere! And how will I get through the day without Feet Off The Floor time?
On the plane back to Chicago, I was daydreaming about someday creating a place that would be sort of like CTB year-round. I imagined having a million dollars, and buying a resort in the woods somewhere… maybe back in Colorado, where I used to live. Because it was a resort, it would have a lake with a beach, tennis and basketball courts and baseball diamonds, hiking trails, a lodge, and all the rest. And tons of cabins! Probably not little camp cabins like we had there, but the log-cabin types like they have at resorts… just like regular houses, but more rustic!
I would fix it all up, and then I would get people to live there. I would charge only a very small amount for rent… maybe, like, $100 a month. I would rent houses to foster parents who were willing to provide long-term foster care to groups of siblings. But I would also rent houses or apartments to people who maybe did not want to become foster parents but were willing to help in other ways… like by providing child care, doing maintenance, or running activities for the kids. I would have an apartment building on site and rent low-cost apartments to youth who were aging out of foster care or homeless for other reasons, in return for them helping run activities, doing babysitting, or mentoring younger kids. I would also have some extra cabins which, during the summer, I would rent out by the day or the week, for a very low cost, to foster families who didn’t live at the resort but wanted to bring their kids for a vacation. \
During the school year there would be some after school activities and weekend activities… but during the summer, it would just be WILD with activities for everyone to enjoy!
It would be a little bit like Hope Meadows… but different because it wouldn’t be an agency and I wouldn’t be the director, I’d just be the landlord. (Or, uh, landlordette. Landgoddess? Hmm.) Everyone would have to get background checks and have references to live there, and everything, to keep the kids safe, but other than that, people would be in charge of their own lives.
Sounds sort of Utopian, I know… but, like Lynn Price (the founder of CTB) has taught us, dreams can definitely come true!

The lake at Camp Wigwam

My cabin

Taking a rest during training!

My bed in the cabin!

Self portrait by the lake

Decorating the cabin

Tammy's costume for the costume party

Pudgey, the camp dog! (He doesn't like getting his picture taken!

The climbing wall

The lodge

Wearing my sombrero

1 comment:

mom2amara said...

Sounds like you had an amazing time. Welcome back!