Friday, August 5, 2011

Camp Hope

Most of my blog entries have summed up periods of time spent in Cape Town with explanations of the various activities i've been engaged in.  This one however will focus on only 2 days of the last 5 months i've been here.  Why? Because those two days happen to be the most influential, amazing, inspiring, and intense two days i've spent here.  For those of you who know me, you know that I have a deep love and passion for camp.  Day camps, over night camps, wilderness camps you name it, i've probably been a part of it at some stage in life.  I dont know if it is the community atmosphere, the way kids respond to camp activities, the songs that are always sung in unison, or that it brings me back to my youthful days. Anyways, this weekend I had the opportunity to volunteer for a camp in Noordhoek, outside Cape Town, called Camp Hope.

Camp Hope was started by a Rotarian and suggested to me by a friend who is also another Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar.  The camp is funded by the Rainbow Dreams Trust and is tailored to kids with physical and mental disabilities.  This camp was for children who are partially sighted or fully blind.
I've noticed that camps tailored to children with disabilities or diseases often have names with slightly exaggerated and often cheesy spins, but in this case Camp Hope was deserving of it's title. In only three days I saw transformation in not only the campers but the buddies (volunteers) as well. It was extremely powerful.

Going into the weekend I was told that I would be working with a woman who had been blinded at 18, only two years ago, and has had to readjust her entire life.  She wants to be an accountant, and must relearn everything in order to matriculate (graduate) and also become an expert in brail. I was nervous as I had no idea what to expect.  Putting myself in her situation, I think I would be quite frustrated, reserved, and may not enjoy a camp.  It turns out, she is an extremely powerful and inspiring woman.  She has definitely made the best of her situation, and I enjoyed every minute I got to spend with her.  The activities she accomplished in the weekend alone were inspiring.  She fearlessly tackled challenges such as rock climbing, goal ball (a variation of soccer for the blind), beading, relay races, tug of war, etc.  The best part of the weekend though was seeing her bond with other campers her age with similar challenges.  By the end of the weekend she had such amazing team spirit, it was wonderful to see her enjoying herself.

Another part of the weekend that was defining for me was dinner on Saturday night, not because I was starving by the time the braai was finished, but because everyone had to eat their food blindfolded.  This gesture of course was to honor our buddies and feel what it is like to be in their shoes for a little while.  I found it to be quite humbling, and what I remember the most was the conversation that arose from the activity.  Being blindfolded quieted me down as I focused on finding my food that I had deliberately split up into sections.  My buddy couldn't divide her food into sections, I thought.  I then searched the table for my drink, and decided it wasn't worth it.  I would have to eat my food without water.  Once I got a bit more comfortable, I began listening to everyone around me.  Everyone who was not used to such a disheartening feeling struggled to enjoy their meal.  Though it was funny to hear the other volunteers spit tomatoes out, or pass their cup a direction in hopes of getting juice; I know it struck a cord in all of us.  Not only did I get a small taste of what some of these campers experience on a daily basis, I was able to open conversation with my buddy about it.  Firstly, I heard another camper say "what does it feel like to be me for a change" with an upbeat tone of voice, knowing that we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.  My camper however began discussing how frustrating it can be, but how you take it each day at a time.  There were so many things I wondered about like how it feels to have to rely on other people all the time, what happens if you end up alone somewhere how do you know who to trust, how do you manage on your own in your house, etc.  Some of the questions she kindly answered, and others I kept to myself not wanting to overwhelm her.  All in all, it was a lesson for me on her strength despite her misfortune and what an amazing person she is.

There are moments of every camp where I remember why I feel so connected to it.  Strangely enough, when I think back through most of my camp memories they mostly have to do with music.  In this case, I was able to witness a fantastic musical camp moment.  For the talent show, one of the women in our group (fully blind from birth) came up with a very catchy tune about her time at the camp.  She then played a few chords on piano to match it.  A few minutes later, our group had written an entire song about Camp Hope.  At the end of camp, we all got together and sang the new campe hope song, written by our camper. It was powerful. Something about this moment, made everything else disappear and I felt nothing but pure bliss.

For a split second I think we were able to make kids and adults who are faced with adversity feel normal, and that is a powerful thing.  I recognize that a weekend at camp doesn't change their situation, and each of them will have struggles with their disabilities that we cannot imagine.  But, there will be times when they can look back at camp and remember what they accomplished, the people they met, and what it felt like to have that community of support and hopefully they will feel lighter. even for a second..

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