Wednesday, November 25, 2009

We Love you Campers Oh Yes We Do!

“Beep, beep, beep, beep”, “smack” goes my hand on the snooze button. I shoot out of bed and shout, “Hillary, time to wake up it’s the last day!” Today was the last day of camp for the summer. “Can you believe we have been here for three months?” Hilary commented. “Well , working 40 hours a week as well as volunteering 35 hours a week makes time go by real fast” I replied.

The last day of camp was always hectic. The day before the campers leave, counsellors are required to pack between two and three camper’s bags. Before coming to camp, I viewed packing and unpacking in a completely different way . “Camp: MDYA (mentally disabled young adults) Name: Mark Cabin: 4” I read as I began packing one of my campers.

It was my job to make sure that everything that was sent to camp, left camp. Packing campers was fairly easy as long as when you unpacked them you took your time to write a solid description of every article and label each item with a permanent marker. “Red, American eagle T-shirt. Ugggh, where are you?” I mumbled as I crawled on my hands and knees looking under the surrounding beds.

“How many items can’t you find” Luc cattily asked. “One! how about you?” I asked hoping that he couldn’t find more than me. It was always a good week when you could send your camper home with every item they came with. This sounds easy enough but some how in the middle of the night the clothes monster comes around to every cabin and removes items.

The last morning we finished our packing, adding in last minute items. “Mark where is your towel?” I yell to him across the cabin; “you lost my towel” he responds, extremely distraught. “No Mark, we just need to find where you last had it, I had it lying out on your dresser last night. You showered this morning so go check the shower room.” I explained as I tried to calm Mark down. “Found it!” Mark brags as he trots over to me with his bright yellow towel in hand.

“BUSES ARE HERE!” yells Emily, one of the other counsellors in cabin four. The noise in the cabin doubles in volume. “Alright, Mark, Nick, Bradley, Jason, Troy, Cole, you guys all need to come line up at the door, leave your luggage where it is and we will make sure it gets on the bus”. “No! I want to carry my own bag to the bus” argues Jason. “Fine, quickly grab your bag” I give in; it’s the last day.
Emily and I bring our six campers to meet the bus, while the four other counsellors stay with the campers who aren’t taking the bus, as well as help bring the bags to the bus for the campers who are on the bus.

“Cabin four, you are on bus one!” yells Matt, the assistant camp coordinator. It’s time to say our final goodbyes. I go to give Mark a hug and say goodbye, his eyes begin filling with tears. I look around, almost everyone is crying. Counsellors can’t hold it together. “Smack”. “Ouch Emily! What was that for”, I snap. “Why are you so cold hearted, you’re not even crying” she teases, her eyes puffy and glossed with tear remnants. “I’m not a crier!” I respond. The other counsellors join us to say good bye.

“Why am I not crying?” I ponder. There are only a handful of us that aren’t shedding tears, and I’m the only girl. Clearly something is wrong with me, I jokingly think to myself. Our campers loaded the bus and I begin tapping on the bus window where Mark is sitting; he can’t stop crying and it breaks my heart. He looks over to where I place my hand on the window. He holds his hand up to match my hand. A tear almost forms but banishes as I hear the other counsellors begin to sing our goodbye song.
“We love you campers, oh yes we do, we love you campers, our love is true, when you’re not with us, we’re blue, SO BLUE! Oh campers we love you!” the entire staff joins in song. Everyone is clapping along to the song, making a final attempt to let our campers know how much they mean to us. As we finish our song the buses pull away. This is our cue. All thirty-five staff members begin running to the exit. The buses must drive the loop around the camp so we have time to beat the buses to the exit.

Waiting for the buses to finish the loop we come together and form a wall. "The buses will stop", I keep reassuring myself as the large yellow school bus emerges from around the corner. The buses come to a halt just meters in front of us. “Phew” I exhale in relief. “Beep, beep” the driver honks, signaling to us that its time to go. We move out of the way. The bus drives on.

We begin to run after the bus waving and yelling goodbye. I don’t make it far. I’m exhausted. I have no energy left. 60 days, 640 work hours and 598 volunteer hours, was finished. It was over, it really was over.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

How Sweet the Taste

“Five more minutes”, I sigh in relief as I look down at my pink digital watch. My stomach is starting to eat my insides I’m so hungry. It’s past the growling stage. I need to eat. It has been two hours since my buzzing phone alarm went off. The recreation hall is full with over eighty people waiting to get in.
I can smell breakfast; the chatter in the recreation hall lets me know I’m not the only one wanting the bright red door leading to the dining hall to open. “Creak”, Margaret the head cook opens the doors. “Cabin one!” I scream out over the crowd trying to get things moving. It feels like forever before my cabin, number four is called. “Get into a straight line!” I yell to my campers before we head in.
Meal time was an art form, a theatrical production. Every meal was a different production. Meal times were carefully strategized. As soon as the doors were opened one counselor from each cabin would rush a head to turn over one plate at every table. “Do not sit at the chair with a turned over plate, those seats are for counselors”, Luc, a fellow councillor yelled. Each cabin was designated four tables and a side food table.
“Alright who is on diabetic snack? And who is doing special diets? And who is thickening liquids?” we asked each other as we gathered around our cabins food table. Once we figured out who was doing what, we checked our cheat sheets for our campers’ restrictions, and then dispersed. Some counsellors went to get the food for the campers with dietary restrictions, and the rest of us grabbed a food item and started making our rounds serving each camper. Once the food was handed out we would serve drinks and make sure that the campers that required their food diced, minced, or pureed were taken care of.
It was finally our turn to get our food. By this time most of the food was cold. This never really mattered because we were all so hungry. The only time you got a hot meal was when you were on dorm duty the night before. If you had the dorm the night before you get a three hour break in the morning to catch up on sleep. When on break you get to sit at the back table with our two bosses and the other counsellors who were on dorm duty the night before. Sitting at the back you were a part of the audience rather than the performance.
The breakfast that was always the biggest hit with the counselors, was the baked oatmeal. As you walked into the dining hall the sweet smell surrounded your body. The fluffy oat and sugar mixture bounced with perfection as it was placed on each bowl. The oatmeal was the consistency of a warm, spongy pancake, which warmed you as soon as the spoon went in your mouth. The baked oatmeal wasn’t complete without creamy milk to transform the loaf into a moist, master piece. The sugar from the loaf turns the milk into liquid candy. With each bit making you crave more. By the end of the meal you are so full your stomach has expanded to double the size.
“Cassie, Cassie strong and able get your elbows off the table, this is not a horses stable but a first class dining table,” the dining hall begins to chant. “What, my elbows weren’t on the table! Who did this?” I bitterly think in my head. I have no choice but to stand up and start skipping around the room. “It must have been Luc,” I decide. “Round the table you must go, you must go; round the table you must go my fair Cassie. Back around the other way, other way, other way, back around the other way my fair Cassie. You must do a SONG, DANCE, SONG, DANCE, my fair Cassie,” the dining hall continues to sing.
Everything is now silent, all eyes are on me. “What am I going to sing and dance to?” I ponder and I begin to get anxious. “Whhhhyyyy are we waiting, whhhhyyyy are we waiting?” the dining hall begins to chant.
“In Western Philadelphia born and raised on the play ground is where I spent most of my days ...” I begin to rap. “Dance,” Luc yells from his seat. I start leaping and spinning around the dining hall as I continued with my rap. I finally finish. “Phew,” I close my eyes and take a big breath in and exhale. It’s amazing how stressful mealtime can be.
Mealtime is only getting started. I take my seat; all my campers are full of smiles as they laugh at my performance. “Can we have some more oatmeal?” my campers ask. “Sure,” I say as I begin to stand up and walk over to our food table. “I have only had two bites, and they want seconds,” I complain in my head. After serving my table I quickly rush back to my seat. Alright I mean business.
Remember that rule your mother always told you, “Cassie, don’t talk with your mouth full!”My mom would always remind me as a child. This rule no longer applied to me. Our bosses sat at the back table watching to make sure that you were always talking and engaging all your campers. This meant learning to talk with your mouth full or else the campers would finish their seconds before you began your first.
Once the campers had finished their meals it was time to leave. Everyone knew that making your campers wait only lead to major problems. “Can we go back now?” my campers began to ask. Scooping two large spoonfuls of oatmeal into my mouth, I jumped up and started to clear the table. Breakfast was finally finished, overall everything had gone smoothly. This is not normal, but for now I’m not going to question it. It’s only 9am.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Alberta Bound, this Piece of Heaven

“Clutch in”, coached Hillary.
“Which one is the clutch?” I reluctantly responded.
“Cassie we are leaving for Alberta tomorrow, we have a 36hr drive and I can’t drive the whole 36hrs”, stressed Hillary.
“I can’t do this; there are cars behind me, any time I take my foot off the break I roll backwards”.
“Just take your foot off the clutch as you press the break” Hillary exclaimed with a hint of panic in her voice.

The bologna sandwich that I had just devoured for lunch was slowly retracing my digestive track. “Toot, toot” blasted the black Mazda sport, that was stopped directly behind us. “Can we trade seats?” I begged. I couldn’t handle the pressure any more, I was sure I was going to roll backwards and hit the black car behind me. My heart was pounding so hard that I thought it was going to protrude through my chest. In silence, we traded places. I walked to the passenger side like a puppy with my tail between my legs. “Tomorrow will be different” I kept repeating in my head, trying to calm myself down. Hillary dropped me off at my house. We would reunite for our road trip in just 5 hrs.

“Beep, beep, beep”, the high pitch sound rang through my ear drums. I rolled over to smack the snooze button, as my body was begging me for just ten more minutes. Then I jolted up thinking Alberta here I come! I gathered up my” last minutes must haves”, and then waited impatiently. In the front room of my house peering out the window watching for the headlights of Hillary’s car, I felt like I was waiting for Santa Claus. She finally arrived; I said my good bye’s to my parents. Even though my mom was half asleep she was balling. “Mom I’m only going to be gone for 4 months, please stop crying, you’re going to make me cry”. My parents helped me squeeze my mounds of belongings into the small Honda Civic, making sure to leave a hole out the back for the driver to see.

“You should drive first”, Hillary stated as she tossed me the keys. We both agreed that it would be best for me to start off driving, seeing as it was 3 in the morning, and there was a less chance of me hitting other cars. I jumped into Hilary’s car, her baby, which was now controlled by my shaking body.

We were off; I was running the show for the next three hours until we reached the boarder. I pulled over in the duty free parking lot to switch spots with Hillary. The trip had gone over quite smoothly; it was all highway driving, no cars, no stops, and no problems. As we pulled up to the boarder window I started to feel nervous. I had nothing to be nervous about. The chance of adding any delays to our travel time made me nervous. Hillary pressed the automatic button, whoosh went the window. “Passports?, where are you headed? How long are you going to be gone for? Have you ever been charged by the police?” “Charged by the police? Is this guy for real? We are going to work at a camp!” I couldn’t help but think. We were finally cleared to travel on.

While sitting in the car gazing out the window, I entered a dazed state of mind. Memories of family road trips filled my head. I could remember sitting in the back seat of the car next to my little sister, playing eye-spy and seeing who would be the first to spot a wild animal. Now things were different, I was making this road trip without my family. It was now Hillary, myself and the wide open road.

Two provinces, 4 states, six car stalls and 36hrs later we came across a large sign “Welcome to Edmonton Alberta” “AAAAAAAAAAAh” we squealed with excitement. We had made it. I had made it. I was officially able to say “I can drive a standard”. Even though there were stressful times during the drive, I pushed through and made it. I knew I would not have to drive standard for another four months until it was time to head home. Then it would begin all over again.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Let`s get Rowdy College Girls to Cowboys

As both hands on the clock struck five I was on the edge of my seat, my legs were bouncing uncontrollably; I couldn’t keep it together much longer. As I looked around the room I could see the anticipation that lingered in the other councilors, everyone was shifting in their chairs. The week was over, campers were gone and it was time to begin our two day break.

“And that concludes our meeting, any other questions or comments?” All I could think about, was that someone better not stick up their hand and say anything. We all silently sat there giving the “stink eye”, hoping that it would detour anyone from dragging the meeting on any longer. The silence in the room concluded the meeting, then everyone bolted for the door; “Calgary here we come!” With three of us jumping on the trunk (barely making it close) we piled into the little silver Honda. We were ready for the five hours of driving, the energy in the car was high; I don’t know where it had come from. After six days of constantly being on the go I didn’t think I had any energy left. Boy was I wrong!

“So I just talked to Dave (the boy whose house we were staying at) and he said that he and his friends rented a limo for tonight! The only problem is that they ordered it to pick us up at 10pm” sighed, Emily from the back seat. Our first reaction was extreme excitement: “a limo, who goes in a limo for fun on random days? This is going to be sweet!” Then reality sank in as Richard, my British GPS voice, announced in his thick accent that we would be arriving at our destination at 10:07pm. As I looked around the car I knew we were all thinking the same thing. It was impossible to drive to Calgary, eat dinner, get dressed and hop in a limo before 10pm. I glanced around again I couldn’t help but let out a burst of laughter –wow were the boys in for a treat!

We all looked hot dressed in our lime green camp He Ho Ha baggy t-shirts, which were in need of a good washing. Our hair looked lovely, thrown up with the purpose of keeping it out of our eyes, not even one hint of make-up on any of our faces …yep, we were limo ready.

“Alright how are we going to do this?” I asked the other girls.
“Well, we could do drive through for dinner” suggested Hillary, the driver of the car.
“Yea, and we can get dressed in the car!” exclaimed Emily.
“Do you remember how hard it was to close the trunk, how are we going to get our clothes out of it while driving? Not going to happen” piped Jenny.
“Alright, we’ll just be super fast getting ready!”

Finally, we pulled up to Dave’s house and ran to the door with all our bags! It was already five after 10. As we stood on the steps we came to the realization that they had already left. “Are you kidding me! We were not even ten minutes late and they couldn’t wait! Emily you should call and see where they are!” We all stood there with scowls plastered on our faces, ranting and raving about these boys. Emily finally got a hold of Dave and his friends, and they said they would be there in two minutes to pick us up. Once again we were thrilled. We found the not-so-hidden house key underneath the porch rug and all bounded for the first room we could find. It was chaos; zip went the suitcases, then the clothes went flying around the room! Clothes changed, make-up and hair done all in two minutes –impressive but exhausting, let me tell you!

The limo pulled up and the boys were yelling for us to hurry. We scurried around grabbing our last minute, needed accessories and headed for the limo. We piled into the limo with barely any room or time to spare. I couldn’t help but smile, the night had already been so eventful and it was only the beginning!

Friday, September 18, 2009

I Need a Little Bit of Health a little Bit of Hope to Find my Happiness

A few years ago, I was asked to share where my favourite place in the world was. At the time, it took me a while to narrow down where my favourite place was, but eventually I decided. Two years ago if someone would have asked me where my favourite place in the world was I would have answered “Killbear Provincial Park”. I still hold Killbear to be one of my top favourite places, but after this summer, I will no longer be the same person I was before going to Camp Health Hope and Happiness (shortened to Camp He Ho Ha), as a camp counselor.
This summer I was given the privilege of being a camp counselor at Camp He Ho Ha, a camp for people with special needs. During the application process we were told we had to write an essay on “why we deserved to be given the amazing privilege to work at this camp”. At the time, I saw the word “privilege” to mean something completely different. To me, the privilege I was receiving was the privilege to have a job during the recession. After spending even the first day at camp I realized that the privilege that the camp directors were talking about was not the privilege of receiving a pay check, but the privilege of getting to work with such amazing people.
The first ten days of camp were spent in an intense training session learning what I thought to be “my survival guide,” little did I know that that was only the first couple chapters of my survival guide. During camp, returning staff and our camp coordinators kept telling us that after this summer we would not be the same people (as if they knew what we were really like), and every time they would say that I would think to myself “I doubt in the next three and a half months I am going to be any different than I was when I came” . Wow, was I ever wrong!
My most memorable week of camp was during our first physically disabled camp week. At our weekly staff meeting, we were told that this week was going to be the hardest week of our lives, and were they ever right! After being prepped that we would be challenged more than we have ever been. I was a nervous mess and right away I felt a warm flush internally and I was anxious. This particular week involved working with physically disabled male adults. I can remember thinking there is no way I can do this! Before the arrival of the campers, the counselors gathered outside our cabins to draw colorful chalk drawings to welcome them. You could see the anxious looks on everyone’s faces as we heard the bright yellow school buses ripping down the gravel laneway to the camp. We all dropped our chalk and hustled to meet the busses. “I am going to be just fine,” I kept repeating trying to calm myself down.
Cabin number five’s bus arrived; camper by camper they unloaded the bus until we had ten wheelchairs headed for the cabin. This week, it was my turn to do the behind the scenes work, unpacking, making phone calls and delivering medications to the nurses. Busy with all this work, time flew by, before I knew it, it was time for lunch. I made my way to the dining hall to eat and help our campers that could not feed themselves. I ended up coming in a few minutes late with one of our campers. When I entered the dining hall, one of my fellow counselors pulled me over and said that one of my campers (for this blog I will call him Ted) wanted my help to eat his meal. I got my food and headed over to help Ted eat his meal. I was feeding Ted and he would point his head to what food he wanted next. During the entire meal, he was killing himself laughing, but I never could figure out why. In the spirit of camp, I joined in on the laughter, laughing every time he did. Lunch ended and I headed back to the cabin to finish unpacking the other camper’s belongings. It took all afternoon to finish with cabin work and running around doing all the necessary odd jobs, I finished just in time to meet everyone for dinner. As I walked out to the gazebo, where my cabin was waiting to be let into the dining hall, I overheard Ted having a conversation with another counselor.

I couldn’t believe what I was overhearing! The images from lunch came flooding back through my head. I had helped Ted feed himself through the entire meal; it was then that I realized that I had been fooled by a camper! I had fed Ted; I held his drink up to his mouth, wiped his mouth and laughed while he laughed throughout the entire meal. Little did I know, he had been laughing at me the whole time, I, unknowingly had been laughing at myself! Ted finally turned around and noticed me standing behind him, “Have you clued in yet? It’s about time!” My mouth just dropped to the floor. All I could do was walk away.
I will never forget Ted and I thank him for teaching me to never to assume anything.