I just finished my first Young Life camp. I was a leader for the special ed group, which is called (I believe) Capernium. I’m sure the name has a significance, and I know I could look it up, but I’m not going to right now. What I know is that it’s a group of people with varying degrees and ranges of disabilities. They range in age from high school to the mid-30’s or so; some are in wheel chairs, some have Downs, and some wouldn’t reveal their disability until you talked to the individual kid. Being around the individual kids for a week, typically in a group setting, was quite interesting, quite paradoxical, and completely draining.
A fact: these people have less than the rest of us. From us so-called-normal-folks, they were different. They were unable to function in the ways of normal modern America. They had trouble eating, sleeping, bathing, bathrooming, and on and on. Basically, everything they needed to do to survive was more difficult, and time consuming. Things we take do as chores, they do as tasks. Brushing teeth took concentration. But, it was also took complete focus, causing the brusher to live in the present moment.
A paradox: I envy the singular focus, the presence in the moment, but would hate to have to be like that. One of the guys, T-, needed to focus and go through a check list as he took care of himself, and if he didn’t, he’d forget something. I admire the fact that he can give that focus, yet would hate to have to.
A confession: I couldn’t help but feel cool around the crew. I could do things that they couldn’t, even if they were basic things like eating and walking around or success in sports. I have quicker wit than they do, more cognitive capacity than they do, a healthier body than they do, and more opportunities for things the world values. These are facts. For instance, when playing Frisbee or basketball or any type of a game, all of us normal leaders were better than the kids with special needs. They’re used to playing games and sports in their own type of Olympics, which makes their forms of comparison on a smaller overall scale. This being the case, excelling in the capacity to which we play them wasn’t hard.
Some things I noticed being around the kids were that they didn’t have values and standards. Rather than the comparative, they thought in the positive degree. They didn’t have answers to what they liked better, they could only answer whether or not they liked something. So a response to a question asking, “If you could have this or that, what would you take?” might get a “Both”.
I also couldn’t help but realizing how much attention this group of people received. If humans have evolved as far as many basic functions go, this group of individuals is a step behind. They eat with their tongues out, need help using utensils, get the food all over their faces, and have their plates littered with pills. One girl had five or six pills around her plate at each meal, and the kids were asking for their “Meds” at all times. I just looked at the Down Syndrome website, and discovered that the current life expectancy is now 60, though it was only 25 three decades ago.
My basic focus at camp was to watch one kid with Downs, but there were three guys that had it, so we all basically took care of these guys. Each was at a different level, and therefore brought their own emotional pull. Two of the guys were much lower functioning than the others. For these guys, they were obviously slow and off. One had about four responses for every question. The other was one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met, but was probably in many mental ways about the equivalent of a three year old. He was kind and smiley and joyful, and it was easy to be thankful for him. For the third, it wasn’t quite so.
His name is A-, and I went to school with him from 5th-8th grade. When I walked into the camp to meet the crew, I recognized A- right away. He looked like an old-man version of the boy I knew. He’s lost a little weight since then, but otherwise looks more or less the same. I recognized him right away. It wasn’t until spending a few days with him that I noticed how old parts of him looked. His hands and legs looked liked those of a 60, not 30-year old guy. Some of the things I remember about him from 5th and 6th grade are the same as now, too; he still can clear out a room with a fart, still loves dropping his pants and “shakin’ it baby”, and he still grinds his teeth so that it can be heard across a room.
For me, A- was the hardest to love. He has parts of him that are very disagreeable. He’s selfish and self focused which are hard to take normally, but are even harder to take when someone needs help doing their basic needs. These also came out for me, in light of the fact that the rest of the students at the camp were in high school. So here’s this 32-year old guy wanting to cut in line and do things before or instead of or in spite of the high schoolers.
He’s hard, though, too, because of his cognitive functioning. I feel that if you took most of my friends and their basic mental faculties and put them in the body of a person with Downs, you’d get A-. That’s a hard thing. A- can hold functioning conversations, is pretty witty, is with it and can hang in a lot of conversations, but is stuck in this body that doesn’t agree or allow him to do things he’d like or want to do.
It’s obvious that his sexual drive is fairly normal. He makes jokes about boners and references to porn and how he can handle it, which has the effect of sadness, because he couldn’t act on his desires with most normal girls. So what he’s watching, he wouldn’t be able to do. When talking amongst the cabin or the guys, you can tell that he gets what’s going on and is aware of it, which always made me wonder how much of his situation he was aware of. Did he know how much help he needed?
All the guys liked a routine, and looked forward to dinner, and the guys with Downs could eat. They’d always get seconds, often thirds, and would go on and on. They all have similar body types; round middle, buzz cut, waddle-walk, short, short appendages, small, stubby fingers, too large of tongues, so that pronouncing words is a difficult process.
Their tongues seemed to be about 50% too large, which made all words come out a bit more slowly, and with something along the lines of a lisp that can be imitated by saying all ones words with the front of one’s tongue attached to the front of one’s mouth. Their words could be more or less understood, but needed clarification from time to time, which would frustrate the guys. I can see why. This is once again the hardest with A-, because his thoughts are deeper and more relevant, but often misunderstood. He seems trapped.
The camp has a routine that is foolproof. There are games and activities, rides and meals, meetings and clubs that take up all the time. For almost every event, you wish it would have gone just a bit longer than it did. So the whole time you were entertained, the whole time you wanted more, or to do it again, but yet were satisfied. The camp itself contained everything one needed to have a good time.
Nightly devotions were among the funnier parts of the week. There was a speaker that was giving the salvation story for the camp; the rest of the camp were normal high school students, but they were more of an at risk type than a Christian contingent. This means that most of the kids hadn’t yet accepted Jesus, so the goal of the week was to witness and minister to the kids. A nightly speaker relayed the story of salvation to the campers, and post-session, we’d go to our cabins and have ‘Cabin Time’.
CT is geared toward talking about what the days’ lesson had stirred up. It ranged from sin to present problems to need for salvation to other things.
At least for most cabins.
For us, we could never be sure what the lessons would bring, for any given word could spur any association, thus Cabin Time for Pike 1, Capernium Crew could look like this:
Paul: So guys, when the speaker was talking about Jesus’ death and how it impacts you, what did you think about?
B-: My dog died. His name was Sparky.
T-: My grandpa died. Both of them.
Ben: My friend’s aunt died.
B-: Hey Paul, can I have a Gatorade? (Fart/excuse me).
Br-: Well, uh…what his, uh, death means to me is..uh…well…
B-: You okay Tom?
Tom: I’m alright B-, pay attention, and go to the bathroom if you need to do that.
B-, smiling: Ok, Tom. Pop tomorrow, right?
Br-: …that he, uh…
Paul: Okay guys, good. Next question. When the speaker said we were in jail, what did he mean?
Tim: I think he was talking about how our sins have us locked up, and take away our freedom.
Tom: Yeah. It was an interesting point, and I like how he used the visual.
B-: Where’s Kaitlin? Pop tomorrow, right?
Tom: Yeah, but what about jail?
B-: Jail’s for bad people, right Paul?
Paul: Yeah B-.
B-, smiling: Journal later, Tom?
Tom pats B- on the leg, motions for silence.
Paul: guys, what about you, do you have sins that are a problem for you?
Tim, laughing (or trying hard not to laugh): You don’t think you have any sins?
Paul, suspiciously: why not?
A-: Jesus forgives them.
Ben: I think I need to trust God more.
Br-: ….uh, well, to me, uh…sin and jail, uh, (sucking in spit), and the speaker…and jail, I, uh….I think I might have some sins, but, uh, ah….
B-: Kaitlin’s really pretty, Tom. I love her. Gatorade later Paul?
Paul: maybe B-.
T-: I get a pop on Tuesday. And that’s my sister’s birthday.
A-: Yeah, I don’t have any sins.
I only personally lead the Cabin Time once, and it was hilarious to do so. Especially because I’m naturally tangent-prone anyway, so found our cabins especially funny. But the cabin times were intended for the guys, but they ended up being us three adults – Paul, Tim, and Me – talking about the speakers things and just kind of generally sharing, being interrupted, and listening.
Bed time was also great. I was sharing a room with two guys, taking the top bunk. The pre-sleep routines were great. They included asking the same questions over and over, as part of the routine. B-’s included asking about the next day’s soda (he was allowed one per day, the highlight) and inquiring about how I was. His was closer to annoying than it was to endearing, but T-’s was only endearing.
T- had been reading through the Bible, and after years of doing so was in 1st Kings. To read the Bible, he’d pull out his massive text, written in large print type, as well as his flashlight. He’d read three verses aloud, and then put it all back. Each word was traced by his finger, each word uttered quietly. And then he’d pray. To pray, he’d get on his knees, next to the bed, and thank God for each and every blessing in his life, including his parents, siblings, and other things. The routine didn’t change, except one night.
One of T-’s yearly traditions was that one night he’d stage a falling out of the bed. This particular year, things had just gotten quiet, B- had just fallen asleep. I was using a headlamp to do a little reading, when all of a sudden, CRASH, and T- was on the floor, a heap of a man, laughing hysterically.
Which woke up B-.
Which started the whole routine again.
A bit after T- got back in bed and B- was near sleep, I hear, “Tom. I can’t sleep.”
“That’s ok T-,” I say, “just lay there, and hopefully you’ll fall asleep soon.”
“I think I’ll count sheeps,” he responds.
I chuckle quietly on my bed, and go back to reading. About five minutes later, I hear, “One sheeps, two sheeps, three sheeps…” His counting is slow, methodical. About three seconds lapse between each new sheep. Once he gets to ten, I hear, “ten sheeps, eleven sheeps, nine sheeps.” Longer than the standard three seconds pass, and I hear a loud bang on the head, “Ohhh,” he says catching the mistake and begins again with one.
When you’re a leader at a camp like this, interacting with a group of people ‘less fortunate’ than yourself, something changes for you. You realize how blessed you are, and what a blessing these ‘less fortunate’ people are. Watching the rest of the campers help and interact with our group was amazing. This is demonstrated particularly well through one girl that I’ll always remember. She was popular and cool, but rather than spend her free time with her friends, she spent it with our group, at the end telling what a blessing our group was to the camp.