disabilities, disabled, Humanity, Kyphosis, Life, medical, Physical Disabilities, Scoliosis, Special Needs, Uncategorized

Disability Journey: Camp We Can Do- My heaven on Earth!!

What teenage girl that has raging hormones and mood swings has never asked the question, “why? Why me?” or said the phrase, “I am ugly”? I know I have said it a lot. When you feel like the only person who has a disability or the only one “outcast from the ‘normal’ children, it can feel quite lonely and you feel very shy and don’t want to socialize and make friends; Camp We Can Do was my answer to this problem.

Camp We Can Do is a day camp that lasts all summer for kids with special needs of all kinds; ranging from ADHD to the most extreme of cases: Autism, Physical disabilities, Down syndrome, and some others. Too numerous to name them all. It is like the camp is a haven for kids who feel like outcasts due to their disabilities. It’s a “World of our own;” which was the theme for the 2007 camp year.

I first heard about Camp We Can Do from my friend that I made when I was in pre-school who has Autism; his parents told my parents about camp because Mom had tried to figure out something to get me out the house during the summers, and this was her answer; it didn’t involve pushing me to try to sleep away from home (I hated sleeping away from home; I got scared too much).

When I heard the news about going to camp, I was so nervous since I was going to be new to the camp, “how would the kids like me? Would I look like a freak to them too? What should I wear so I look okay? What if I made a mistake and got teased?”  Boy, did I worry so much! When Mom and I went shopping for the usual summer clothing shopping trip, I would always ask when I was trying on, “Does this hide my curve?” I would try something on and come out “Does this hide my back? How’s this swimsuit look? It isn’t too tight or reveals my back curve too much? “Does this look okay?” “Ugh, this looks so bad!” “Why I got to be so fat and ugly?!” “I hate my life.” Oh it could go on and on, I hated shopping because if something I liked, didn’t look good on me or didn’t fit right, my whole world would fall apart and then would come the waterworks; you should’ve been there to see an eleven-year-old throwing a tantrum in the store like a little baby!

The first day finally came, I was so scared and nervous: I didn’t talk to anyone, I kept to myself, and didn’t want to take part in activities. I was also very unprepared; I didn’t know I needed a blanket for nap time/”quiet time” or that I needed a snack for snack time (luckily a nice girl who is now one of my best friends, who was like five years old at the time, shared her snack with me.)

After that first day, I loosened up and realized, they won’t tease me or make fun of me. We were all in the same boat; cast aside from the “normal” kids.

When I was a camper at Camp We Can Do, I also acted like a “MOM” to some of the younger children. Sometimes I’d get dropped off early when Dad would bring me. I got there when some of the little kids would get dropped off, and you know little kids when Mommy and Daddy leave, they cry. I would entertain and make them forget that they just got “abandoned” at Camp. There was one little girl who I am not sure of her diagnosis when she’d get dropped off, I’d take her to the bathroom because we had limited staff for early drop-offs. I’d give her some Peanut butter crackers because she was often hungry, I bought her a toothbrush and would bring toothpaste and help her brush her teeth, and would wash her face up with a wet rag. After that, I’d take her to the TV room with the other Early Drop-offs, put her sitting on my lap, and hug her while we watched PBS kids (which I hated, but I dealt with it). When we’d go bowling, I’d often be the one to take her to the bathroom because I was the only “trustworthy” camper (nice way of saying Mentally able to handle the responsibility) and we didn’t have extra staff to take them individually and if we didn’t take her then and there, she’d sometimes have accidents. She loved to sit on my lap, whether it be for arts and crafts, cooking in the kitchen, etc. In the morning exercises, I would help get her engaged by saying “(Name), look. Just like I do” and she’d imitate me. She made me laugh cause she had this cute little phrase “Shake da booty” when they would play music at camp and she’d shake her butt. I often got into fights with the “foster grandparents” because they would force her to get out of my lap, “She’s too big for that, “or “you are a camper, not a staff,” or “She needs to sit in her chair.” Some days, when I’d clean out my closet (since I was in children’s clothes at the time) and she was about as big as I was, I’d sometimes bring her extra clothes and told her mom that she could keep it or bring it back, it didn’t matter. Sometimes I brought her toys and let her take them home for a week, and then she’d bring back to “trade out” for something new. I think her favorite time was snack time, though because she always got her favorite treat; yogurt. She loved yogurt and I always packed it. As soon as I’d open my snack box and she saw it, she’d squeal “OGIE!” (Which was how she said “yogurt”) and I’d spoon feed it to her every day. When she’d get sick at camp, I’d stay by her side the entire time. I’d run and get water for her, watch the nurse take temperature, run and get blankets, whatever she needed, I ran

and got. When we’d wait for her parents to pick her up, when she was sick, I didn’t care if I would get sick, I would hold her in my lap, covered up in a blanket and rock her.

I miss her so much now, but I think her family moved, but she will always remain in my heart as my “little camp daughter.”

Sure I loved my years at camp we can do, but there were downsides to it, as well.  One downside was when I stood up to a camper for one of my friends and this camper punched me in the face.  I got in trouble for not telling a counselor, instead of taking it into my own hands. Another downside was when I got in trouble with a counselor, but I was allowed to leave my groups to help with photos by the director. When the counselors would fuss me over what I deemed “Stupid stuff” I’d tell them off and got sassy. Now that I am older and have volunteered as a staff, I realize what they were trying to do. 

I loved camp, and I loved the friends I made through Camp We Can Do, but there were times I didn’t like as well but like everything else: You take the good with the Bad.

As a child with a disability myself, I have always been exposed to different special needs and disabilities, but my first “real” exposure to Autism didn’t happen until I was 12 years old and met a boy who would later be known as “my autistic stalker,” because he would call me all the time and never give me any space, but that’s later in this story.

When I was 12, I met “my autistic stalker,” at camp through his neighbor, and a counselor at Camp We Can Do, who had her own Autistic son. She drove all of us to Camp from Opelousas. My “Autistic Stalker” when I first met him, was a quiet, shy boy who mostly kept to himself except when he got the sudden urge to quote characters from cartoons; That is until he met me.

Don’t get me wrong, he was like that with me too, at first, but each morning I would get in the car, greet him with a smile “Good Morning (name)” and give him a hug. By the end of that summer, I had broken him out of his “Autistic Shell,” and got him talking. The following school year, however, the adaptive P.E. coach who traveled to all the schools, told me that I had developed a “Secret admirer” in this boy.

Since I had never “truly” experienced any relations with an Autistic boy before; aside from my Pre-K buddy, I did not realize what a crush from an Autistic male would entail. At first, I thought it was “Cute” and flattering: I’d let him hold my hand, I let him kiss my cheek, after all, I didn’t have a boyfriend; it got more severe the more I let it go on: pretty soon, he’d have a meltdown if I left the room just to go to the bathroom, yelling as loud as he could “JAMIE COME BACK!” and I was like “Dude, I got to go pee!”

I didn’t want to cut him off as a friend so I let him keep calling me, even when  he’d call more than once: and I had better answer or He’d call and call and call until I’d answer the phone, leaving a bunch of voicemails. I also couldn’t skip Camp or he’d have a meltdown, “JAMIE I can’t go to Camp without you,” or “JAMIE I HATE SICK! YOU GOTTA GO TO CAMP TOMORROW! I CANT GO BOWLING (Or SWIMMING) WITHOUT YOU!” Sometimes just to get him to not cry on the phone, I’d pacify him and say “FINE (NAME), I AM ALL BETTER” and go to Camp the next day, even if I felt like crud.  If his calling got on my nerves, and I didn’t want to blow up at him, sometimes I’d answer and try to disguise my voice (which didn’t work) and say “HELLO THIS IS PIZZA HUT. What size Pizza would you like?” He’d get so flustered and argue, “THIS Isn’t Pizza HUT, you’re Jamie Cormier!” I’d keep up the “pizza hut” charade until he’d eventually hang up, only to call the number again.

He was obsessed with Power Rangers and he always said he was the green ranger. I hated when my mom would bring him and I  to and from camp because this was literally the conversation:

HIM: Jamie, you are the pink ranger and I am the green ranger

ME: I want to be purple

HIM: NO! Girls are Pink!

ME: I prefer Purple.

HIM: NO! You are pink!

MOM: My favorite color is green, so I’ll be the green ranger

HIM: NOOO! Mrs. Cormier, I’m the green ranger and Jamie the pink ranger

(ON and on and on; the whole ride going to camp and the whole ride coming back.)

During swimming with the camp, we were play splashing each other, playing chase in the pool, when all of a sudden he grabbed me and dunked me under the water multiple times when I was caught off guard. Scary, right? I was terrified, and thankfully the counselors were around to stop him, and after the incident, he teary-eyed would point “but she got a bee in her hair, I was trying to get it out.” I have to laugh about it now, but back then, I was scared he was trying to drown me.

Another thing was when he first started his “crush,” I will admit that I used it to my advantage; didn’t want to get up to go get my snack bag? I sent him. Wanted fresh water from the fountain in a cup? I sent him. Wanted a “guinea pig” to test new snacks on? I

made him eat it first. There was a rolling chair at camp that my friends and I claimed at “snack time”. We sat in it while ate our snacks and if we wanted to move locations, we made him push us. I don’t know why, but we gave him the name “sofa” when he did stuff for us; kind of like a pet-slave or butler that we took in. Kids will be kids, even when you also have disabilities, still can “bully”; another dark memory from Jr. High years.

On the way to camp, we’d jam to mostly country music; he loved Rascal Flatts, and on the song “Me and My Gang,” for some reason he’d tickle me when the chorus would go “Me and My Gang.” (WHY DOES EVERYONE LOVE TICKLING ME?) I remember one year for the Camp talent show, he sang to “Life is a Highway,” I remember watching him and thinking “he never would’ve done that had he not met me and opened up,” I was so proud of how much progress he had made, even though sometimes his constant clinginess to me, drove me crazy.

There were things I loved about him: I could do whatever I wanted and he not hate me: Draw mustaches on his face, give him marker tattoos, sing at the top of my lungs and he didn’t care, he was really good at simple math (arithmetic) and drawing ninja turtles. For the Halloween and Christmas Dances, he always wanted me to dance with him at least 1x. The thing I didn’t like was how clingy he became since being friends (total 7 years) and how jealous he got when I was with other boys at camp, even when I became a counselor and had to interact with them as part of my “job.” When he saw me with other boys, no matter their age, he’d either tug me away as hard/rough as he could, chase them off yelling at them, charge at them physically; I had to send him to the “office” for that a lot! The other thing was, he was starting to try to kiss me on the lips; One day he tried, and it was a bad day already: I snapped and soon had him pinned to the fence, yelling “YOU DO THAT AGAIN and You will lose teeth or your lip will swell!” That Moment, I am not proud of.

I know he couldn’t help it, but my anger/temper is one of my biggest faults. I am working on it now because going into the field of special Ed, you don’t know what you could face, so I have to try to work on my anger/temper, and patience.

One moment I am proud of with this individual was when he started freshman year at my high school during my senior year. The first day, I saw him and his mom in the halls, and I promised I’d look out for him since I was a senior and would have some free time: I’d defend him in the hall (got sent to the principal so many times for fighting, kicking, and hitting anyone who would mock him and tease him). He would see me in the hall and he’d get all excited and do that “spaz out” flapping thing that some Autistics do and yell “JAMIE!” He usually saw me for lunchtime, so everyone was out of their classes at this time, and a lot of “normal Ed.” Students would imitate this action and laugh, or they’d mess with me “Oooh Jamie’s got a retard boyfriend!” You can ask my Graduating class, I could be a witch if you got on my bad side. Another thing I did to take up for him, was when I got him switched from his first teacher’s class because I had gone into her room to check on him during my free time, and she’d always have him in a time out for something that he couldn’t help; it was a manifestation of his disability, or she had the class doing kindergarten work and they were in high school; like color sheets or stuff like that. Yes, they had Autism, but try tapping into that brain, you might be surprised. I argued and fought with her so much about these issues and got sent to the principal again because I “was disrespecting my elders,” then the witch needs to do her job, eventually through my being sent to the office so much, my friend got switched to a new special needs class.

As much as his constant calling used to get on my nerves, I kind of miss it, but I also don’t want to reopen that door, because our future has changed, however. When I was first starting college he’d still call excessively no matter how much I’d say “(name) I’m in college, I need to study. As of this year, the calls have finally stopped. All I can do is pray that he is having a good life and enjoying it, whatever he is up to now. One thing I learned through “my autistic stalker friend,” is that there are boundaries and limits you need to set, it’s a social issue and as such, you need to make sure they understand you only see them “this way” and not “that way,” No matter how many times I just told him “No, just a friend,” he never understood: when this all started, I was only 12, I was too young and too friendly to know I had to set limits and boundaries, I never would’ve realized that things could escalate to what they did until I experienced it. As much as the situation would frustrate me because of the phone calls, the clinginess, etc., I still miss him as a friend, but also I don’t want to re-open communication because he’s finally understood I need boundaries and space, and I worry if I try to reinstall communication, that boundaries will be demolished and we’ll be back where we were with him, and I can’t risk a clingy jealous “stalker friend,” and a boyfriend: Life is about choosing and I will always be here if his mom ever needs to get in touch with me, I will always be here to help from afar and here to emotionally support them, but I just can’t risk destroying the improvement he’s made with realizing I need space and boundaries. I will always love him as a friend, and I love all the things I learned by meeting him and him being in my life; it’s just for the best if I don’t ever try to re-establish communication (or so I think. Maybe I am in the wrong, I don’t know.). Another thing I don’t like is that due to it being handled by Lafayette Consolidated Government, the camp cannot hire former campers (however they can volunteer) due to liability issues; who would know how to run the camp the way campers would enjoy it more, than a former camper? I just think it is unjust and unfair to former campers who have the mentality and responsibility, but just a physical disability, or a slight learning disability, but whatever.

Even now, when I am grown and in college, I continued to go to Camp We Can Do occasionally, but not as a camper anymore; now as a volunteer counselor because I can offer something other counselors can’t, Empathy; because I was once like them, new to the camp, scared and nervous, wanting to be accepted; I could share my experiences and give them advice. I could be like a role model they could come to, and I could provide a memorable experience for the future campers, so they will have fun and want to keep coming back like I did. However, that did not pan out because I didn’t mind not getting paid or the liability thing as much as what happened when I became a volunteer: I didn’t have to be there, I wanted to be there to help, but none of the other counselors (the ones that actually were hired and got paid) took me seriously: They never let me do anything to help or they picked minimal jobs (I guess out of fear of me getting hurt, I don’t know). I would go complain to the director and it was like she wasn’t listening to the problems I was having and it was like she would just tune me out when I tried to present an idea. Another problem I had was the kids; I understand it is odd having someone your height telling you to do stuff, they probably thought I was just trying to be a counselor, but on the first day, the director even presented me as “a volunteer” and to treat me as such; well no one did that: Not the campers, not the other staff, not even the director herself. As much as I miss my campers that held special spots in my heart, and I loved what the camp stood for, but it wasn’t worth the stress and the aches in my back from the stress: It was obvious I needed to move on from Camp We Can Do, and I have; although I still do keep in touch with a few of my special campers that have my heart.

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Emotional: Ode to Mrs. Z

Warning: I am about to be really emotional and sappy.
Mrs. Z, The director of Camp We Can Do until 2010, has been on my mind a lot lately. RIP. I miss her so much and she was a major influence in my life…

Imagine: Being an 11 year old girl with severe physical limitations due to Severe Kyphosis/Scoliosis and Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. Imagine feelings like you don’t fit in anywhere and that even though you have friends, you constantly question whether your existence is just a burden on your loved ones.

Imagine: Starting a new scary adventure; a summer camp, Something I had never done before aside from daily VBS for a week at Church. Even though, I knew that it was for Special Needs individuals like me, I still was stressing. I remember going shopping with mom for summer clothes; constantly coming out of the dressing room in each article of clothing, asking the same repetitive question “Does this hide my curve? Does my stomach in this? Do I look ‘Normal,” and God forbid if something I liked didn’t look good; Talk about “Dressing room Meltdown!” of locking myself in the dressing room, beating myself up by hitting myself in the face, on the arms, crying my eyes out because I just wanted to be “normal.”
The first day of Camp finally arrived and I was so nervous and scared, I didn’t socialize with anyone, I kept to myself, and didn’t want to participate in any of the activities except kitchen and arts and crafts. When the camp group activity (where the whole camp got together to participate), Mrs. Z Noticed I was not participating and when she tried to get me to participate, I cried like a little baby brat about “I don’t wanna,” and “What if they laugh at me?” It’s like come on, they have special needs too. Why was I so self-absorbed? So ignorant? I am so embarrassed was back then. Mrs. Z let me skip that first day group activity, but we had a “come to ” talk where she explained that I would eventually have to participate and try to make friends, that no one would make fun of me and if they did, they would deal with her. Thanks to her and camp we can do, I came so much out of my shell (at least there) and did things, I never would’ve done anywhere. I did the talent shows, the girl makeovers; I made wonderful friendships, and even volunteered as a counselor after I turned 18. Had I not met Mrs. Z who pushed me to realize I was not limited by my disability, that I just had to find an alternate route and the statement/Motto of Camp We can do, “Yes We Can!” Had I not met Mrs. Z and the wonderful staff who were encouraging and supportive of the campers, I don’t know how I would’ve turned out. Yes, my mom always encouraged me, but I always figured “She’s my mom. She has to say that.” Coming from others, it’s a confidence builder? I 100% confident and in who I am? No. I still have some work to do, but without Camp We Can Do, (and Shriners in St Louis later on), I don’t know what my life would’ve been? I don’t think I would’ve flourished the way I have since starting Camp We Can Do and meeting Mrs. Z. She pushed me out of my comfort zones to explore other aspects life. I wish she was still around to witness my life and accomplishments, but I know she is watching over me, and hopefully I am making her proud. God bless you Mrs. Z, (and I am tearing up writing this), I miss you so much! There is so much I wish I could just talk with you about. I love you and hopefully, I can make you so proud of me. ❤ ❤ 

There once was a lady who was sweet and kind, She worked at Camp We Can Do, For quite some time. Her name was Evelyn Zehner,But to the campers at Camp we can do, Her name was “Mrs. Z” And she was loved by every camper, Including me. She never saw a handicap or Disability, She only saw children, who wanted to have fun, But could also be held accountable for every misdeed. She treated us all “normal”, Never made excuses for us.But loved us so much, that was evident. We were all her babies, Like a parent, Even when we were misbehaving, she still loved us. Every Morning we were given “good morning hugs,” Right as we got in the door, running into her open arms,We loved our “Mrs. Z,” Sometimes, we’d get in trouble just to go sit in the office with her; Or others, like me,Would just sneak away from group and peek into her office, Until she would catch me, I can still hear her saying,“Okay Jamie, I need you to go back with your group.”It was said so often, it should’ve been stamped on my forehead. The days always ended the same,As children’s rides would arrive, the kids would hug Mrs. Z tightly, She’d squeeze them with lots of love, And tell them “Rest well for more fun tomorrow.” Or “Have a good weekend,” Whatever the case would be. She knew what the kids were capable of, What they knew, how they knew how to play “sympathy card,” She was tough, but she was loving; Firm but Fair. She was big on teaching life skills. She knew these kids, That others counted out,Could learn these life skills, And prove something to the world;That they could be something with the right dedication and discipline. Sure some times, her methods seemed extreme and harsh, Maybe “too hard,” on kids who already “had such a tough life,”But I cannot recount a single kid who ever held a grudge;They always would hug her, and still knew her love for them. We learned how to cook in the kitchen, There would be people who came in to read stories to us, People who came to teach us healthy eating, nutrition, hand-washing, etc.We’d go to library, museums, They would teach us how to do grocery shopping,She knew that special needs couldn’t always learn just from textbook and memorization, We also had to go out and experience it, And of course, try and fail over and over till we got it. But she never gave up on us; she never counted us out, Ever! Sure, she is gone, And we are all sad, But her legacy will live on, In the memories and love,The impact she had, On thousands of lives. Fly High, Mrs. Z, You took care of everyone here on Earth,Now it’s your turn to enjoy some pampering,Up in heaven; you have definitely earned your angel wings, Sweet woman. Long Live, The advocate, the disciplinarian, and second mama, To everyone, especially children and parents from Camp We Can Do.

It was in 2008, when we went to Kemah boardwalk for the Camp’s big field trip. I wasn’t riding any of the rides; just watching all the other campers having fun. Mrs. Evelyn ZehnerEvelyn P. Zehner was the one who told me “your parents didn’t pay all the money for the big field trip just for you to be a spectator.” So She encouraged me to try a ride. I got on a tower drop (not realizing that I was terrified of heights), and I never been so terrified in my life, but I also am glad I did it. (isn’t it funny how something can scare you, but you are proud of accomplishing it anyway)
Mrs. Z was always encouraging us to step outside of our comfort zones, and really thats what should be encouraged, because if we don’t, then how will we ever find out what we like or are good at …if we are counting ourselves out before trying, or scared to fail, then what kind of life is that? Mrs. Z had that tough love, but sometimes, that is the formula for success…not always the case, but sometimes. I think the lessons she taught us, and what many influential people in my life taught me, has influenced me into the person I am today. Yes, I still have some “kinks” to work out and smooth out, but for the most part, I am proud of who I am and I have Mrs. Z as one person to thank for that. 

❤ 

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