I hate camping, but I love summer camp. Zooey Deschanel
Summer camp was always a thing for me, and my thoughts on this topic go back as far back as I can remember. It was August in Texas, and my mom was pregnant with my sister when my parents sent me off to camp for the first time (an act that now, as an adult, I clearly understand in its full light of desperation and brilliance). I was eight at the time, and I was hooked from that point on.
I never went to a fancy camp that I could name drop in a job interview or anything… in fact, the camp I went to was called Highland Lakes Encampment (that’s right, it had the word “Encampment” in the title)…but even in its basic, unfancy (encampment) offerings, there was something magic about going into a completely different space, especially as a kid from a small town, and being around lots of other kids my age doing camp things that expanded and evolved my perspectives. In short, I’m fairly certain that camp changed my wiring for the better.
Right about the time I had been thinking about the whole camp-makes-you-a-better-person concept and my social media feeds started reporting on kids packing up trunks for weeks away, I received an invitation to visit an MDA Summer Camp in Georgia with Christine Koh, Jill Krause and Denene Millner.
I replied yes before I even finished reading the email.
It didn’t matter that I didn’t know anything about MDA, because between all the kids going to camp in my Facebook feed, there was a strong and steady, constant, unending stream of unfathomable and overwhelming bad news that my brain isn’t wired to process. I needed to get outside. I needed a camp.
So I went to MDA Camp just outside of Atlanta.
When I met these ladies in Atlanta and we started the hour-long drive to the middle of the forest, we inevitably started processing through a number of things going on in our world right now. I think it’s fair to say we are all a bit overwhelmed. There are so many current human problems that need human responses (human responses that are too often nowhere to be found), and we lamented that we felt low in energy and limited by what we could do.
Then we pulled up to Camp.
The first thing that hit me was whoa, this camp is way nicer than the crappy encampment that I went to. But that’s where the dissimilarities ended. The smell of camp, a visceral olfactory memory of fresh outdoor shady comfort, hit me at once…and it felt right. It felt true and wholesome and all the things you want kids to feel and smell and experience. It felt good.
I started breathing it in.
As someone who travels too much for work, I don’t usually fully comprehend what I’m about to do until I’m there, in the middle of it. And sure, I was given a ton of facts and overviews about what was happening, but it wasn’t until we arrived at MDA Summer Camp that I realized I had no real idea about what to expect. What would the kids be like? What would they be doing? What could they be doing?
It was very early in the day, it was really quiet and there were no kids anywhere. Someone let us know that they were in their cabins getting ready for breakfast, so we waited in the dining hall, where I found another difference from my 1970s encampment. I have no recollection of what we ate 100 years ago when I was a camper, but I’m 100% sure that it wasn’t “Farm to Table.” And this camp completely is, like, it has an actual farmer. His name is Nathan.
While we waited for the kids, I read the signs on the wall which actually were conversation starters: What’s your favorite joke? What activity are you most looking forward to? What superpower would you want?
But, as it turns out, these kids didn’t need help starting conversations. In a rush of energy, almost 100 campers, ranging in age from 6-17, and their 100+ volunteer counselors came into the joint, it was all just as I remembered it: loud, joyful, energetic, and LOUD! They quickly gathered together, ate, and then started doing a complicated ritual of banging songs into tables morphed into challenges, affirmations, announcements, spirit awards, cabin shout outs (To Josh in Cabin 12 who caught a fish; To Armando in Cabin 3 for going down the waterslide 20 times; to Paul in Cabin 11 for being a Cutie Patootie). And then the next thing I knew trays were systematically put away and kids were walking, running and wheeling out in every direction. One girl was wearing a smaller version of the same Nirvana shirt that I’d slept in the night before. I wish I’d kept it on. Another little kid had on a “Not Braggin, Just Swaggin” shirt, and I decided he would be my new best friend.
The counselors’ meeting started right about then, they briefly introduced us and I found out I was assigned to Cabin 10. But there was work to be done, and so they kept plotting out the day, discussing with impressive specificity an understanding of individuals and needs by name. They’d only been here three days and they already seemed to know everyone and I mean everyone.
Turns out, it’s all very individualized. One camper to one counselor. This seems almost impossible, but it’s true. And that means there are a lot of volunteers because this summer MDA Summer Camp will provide thousands of kids with muscular dystrophy and related muscle-debilitating diseases “the best week of the year.” There are nearly 75 weeklong summer camps across the country (four in Texas) — offered at no charge to families (totally free) — to give kids with limited muscle strength and mobility a life-changing experience in an environment without barriers.
It costs $2,000 to send a child to MDA Summer Camp (which includes all associated expenses that make a safe, healthy and enriching camp experience possible). And their goal is to send 20,000 kids to camp by the year 2020.
So here’s how it works.
These kids are here to defy limits.
For some it’s a stretch to play soccer. For some, it seems impossible to swim or to ride a horse or to catch a fish. They’ve been told all of those things are not possible for them.
Meet Cabin 10. They are not here for your limits.
And after spending time with all these girls, I now agree with that disagreement. These girls can do anything. I know this. They showed me.
Meet counselor Hanley and one of the campers in my cabin. It’s their eighth and fifth years at camp respectively. They have been paired up every year since Hanley started coming, and they are a team. They are also two of the happiest, friendliest and most upbeat people I’ve been around in years. In. Years.
They were so open and welcoming to me and brought me right into the Cabin 10 fold. Hanley says that’s just what happens. She experienced it first hand when her brother Hunter, who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy (the most common and the most severe form of MD) (It affects about 1 out of every 3,500 boys), attended this camp. He was diagnosed when he was four, with an original diagnosis to live until he was 20. He’s 20 now (and currently in college) with a doubled life expectancy thanks to progress and preventative medication. I’m sure amazing family support has something to do with that too. Other sister, Joanna, is also a counselor in Cabin 10.
Hanley’s camper quickly let me know she was up for anything. “I’ve already done everything and I’m ready to do it all again. It’s my 8th year here and I still am not bored.”
Since I’d only been at camp about an hour at that point, I could only believe her and also inquired what “everything” was. “Oh you’ll see,” she said. “Yesterday I flew.”
Hanley was quick to confirm that this was true. “There’s always a way.”
Then we were all at the giant pool where they were blasting the song of the summer (Justin Timberlake) followed by a Justin Beiber song (the good one). The kids were being typical kids at the pool. Some swam, some slid, and there was always someone (or lots of someones) there and ready to coach or carry or catch.
See that superhero standing by the pool? Whoa. A.) I think he might be an American Gladiator. B.) In a matter of minutes, I watched him carry at least 25 kids to exactly where they wanted to go, including to the very top of the slide.
Some individualized to quieter spots. This is where I meet a volunteer named Adam. A friend of the family originally told him about MDA Summer Camp when he was 17, he then volunteered as a counselor and fell in love with the camp. He’s been coming here every year since, for 15 years, and now he and his wife Lindsay (who is a physical therapist) live in Charlotte, but take time off of work and fly in from Charlotte to come.
He told me that earlier in the week he asked an 8-year-old boy in his cabin what superpower he wished for. The camper’s answer: “Super Strength. So I can move my house to camp.”
This is the part of the story where I admit to you that I straight-up started tearing up not once, but five different times while standing by a swimming pool blasting Cake by the Ocean. And this is not because there was anything sad going on. It’s because I found (first hand, in real time, right in front of my face) the humanity that I’d been missing for months, and the energy I’d been needing from humans. These 8-year-olds are not here for your nonsense. Or your limits.
They are here to live unlimited. Watch them.
Along with MDA, they are fighting to make today free from the harm of muscle-debilitating diseases and tomorrow free from the diseases themselves. They have no time for negativity. They have no patience for limits. They have no interest in “can’t.” And they are inspiring. They inspired me to pull myself out of the negative feed and back into Ssummer Camp.
Then they inspired me last week to go to SoulCycle. But that’s a completely different story.
Any time you reach beyond your limits, whether they have been set by someone around you or yourself, you are achieving a #LiveUnlimited moment. Visit mda.org/LiveUnlimited to create a personalized image you can share to social that shows your #LiveUnlimited moment. For every #LiveUnlimited moment shared through July 31, 2016, a generous partner will donate $5 to MDA, up to $30,000.
Together, they will show the world that our limits don’t define us. To every doubter and every “you can’t do that,” they say, “watch us.”
After being securely harnessed in, the camper climbs to the top. After he steps out of the ledge, a voice from below says, “Don’t be scared, You can do it. Let’s countdown.”
He responds, “Let’s not. Let’s just go.”
He steps off the platform into the nothingness and he just goes.
Adam is waiting at the end of the zipline with his chair. Marvin, a 22-year-old college student at Georgia Southern, catches his camper and helps him off the zipline.
Marvin and Adam
Marvin is here all summer and he loves his job.
“My job is really just to let these kids be kids,” Marvin says as we wait for the next camper to come down. “There are kids here who have never been in water before…and they’re paddle boarding over there. There are kids here who can’t move on their own…but in the pool, they can move their bodies how they want to and where they want to go. There are kids who can’t walk…but on the zipline, they’re flying.”
Marvin kept going. “We just let them do things that people have told them they can’t do. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s not about ability or disability, it’s about overcoming fear. It’s about doing things you don’t think you can do. And that’s what they do. Every single day.”
While I was at the Zipline Hanley and two Cabin 10 Campers came down to say goodbye before they got ready for the dance that night.
“So what do you think?” Hanley asked.
I told them, “you girls have restored my faith…it’s hard to put into words. And the irony of that is…that’s exactly why I’m here, to put what you are doing into words.”
Hanley, ever the optimistic counselor, was unfazed and encouraging. “You’re going to be so surprised when you sit down to write it. I bet you’ll be proud of yourself. Everyone who comes to MDA Summer Camp ends up proud of themselves.”
She has a point. And she makes a point. We should all feel so lucky and so proud.
Here’s How You Can Support MDA Right Now.
- Create your #LiveUnlimited image at mda.org/LiveUnlimited. For each image shared through July 31, a generous sponsor is donating $5 to MDA, up to $30,000, to support research, programs and services like MDA Summer Camp. (People can continue to share their images after July 31, however shares will no longer be matched with a donation after that date.)
- Support MDA families and programs like Summer Camp by buying a Live Unlimited bracelet from Endorphin Warrior at http://www.endorphinwarrior.com/live-unlimited. $6 from the sale of each bracelet goes directly to MDA to help kids like those I met at Summer Camp.
- Support MDA Summer Camp by making a donation at mda.org and/or learn how you can become a summer camp volunteer counselor.
This post was sponsored by the Muscular Dystrophy Association. All views and editorial are mine.