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Cabin 10 Restored My Faith and Challenged Me To Live Unlimited

July 26, 2016

 

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.

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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.

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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.

Bridge

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?

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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.

 

cafeteriaThe 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.

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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.

Camp Activities 2

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.

MDA disagrees.

Cabin 10 b

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.

Hanley and Maddie

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.”

What?

Hanley was quick to confirm that this was true. “There’s always a way.”

Pool 3

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.

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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.

Pool 4

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.”

Live Unlimited

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.”

Zip-Line-5Adam gets all of this. He told me his group was going to go flying that afternoon at 4 pm and encouraged me to show up and see.

Zip line 2When we arrived we found that all five of the young men in Adam’s cabin were preparing to go on the zipline. All five.

Zip Line 4This 13-year-old boy volunteered to go first. “I want to fly like superman.”

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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.”

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He steps off the platform into the nothingness and he just goes.

He flies.

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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.

Adam and Marvin

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.”

Zip Line 12Marvin 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.”

Girls

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.

A Low-Maintenance Parents’ Guide To Art Projects: 7 Lazy Ways To Encourage Creative Play

November 17, 2015

I have two little girls—a 5 year old and a 2 ½ year old—and they are both so very creative and energetic. I love these kiddos and want them to learn to relish beauty and take notice of goodness, to engage the big, vivid world (away from screens), and to thrive. But I don’t always want to, you know, buy anything or go anywhere or find my keys or put on shoes or move off the couch.

There are lots of options on the internet if you’re looking for ways to encourage creativity in your kiddos. But many of these options begin with something like, “Creative play with kids is so easy! First, go to Michaels or Hobby Lobby or online or what-have-you and buy these 23 items and then…” And by that point, I’m done.

There are days when I feel like I’m doing really well if I get through dinner without yelling more than twice, so making color coordinated placemats with Autumn leaves is way beyond my game.

I will confess here that I don’t really get Pinterest. I don’t have a Pinterest page. And I avoid crafty Pinteresty mom pages like I avoided the cool kids table in middle school. Because I experience Pinterest intimidation. Pintimidation. (Which should probably be in the DSM-5 because it’s totally a real thing.)

But over the last 5 years of having my girls (one of whom wants to be an artist when she grows up… unless she can be Elsa), I’ve found some easy ways to encourage creativity that work for really lazy moms like me. And I thought I’d pass these on as something like mom hacks for the Pintimidated.  So here are 7 ways to get your creative play on with very few supplies and with less skills (and without moving far from the couch):

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1. Have an art wall.

We have a small house so this is actually a prominent wall in the middle of our living room/dining room. And it has become one of my favorite spots in the house.

Basically, you hang up twine and display things your kids make. That’s it.

Our rule is that they get to decide what goes on the art wall but if they put something up, they have to decide what to take down (to make everything fit).

One of our two year old’s first words was “Art wall!” which sounded more like “Ah WAH!” screamed over and over again with increasing volume until we cracked the code and hung up her art work.


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What you’ll need:

  • twine or string
  • anything to clip onto it (We used clothes pins).

 

2. Make books.

For some reason, laying out typing paper and crayons is way boring, but stapling the side of said papers to make “a book,” suddenly becomes the funnest thing ever for my five year old. That girl loves her stapler more than Milton in Office Space. Here’s a photo of my favorite page…

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She dictated the words to my husband: “Dance, Dance, Dance for your whole life. Don’t stop dancing and twirling for your whole life. Or until you’re dizzy.”

It’s good advice. And we have about 68 of these little books of wisdom around the house. Here is my oldest with a book she’s made…7

What you’ll need:

  • paper
  • crayons
  • stapler (Or you could punch holes and tie the pages together with yarn or twine, but again, we’re lazy and my 5 year old now loves her stapler and so she basically does this project on her own)

 


3. Color scavenger hunt.

This is what this involves:

Get crayons. Make lines on a sheet of paper. Send your kids in the back yard to find things with those colors. My kids taped their found objects on the paper but you don’t really even need tape. They could have just put the found objects in a bowl.

This game is really a win-win. They seem to think it is super fun. And you get like 15 minutes alone while your kids search for things.

Our last hunt went pretty well. Purple was a stumper. I put a purple line on the paper because I thought our rosemary plant had little purple blossoms on it. Turns out our rosemary plant went in the “brown” section because it was totally dead. But my resourceful children found a purple hair clip my youngest had left outside in the sandbox months before.FullSizeRender (9)

So send your kids outside to find dead rosemary and feathers and random trash on the ground in many different colors!FullSizeRender (8)

What you’ll need: 

  • crayons
  • paper

 

4. The Beautiful Game.

I take no credit for this game. My five year old invented it.

Here’s the game: You walk around (your house or your neighborhood) and you take turns pointing out things that are beautiful.

It’s totally simple and will leave you thinking “You know, they’re right, the rust on that mailbox is oddly beautiful. How come I’ve never noticed before?” We place this a lot now. It’s our go to car game (besides I Spy).

Five minutes of The Beautiful Game trains you and your children to pay attention to beauty and to the practice of noticing.

So, no rules. Just point out whatever you think is beautiful.

What you’ll need:

  • Imagination

 

5. Dyeing noodles.

This is the most involved thing on the list, and it isn’t that involved.

Take noodles and food coloring and rubbing alcohol. Put ¼ cup of rubbing alcohol in a ziplock bag, then put in food coloring (I don’t know how much because I just let the kids squeeze a lot in and it works) and uncooked noodles and seal and shake the bag.

That’s it.

We wanted to put our noodles on a string but couldn’t find one (and I’m not going to Michaels or Hobby Lobby, ever) so my oldest made a 3-D rainbow by gluing the noodles on paper and my youngest wandered around. So there you go. 1. Dye noodles 2. Wander around. That will kill at least 15 minutes.4

What you’ll need:

  • noodles
  • rubbing alcohol
  • food coloring
  • ziplock bag or other plastic container
  • string (totally optional)

 

6. Keep a bin or drawer of art supplies where your kids can reach it. 

(This is the easiest and probably the most important on the list.)

This may be obvious to all other moms, but it wasn’t to me. My friend Terri gave me this idea. Terri is amazing and has grown children now (and grandchildren). She homeschooled her kids decades ago before that was really a thing and they are now a race of beautiful, creative, successful people who rule the world. Her advice to young moms (besides “Don’t be anxious,” which is always good advice) was to keep art supplies within kids’ reach and then (and this is key) let your kids get bored and see what happens. So we have a drawer stocked with bags of colors, markers, scissors, and glue and magazine bins of blank paper and another magazine bin for completed artwork (because, in my house, recycling a scribble on paper makes my kids scream like we just set the Mona Lisa on fire).

Boredom + resources around that they can reach = things happen. And the great thing is that you can let them get bored without even getting off the couch.

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What you’ll need:

  • A bin or drawer of art supplies where your kids can reach it


7. The grateful/happy list.

We had a large amount of junk mail, store coupons, and old magazines so we cut out photos of things that we are grateful for and/or that make us happy and glued/taped them to paper. My two-year-old didn’t really get it—unless random slips of colored paper is what she’s grateful for (you never know)—but she seemed to enjoy sitting with us and cutting stuff.

We keep our sheets up on the fridge to remind us of all the happy. Last time, my 5 year old put a photo of red wine on her happy list. I asked her “Why do you have wine on your happy list?” because, though I’m not the mom of the year, I avoid slipping kindergarteners wine. (I know, I’m a puritan.)* She said very matter-of-factly “wine makes me happy” so I didn’t ask any more questions.

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What you’ll need:

  • Junk mail
  • Paper
  • Glue


So there you have it. We not-so-crafty-moms can still insert a little creativity and joy and play into a day. And make it way easy for the way lazy.

I’m sure other moms have ideas, so feel free to share them. I could really use  them.

* Also, fun fact, Puritans gave beer to their kids. They brewed special beer for them called “small beer,” which had lower alcohol content, but was, in fact, still beer. Little puritans started drinking it as soon as they were weaned. True story.  

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This post was written by Tish Harrison Warren. You can read more about Tish here, but you should know that she watched the movie The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas more times before she was six years old than most humans have in their entire lives, combined. And now she’s a priest. 

 

Play Outside: Take a Family Hike

November 2, 2015

Besides “Drink more water” the phrase my kids hear most often is “Go outside. Now.”

For me, everything improves when it’s outside. And fresh air is the single most effective head-clearing, attitude-shifting tool I have in my arsenal, so I tend to get evangelical about it with my own offspring.

The problem is, kids are not always immediately receptive to their parents’ brand of gospel, so over the years I’ve had to learn a few extra tricks to make outdoor outings fun for everyone. Spoiler alert: it’s not complicated. Just aim for simple and light-hearted and the fun will follow.

Today let’s talk hiking. Remember hiking? It’s like walking but with all your senses in overdrive. It’s like exercise dipped in make-believe.

So how do you make hiking fun for your whole family? Besides the commonsense guidelines of “Know your route; stay together; wear sunscreen; carry water” here are a few of my favorite tips.

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How To Make Hiking Fun for Your Whole Family
  1. Don’t call it hiking. Call it adventuring! Hiking means trudging along one foot in front of the other. Adventuring means exploring new lands and bringing home treasures. It’s all in the pitch, y’all.
  1. Keep your expectations realistic. Before you start, establish a general timeframe with a beginning, middle and end. “We’ll explore for a while, stop for a swim, then go get tacos at the end.”

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  1. Bring a snack no matter the distance. A granola bar goes a long way if anyone gets grumpy. There’s also no shame in amping up the treats. On longer hikes I never leave home without a candy stash. This is especially effective if you limit candy during their everyday lives. I grew up associating peppermint lifesavers with extended church services. Family hikes are now our form of worship, and my kids get through the long ones with the help of Saint Jolly Rancher. 
  1. Travel light, but smart. I’m a big fan of making kids carry their own water because they have easy access to it, they feel independent, and of course because I’m not schlepping it for them. Camelbaks or similar water packs come in all different sizes, and your kids can also use them during bike rides, sports practices or field trips.   
  1. Make a game of treasure hunting. Find the perfect hiking stick or a small rock or leaf to bring home. Our family is always on the lookout for heart-shaped rocks, but we typically bring home only photos of them.

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  1. Look for local birds, animal tracks or even better…scat. Show me a kid who doesn’t like to talk about poop! And really, if you’re out in the nature it seems more than appropriate.
  1. Entertain each other on the trail. Sometimes we make up stupid songs or wild stories. More often we play Categories (where you take turns naming fruits or Harry Potter characters from A to Z.) When questions come up like, “What kind of tree is that and why does its bark look that way?” we try to answer without our friend Google…which usually means, “I have no idea. Let’s brainstorm the reasons.” Remember the fun of not knowing the answer to something? Old school!
  1. Talk to each other, or not. With older kids, hiking is a great time to simply be in the same place with them, even if you aren’t talking. On the trail, I never have to push the conversation with my tween or teen–it usually happens at their own speed and on their own terms. They love this.

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  1. Stop periodically. Climb a tree, build a fort from branches, skip some rocks, or take a dip in a creek.
  1. Quit while you’re ahead. When in doubt, finish early so you end on a high note. Next time you can push it further. For now, go get those tacos and plan your next adventure.

 

Great places near Austin for hiking/adventuring:

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Elizabeth McGuire is a writer, photographer and mother of three from Austin. Her words and images have appeared in print, online and on stage. She is a 5th-generation Texan who loves boots but somehow doesn’t eat barbecue. (www.ewmcguire.com)