Monday, July 29th, 2013
I write from Batavia, Ohio. It’s nestled in the woods outside Cincinnati, and home to Camp Allyn. We will be here until Friday, and I’ll tell you more about this camp next time I write. For now, I’ll try to catch you up on the other stuff we’ve been up to.
To recap, I’m participating in a service trip called Build America this summer through my fraternities Philanthropy Push America. We travel from summer camp to summer camp, building stuff to make the camps more accessible and more awesome for the campers. All the camps exclusively serve people with disabilities, and on weekends (between camps) we stop in other cities along the route to do smaller projects and hang out with different organizations. The first week, we were at Rocky Mountain Village, and you can read about that camp in my previous blog. I’ll try to catch up to tonight from here on out.
That weekend after RMV, we drove into Nebraska to meet with the Arc of Nebraska, and after they fed us some dinner we had a dance party and played yard games with the members of Arc.
From there we went to Iowa to work at a camp in Monticello. While we were there, we tore down a wall and moved it to make room for a walk-in freezer, we installed new doors on buildings around the camp, and we built custom sliding barn doors for their petting zoo. That camp was neat for three reasons. Tia, Amber, and Kelli. At each camp, we sit with different tables, and get to know campers. The first dinner we had there, I just happened to sit down with these three women. Amber and Tia were completely blind, and Kelli was partially, and all three suffered from mental disability as well. Kelli taught me a lot about horses, and I felt a strong sense of accomplishment when halfway through the week she started letting me guide her around by holding her hand instead of her counselors. Amber was one of the many campers that we meet that are constantly happier than most of us often are, and those kind of people always drug me with happiness. She got interviewed by the news crew that came through to do a story about us, and the smile never left Ambers face for the rest of the week because she was going to be on TV. But Tia was the most exceptional. I say that because Tia refused to say anything negative ever. I had breakfast, lunch and dinner with her for four days, along with doing evening activities with the group, and not once did she even admit to something being negative. But thats still and understatement. She went so far as to not even declare something to be her favorite, and I think that was because that would be a negative towards the stuff that wouldn’t be her favorite. As an example, (among many) the first night I had dinner with them, Tia was wearing a Duck Dynasty T-Shirt. So I asked her if she liked Duck Dynasty. “Oh of course I do! I love that show Duck Dynasty!” So I asked her who her favorite character is. “Oh I like all of them. They’re all my favorites. I like Jase, and Si, and Willie, and Phil, and Miss Kay, and Jep too!” So she was great to talk to, because everything she knew about, she loved. Music, TV, Movies, and all she wanted to do was learn more about those things. What company produced that song, what channel that show was on, what year it was made or first aired. But still the most impactful experience I’ve had on this trip was when we went to the ropes course. The first station at the course that we came to was a horizontal net with ropes that are maybe an inch wide in a mesh pattern spaced into maybe 6 inch squares. Net was roughly 30 to 40 feet long, and when I went across it I couldn’t believe they would try to make people with disabilities try something this wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey. It was actually difficult, and remember, Tia is completely blind. Her counselor asked the group who would try the net first, and Tia immediately volunteered. We set her cane aside, walked her to the front of the course, and explained what lay in front of her and what she needed to do. We helped her find the ropes to walk up into the net, and guided her hands to the first few “rungs” of the net. I could clearly see on her face that she was terrified. The stable ground is some unknown distance below her, and while our hands hovered only inches away from her to catch her in case she slipped, to someone who cannot see, she was alone. I asked her if she was ok, and of course she said “Excellent.” Her counselors reminded her that this is a voluntary activity, and she didn’t have to go any further than she wanted to. As if that mattered to Tia. She shakily took her right hand off the rope, and reached out ahead. Feeling for next rope. She kept reaching lower and lower, feeling for the next step. Her whole frame was tense and every bit of my body language reading skills told me she was miles from her comfort zone. Then she found the next rope. She latched onto it, and repeated the process with her left hand and feet. Within maybe three cycles of shaky movement across the ropes, she had a handle on how far the ropes were spaced out from each other, and she stepped through the course as fast as you or I could. When she reached out to find the wooden horizontal bar at the end of the course, she felt around for the uprights to help her stand on the cross bar she stood up and turned around to face our applause. As clearly as I could read her body language moments earlier, I could now see a triumphant “What’s next?” The name for this camp is not some idle idea for rainbows, warm feelings, and pretty butterflies. It’s a testament to the strength of their campers. Camp Courageous.
We said our good byes to the campers and counselors, and we didn’t have a weekend stop, so we went straight on to our next camp in Missouri. It’s namesake is an understatement. Camp Wonderland. It’s a big camp, and we were fortunate to have a whole bunch of projects to work on for them. Including a BB gun range, a bird blind, the walls for a mini-golf course, a new wagon for hayrides, new shelves, a new wheelchair ramp, a horseshoe pit, a facelift for a chapel, and probably the most important project – a new dinner bell. I spent almost the entire week ripping out the rocks and dirt lining the mini-golf course, then placing bricks and concrete along the edges to make the course actually playable. It’s surprisingly difficult to lay the bricks, and we ran through almost 40 bags of concrete. But if I do say so myself, that course looks hella good. Upon completion, we obviously had to verify the safety of the course and the work we had done, and what better way than a quick round with my buddy Jordan from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (a.k.a. “Bama”) who worked with me through the week to complete the course. We finished the course the morning of the last day of work, so I hadn’t been able to see pretty much any of the work the rest of the team had been doing. Bama, Munkel (Queens University of Charlotte, from Nashville) and I went out to the bird blind the team had built to dig some post holes for bird feeders. I learned that a Bird Blind is essentially a wall with holes in it that blinds the birds from the humans that want to watch them eat and bro out on the feeders. The holes proved to be more difficult in Missouri clay than they had been in the Colorado sand. Well, my hole was more difficult. More than a few times Bama reminded me that three guys chose where to throw a hole, and the only ginger among them managed to find the spot with a bunch of rocks. But we got it done, and once the camp throws some bird feeders up and the wildlife get used to them being there, the campers will be able to watch the Missouri birds. By the time we got the posts up, the rest of the team had completed all the projects except the largest one. A BB gun range with three shooting positions and movable targets. We call the last day of work at the camp crunch day, and I find that fitting. I helped to put in a few of the last pieces on the range, the horizontal supports that campers will lean on when aiming down the range. We finished just in time for dinner, and the newly installed dinner bell rang for the first time calling the campers in for evening munchables. Wonderland is a wonderland, and I like to think that all the projects we completed added a nice cherry to the top of this summer sundae.
The next morning we were off to St. Louis for the weekend. We arrived at Lodging and despite being told what it was ahead of time, I was still stunned when we walked into a huge building that houses an indoor hockey rink and two soccer fields. We spent two nights sleeping on the turf of the smaller soccer field. We woke both mornings to our Project Managers evil little prank of hitting the score button on the hockey rink at wake up. If you’ve never been to a hockey game, the buzzers are loud, and annoying, but by god they’ll wake you up. For lunch we got to have a St. Louis classic with a few alumni and Pi Alphas from St. Louis, Imo’s Pizza. It’s takes thin crust to a whole new level, and I consider myself quite a snob when it comes to Pizza. Imo knew what he was doing. The Alums sponsored our meal, and later that night we got to play probably my new favorite game. Demolition Ball. Essentially a cross between Lacrosse and Bumper Cars, you are given a stick-spoon thing, and told to throw the ball at the net. Hit the net, two points, hit the backboard, get one point. 14 minute games. Too much fun. Once you get the hang of driving these things, you start messing up peoples passes and shots by crashing into them. My team lost both games. I’m still bitter about it. The next day we moved all the stuff for DASA (Disabled Athletes Sports Association) from an old facility to a new huge office. DASA of St. Louis recruits athletes with disabilities, trains them, and helps them get to competitions around the country. They have Soccer teams, Kayakers, Triathletes and a range of other sports. They’ve trained people who have gone on to compete for the United States in the Paralympics among many other national and international competitions. It’ll be awesome that they will now have an awesome new office to work out of and I was glad to hear that they are growing rapidly and doing really well (the soccer team was competing in nationals while we were working). That night we got to go to a Cardinals game, and were among the first 25,000 fans through the gate, because we all got free jerseys. Not that I’m a big Cards fan or anything, but it’s a nice jersey. The family that arranged for our lodging (The Forestals) and most of our meals that weekend got us Penn Station for dinner after the game, and the next morning we were off and running to the next camp.
We got to Camp Little Giant to be greeted by the ever friendly and ever passionate Vicky. If there is one thing she did that week, it was spoil us rotten with snacks and food. She brought us cake, cookies, Sunny D, and all kinds of other stuff to munch on when we weren’t working. With three camps under our belt, and crossing the halfway mark of the trip, we got a new blessing for this camp. A full day with the campers. Typically we work Monday through Thursday, 8ish to 5ish, minus lunch, then do evening activities with campers. At little giant, they arranged for us to rotate between projects, and each day a third of the guys would be playing with campers instead of working. Some would say I drew the short straw because I had to paint the first and last day, but they would be wrong for two reasons. First, painting is a very important part of making a project look good. You can cut every board perfectly straight and have every corner flush and plum, but if the guy painting doesn’t care to do it right, the whole project is going to look like garbage. The second, and far more important reason I was lucky is because I got to spend two days working with Steve. Steve is a local painter, and you can learn a lot about how to sling that sticky stuff on a house just by watching him work. He is precise and gentle, but works very quickly. Like most people who have been doing what they do for a long time, he made painting look stupid easy. Even though he was doing all the hard parts we were afraid to try to do. And on top of all that, he was as nice a guy as you could meet. He brought us peach cobbler and ice cream on Tuesday, Fried Chicken on Wednesday, and Watermelon on Thursday (But only my third got the watermelon, suck on that everyone else.) It was all delicious, and I really enjoyed my watermelon sitting on top of my best friend that I had gotten to know really well that week – An A-frame painters ladder. On Tuesday, my group ripped the roof off of a more or less shed attached to one of the cabins. The contractor that helped us do it was Wade, a good old boy who had been all over the world building log homes for people from Southeast Asia to Europe. Watching him work was just like Steve. A level of skill and quickness you only get from doing something for years. He was hilarious and cracked jokes the whole day, and could be seen at most any time somehow standing on a ladder in a way that seems physically impossible to keep upright, cigarette loosely hanging between his lips, and swinging a hammer or running a circular saw with one hand. It was awesome. He taught us all a few tricks, and I look forward to the chance to give them a try in the coming weeks. On Wednesday, I got to hang out with the campers for the whole day. That morning, I drove myself and two other guys off camp to a stable that specializes in therapeutic horseback riding for people with disabilities, and I got to walk alongside a few campers who thought riding a horse was just the coolest thing. After the stables, we had lunch and then went to the lake. They have a pontoon boat, canoes, paddleboats, and a dock that they brought the campers to every day. It was awesome to get to spend the entire day with a group of campers, and it’s very unusual for us to be able to do that.
After leaving Little Giant, we moved on to Louisville KY for the weekend. The organization that took us in is called Dreams with Wings, and we slept on the floor of their Office Building. It was carpeted, air conditioned, and we have air mattresses, so it was actually pretty neat to stay there. A good friend of mine from UT is from Louisville, so she came to visit us after dinner one night, so that was cool to get a taste of Tennessee on the trip. Not to mention all the sweet tea and awesome food we got from Dreams with Wings. On Saturday we put new decking on a patio for one of the houses where their members live, and they rounded up some tickets to the Minor League club in town, the Bats. We got to go to the game with the members, which was pretty neat to see them get fired about about the game. The next morning, we had breakfast at the house of the woman who runs the organization before heading on to Camp Allyn. Where I sit now. And would you look at that, I have 3 minutes until curfew when I have to be in bed, I apologize for any misspellings or anything, but I don’t have time to proofread.
“Building Leaders of tomorrow by serving People with disabilities today.”