When I tell people about my experience serving in AmeriCorps at Easter Seals Wisconsin Respite Camp, most respond with something along the lines of “I could never do that,” or “Wow, that’s impressive. You’re such a great person.”
The truth is caring for individuals of varying abilities during my AmeriCorps terms does not mean I’m a good person, because, truthfully, I did it for entirely selfish reasons. I needed them more than they could ever need me.
Seven years ago, I found myself about to finish Freshman Year of college without any summer plans. On a whim, I decided to join AmeriCorps with several of the girls from my dorm. We would spend our summer providing care for people with physical or cognitive disabilities at a camp, and despite the fact that I had zero experience working with the population, had no idea what AmeriCorps was (a civil society program supported by the government that engages adults in public service), and had never been responsible for taking care of someone else, the job sounded perfect. Weeks later, I was in the middle of the woods being trained on everything from sign language and personal care to starting fires and camp songs. About a week into my training, I felt an overwhelming sense of self-doubt. This came shortly after I was called out for using the word “retarded” in front of all of my coworkers (I deserved it). I never actually thought about how the word offended others or what I truly was saying. I was as selfish and self-centered as they come. I was terrified of the idea of being responsible for someone else’s well-being. I had never seen anyone naked, unless those health class diagrams counted. And, those camp songs were already annoying me. What did I get myself into?
When campers started to arrive, the answer became oh so clear. I got myself into one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. After one week of working with the campers at Easter Seals Wisconsin, I was forever changed. I had discovered a world where nothing was impossible. I helped play a part in individuals climbing a rock wall, sleeping under the stars, and passing a swim test for the first time. I taught my campers fundamental skills that my friends and I took for granted. I learned how to communicate non-verbally and through that formed connections with some of the most interesting people I never thought I’d have chance to get to know. For the record, the camp songs didn’t end up being that bad either.
There were some struggles and tears, and quite a bit more triumphs and laughs, and at the end of the summer, I couldn’t imagine leaving the place and the people I had grown to love.
So, I went back summer after summer and weekend after weekend, completing four full terms of AmeriCorps at Easter Seals, never really giving it a second thought. I gave my whole heart to the campers and families I met. We went on the longest walks in the woods, explored Tommy Bartlett, sang on boat trips, and used our imaginations to the fullest extent. I celebrated their achievements through birthday dance parties and mismatched sock days for years without seizures. And unfortunately, in some cases, I mourned their setbacks and losses. Each camper and caregiver I got to know challenged me to laugh more, give more, love more, have more fun, and most importantly, get the most I can out of life. I learned the most valuable lessons about myself, life, and love through them, and I will be forever grateful.
To this day, my passion for volunteering with people of varying abilities does not make me a good person. I’m still doing it for selfish reasons, because I know sometimes I need to step back into a world where anything is possible, share a smile and a laugh with someone new, and be reminded of how beautiful this huge world and the people in it truly are.