This summer I had the privilege of working for Camp Shriver at Stonehill College. Camp Shriver is a free, full inclusion camp for children ages 8 to 12, and it aims to have half of its campers with disabilities and half of them without. This idea of full inclusion is so important. Oftentimes children with disabilities work in separate classrooms in school and are excluded by their peers if they struggle socially. At Camp Shriver, all campers are expected to work together, but more importantly, they are given opportunities to have fun together. From 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., campers receive breakfast and lunch, go swimming, participate in athletics, arts and activities, and have time to play on their own. Throughout the four weeks of camp, all of the campers bond with one another, they encourage one another and they include one another, because they realize early on how wonderful it is to see their peers having fun. As counselors, it was our job to show campers that every person is important and everyone deserves encouragement and friendship.
As the weeks flew by, I witnessed countless unlikely friendships, saw campers confidence levels skyrocket and watched shy and guarded children bust out of their shells. As everyone got to know each other more and more, disabilities took a backset to abilities. Campers were no longer concerned with what their friends were unable to do, they focused on what they were able to do. They encouraged one another, they found their niches in their groups and I really do believe that every person felt as though they belonged.
Examples of this could be found anywhere on any day, but nothing was more powerful than what happened in the pool. Every day we went to the YMCA to go swimming and on the first day of camp, all 60 campers were invited to participate in the "Deep End Challenge," which required campers to swim from one end of the pool all the way to the other without touching the wall or wearing floaties.
On the first day, quite a few of our more athletically inclined campers easily passed the test and were placed in the advanced swimming group. The other campers were placed in intermediate or beginner groups, where counselors would give them lessons daily. As a disclaimer, I am no swim coach. My "coaching" was mostly me advising them to kick their legs and move their arms when they were trying to swim. As the days went by, something amazing began to happen. They began to swim. They were focused on improving and focused on helping each other. Each member of our group cheered each other on, they bonded over kicking water in my face, they lent each other goggles, they raced each other during free time. Halfway through the camp, one of the boys in my group passed the deep end challenge, and when we congratulated him, I told him he could change swim groups to an intermediate group. He told me that he would rather stay with his beginner group, that he liked us. He was the biggest, oldest, most popular kid in camp. Instead of going with his cool, older friends, he decided to stay with our group of younger swimmers, some of whom faced a lot of challenges; not because he felt bad for them, but because he cared about them.
On the last day, the campers were invited to do the deep end challenge again and almost everyone participated. The sound in the pool area was deafening, as every member of camp cheered for each swimmer. In reality, none of the counselors knew how to teach swim lessons, yet almost every camper who tried the test passed. They didn't pass because of us, they passed because of each other. Every day I could see them become more and more confident in their abilities and every day I saw them support each other more and more. By the last day, we had not taught them how to swim. They were swimming because they believed that they could, because every person in that pool believed that they could.
I'm sitting here with a million other examples that show how wonderful this camp has been. I know that I may never be able to put into words exactly what it means to me, and to so many other people. Today was the last day of camp, and there wasn't a dry eye in the house. Even the toughest of campers broke down saying goodbye to their friends that they had made. Through sobs I heard things like "make sure you hug everybody when you get off the bus" and "everyone needs to come back next summer." Obviously, I was also bawling my eyes out as I realized how much this camp means to me. The kids truly care about one another, regardless of their differences. They will hopefully carry this with them wherever they go: that just because people might be different, doesn't mean that they are less. This experience was so important to so many people, including myself, and though my words will never do it justice, I encourage everyone to learn more about it. It honestly is a life changing experience.