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During the summer months, most people tend to capitalize on a decelerated work and school schedule. Often, vacations are planned, day trips are embarked upon, and an overall carefree attitude is present in the atmosphere. However, for me, a majority of my summer is anything but what most people would typically deem to be relaxing. This is because I choose to spend my summer months volunteering at a sleep-away camp for adults and children with intellectual and physical disabilities.
When I tell most people how I choose to spend my time off during the summer months they are initially shocked. The question I get the most is why I would possibly want to spend my entire summer working for free. A lot of times volunteering is viewed as a thankless job. However, after volunteering as a camp counselor for the past six summers, I can attest that this is certainly not the case.
The first year I decided to volunteer I was only a mere sixteen years old, fresh out of my sophomore year of high school. At first, I had several reservations about signing up for such a camp. I had never worked with a special needs population before and, quite frankly, I had not one inkling of what to expect. Despite these reservations, I decided to put myself out of my comfort zone and write my name on the volunteer list. Fast forward several months later, we were now in the dog days of summer, and it was officially the day that I was supposed to embark on my volunteer camp counselor adventure. Once I arrived at camp I was immediately greeted by several senior staff counselors who wanted nothing more than to make me feel at home and comfortable. To this day, I still remember when one of the older counselors introduced herself to me and shared with me something that would become a fundamental theme of my time spent at camp. I cannot remember verbatim what she told me, but it was to the effect of: “Nothing anyone will tell you will fully prepare you for this week, but I know you are going to be great. Just trust us and yourself”. After this, slowly but surely my initial fears began to fade away. Looking back on this day all these years later, I can confidentially say that choosing to volunteer at this camp has been one of the best decisions I have ever made.
My first year of volunteering was a massive learning experience. I closely observed how the older staff interacted with the campers, making mental notes to myself of what to do and what not to do. There were times where I felt lost and the hard times were extremely hard. However, the good times were beautiful and some of the best moments of my life. By the end of the summer, I became more confident and felt more comfortable in my new role. I had learned that my initial fears of how I would not be a good enough counselor for my group, or that I was not going to have fun could not have been more far off from the truth. Among other benefits, the biggest and most important lesson I had learned from my first year at camp was that if you are not passionate about any aspect of what you are doing, whether it be volunteering at this particular camp or in any realm of life really, that you are purely not going to get anything out of the experience, and it would be best just not to do it at all.
Since my first year at camp, I have returned every summer. Volunteering has taught me that people with disabilities are not that different from those who are “typically” functioning. They just want the same things as us, to be accepted and loved unconditionally. I will forever be grateful for this camp because, in addition to being extremely rewarding and teaching me vital life lessons, it has helped me to realize that I want to go into the field of speech-language pathology. Next year I will hopefully be attending graduate school, where I will work towards becoming an SLP who works in an early intervention setting.
Today, I am not the same scared sixteen-year-old that I was during my first year at camp. All these years later I now try to be that role-modelesque figure for others who are just starting their first year as a volunteer at camp. If there is anything that I wish for others to take away from my experience it would be to challenge yourself. Put yourself in situations that you thought you would never be able to handle because the results may just surprise you.
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