My Week at Camp Horizon

This summer I volunteered to be a counselor at a summer camp for abused and neglected kids. I'd been looking for something to volunteer for, for quite some time. I found Camp Horizon on the Internet while surfing a local community bulletin board. The program sounded like the exact kind of thing I wanted to do.

Camp Horizon is a week long summer program that matches each camper, ages 8- 11, with his or her own trained counselor. The relationships formed through these unique one-to-one pairings help the children develop a positive self-image, as they begin to discover their untapped potential. Through daily self-esteem classes the campers explore the concepts of their uniqueness, feelings, conflict resolution, and personal safety.

As a charter member of Camp Twin Lakes, Georgia's only camping facility designed exclusively for special needs children, the campers enjoy traditional activities including: swimming, biking, horseback riding, arts and crafts and more.

My camper was named Marq, a young man in a little boy's body. He was smarter, faster, and funnier; more determined and had more charm and charisma then any child I'd ever met. He worked a room like a seasoned politician. This was my biggest challenge throughout the week. There is a thin line between being entertaining and being disrespectful and that line was always moving with various events and objectives at Camp Horizon. It was very difficult for Marq to let others take "his stage". Several times throughout the week I lost sight of Marq. Eventually I learned to locate him by listening for any group laughing in unison.

Marq did not like discussing his feelings and was steadfast about this throughout the week. In retrospect, he did show his feelings in much more subtle ways. They were usually masked behind his tough guy image and were easy to miss.

The following is a journal of my week with Marq.

Saturday, Day 1

Arrived at Oglethorp University at 8:15. Brought in my 3 bags and compared them to the number of bags everyone else brought - about average. Had standard adult style classes about 50 minutes each on all aspects of the handbook. Met other counselors. Felt very alone. Jen, one of the staff members, made me feel more comfortable.

In different group sizes, we had to state our camp experience and a recent accomplishment, most recent book read and our favorite animal. I of course had no counselor experience and the accomplishment I chose was finding a cause to volunteer for. The most recent book I'd read was Walden and my favorite animal was any bird because I like to fly airplanes.

We had sandwiches for lunch. About half of the 32 counselors had been to Camp Horizon before. The returning counselors spent the morning and afternoon becoming CPR certified while the rookies went over the handbook. We boarded the bus at 4:00 and arrived at Twin Lakes about 5:30. I slept for about 45 minutes on the bus. I noticed that most of the female counselors were either married or college age.

I was assigned to cabin 14 and unpacked my things with three other counselors. John - tall, thirty something, into sports, doesn't like to read, deep voice and the only returning counselor in our cabin. Len - reminded me of Kevin James of The King of Queens, also into sports, a wrestling coach in fact. Andrew - early twenties, tall, cumbersome and quiet. We got a tour of camp from John (Cabin Leader).

Had dinner in the Dining Hall - steak courtesy of Camp Rainbow. Camp Rainbow, a camp for kids with cancer, is sharing the Twin Lakes facility with us. After dinner, we went to the Drama Center for a run through of a typical day followed by questions and answers. From there, we went to the Arts & Crafts building and received the name and age of our assigned camper. Mine is a ten-year-old named Marq who also has a sister at camp. We made welcome signs for our campers and name buttons for ourselves and for our campers. We also made up a goodie bag of supplies for our campers provided by Camp Horizon. Finally made it back to the cabin around 10:30.

Sunday, Day 2

Woke up around 7:00, rolled out about 7:30. Len and John went for a morning run through the woods. I was still apprehensive about the procedure and schedule. Had breakfast at 8:00 and then went to the woods for Group Initiatives. These were challenges designed to get us to think and work together as a group. The first one was a pass the ball game, which helped us get to know one another. One was a simulated gorge crossing. 16 of us had to get across an imaginary ravine using only three trips on a very small platform suspended from a cable. The next one was the Kings Finger. We had to place a tire on a 12' pole without touching the sides of the pole. From there we did the Trust Fall. We each had to fall backwards from a tall platform and be caught by our fellow counselors. After that we had a group game called Dancing Sally Rogers or something. It gave us all a chance to look foolish.

Around 10:00 we went to the tennis courts to wait for our campers to arrive by bus while a DJ from Q-100 played beach music. The theme for camp this year is Camp Horizon Beach. As the bus pulled up, the counselors jumped and screamed and held up the signs they made for their campers. Kids on the bus had their faces pressed to the windows with looks of amazement. Some campers recognized their counselors from last year and immediately ran to them. Slowly from the mass of kids and counselors appeared my camper, Marq. For a ten-year-old, Marq was very small, smaller than some eight-year-olds. He walked right up to me and I introduced myself as he continued to look around at the excitement all around him. He climbed into the bus baggage compartment and emerged with a vinyl backpack. I was surprised to hear him say it was the only bag he had. Other kids pulled out 3 or 4 bags of clothes, bedding, and supplies.

As we walked toward the cabin it became clear that Marq was his own man, not bashful or shy, not afraid to speak his mind. When we got to the cabin, he told me he wanted to change his clothes. He did this about 4 times today. He told me he "needed to be fresh". The first time he opened his backpack I got my first reality jolt. There was very little in that bag and what was there was very well worn. He dug through his goodie bag and was excited to find a hat and sunglasses. Even though he had very little, Marq is a good dresser. He even wears an opened outer shirt for style.

After rejoining the camp for group games, we had our first lunch. Marq had three helpings of everything. In the afternoon, we became acquainted with our cabins, the layout of the camp, rules and expectations, and the swimming pool. Marq told me he hated swimming lessons and swimming tests. It was clear that he could not swim and didn't want others to know that. He asked for a non-swimmer wristband and played in the shallow end.

After dinner we went to our first campfire. Marq took on a different personality here. Once the group was assembled, he began to act out. He took on the role of camp comedian, dancer, singer and commentator. The bigger the group became, the more demanding of attention he became.

Back in the cabin, Marq is a very different person. He shares freely with others and is very polite. I was able to find sheets and a pillowcase with a matching sports motif in the camp store. The look on his face when we put them on his bed was worth millions.

Just before lights out, the entire administrative staff came into the cabin for "Hug Rounds". They said good night and hugged each camper and each counselor and then moved on to the next cabin.

Monday, Day 3

After breakfast we all went to "Morning Thoughts" led by Pete. Pete outlined our objectives and prepared us for the day. From there we attended our first round of classes -- Self-Esteem, Arts & Crafts and Photography. Marq seemed to tune out the self-esteem classes. He did not like discussing his feelings. In the afternoon, we went fishing. I was surprised to learn he had never been fishing. It was a proud moment for both of us when he caught his first fish. It's hard to describe the look on a young boy's face when he apprehensively touches a fish for the first time. After fishing, we went to the swimming pool. Marq would not venture more than arms length from the sides of the pool.

At dinner, I lost track of Marq several times. Sitting does not seem to be his strong point, especially in a room full of people. Each time I found him he was talking to not just one person, but a whole group of people.

After dinner we went to campfire, where we were entertained by Cowboy Calvin. This time he was not the outspoken class clown seen in previous gatherings. The storyteller mesmerized Marq. He sat still the entire time.

Tuesday, Day 4

It rained briefly in the morning. Running around in poncho's actually added another level of adventure. One of the morning classes today was called "Applause…For Kids". This was a kind of public speaking and performance class directed at kids. Marq seemed surprised if not stunned that the teacher was not only encouraging them to act like Marq, but was showing them how to do it better.

After lunch each day, the counselors all meet in the Arts & Crafts building for a meeting while staff members take the campers back to the cabins for "Shoes Off" down time. The counselors discuss various issues of the day and get to have some adult conversations. After the meeting, counselors return to their cabins to finish out the "Shoes Off" period. For the second day in a row, our cabin was not very successful at maintaining the orderly quiet established by the staff member. We were at least able to relax a little bit. John and Len actually got a few minutes of sleep.

Andrew's camper is James, and eight-year-old who loves to dance and has a perpetual smile. John's camper is Brandon, a ten-year-old with at least signs of Attention Deficit. Although Brandon is at times difficult to control, he is one of the most loving of the boy campers. Darryl was assigned to Len. At age eleven, Darryl is one of the oldest campers. He is also one of the least mature. Darryl also has big smile, but what strikes me most is his laugh. When Darryl laughs, he laughs with his whole body.

After "Shoes Off" we rehearsed as a cabin for the Variety Show, which will take place on Friday night. We prepared two skits; one in which the campers and counselors will reverse roles and one in which the boys will dance and lip sync to "Rockin' Robin".

For the afternoon events, Marq chose Nature, where we explored the contents of an owl pellet and paddle boats where we both ended up soaked from the splash fights in the middle of the lake. We hung up our wet clothes at the cabin, which has now become webbed with clotheslines. I am starting to think I did not bring enough clothes. Now in addition to all the other organizing and scheduling, I have added clothing to the scheduling process.

"Bingo with Pete" takes place everyday before dinner and today was our first time to try it. Marq loved it so much he could not sit still. He whooped and hollered so much that he seemed to be almost out of control. I became very frustrated at not being able to settle him down. Then I noticed that everyone seemed more entertained by him than distracted, so I just let him go.

After dinner, we all went to the Joyce and Jacque show in the Drama Center. These ladies were very entertaining. With guitar and voices, they guided us all in writing our own camp song titled "I'm happy to be myself". From there, Marq and I went to the Putt-Putt course for "Night Golf", where the balls and the holes glowed in the dark.

Towards the end of the Putt-Putt course, Marq became very angry with a girl who accidentally knocked a frog from his hand. Even though he was walking away from her, he was yelling how she'd knocked it out of his hand and that he should have knocked her upside the head and if she did anything like that again he would get a pole and beat her with it. The more I tried to talk to him about his line of thinking, the more he continued on his violent rant. This continued all the way back to the cabin where I finally had to get down in his face and sternly tell him that would be the end of it.

Unlike the other campers in our cabin, Marq does not seem to have a problem taking his shower, doing his evaluation form, and getting into bed.

Wednesday, Day 5

After breakfast and "Morning Thoughts", our day started with tennis in the pouring rain. The campers did tennis drills and learned fundamentals in a covered shelter next to the tennis courts. The tennis pro was very good. When the rain let up, the campers were able to learn more fundamentals on the courts.

At the counselors meeting today, we learned that the staff would take the campers to participate in a community service project, giving us additional free time. As a bonus, 9 massage therapists were brought in for the counselors. I chose not to participate as I was having stomach trouble. I used the time to see the camp nurse, take an extra shower, catch up on this journal, and get some extra sleep. Afterwards I felt totally rejuvenated.

When the campers returned, Marq and I headed off for Putt-Putt. Unfortunately, the rain came down and we ended up spending the rest of the afternoon in the Arts & Crafts building.

At bingo, I won a servant (Pete) for my camper and I for the dinner period. Pete waited on us hand and foot. It was quite comical even though Marq didn't believe it was "fer real".

Because of the rain, the Camper/Counselor Challenge was cancelled. We spent the extra time in the cabin rehearsing our skits for the Variety Show and of course, catching frogs. These are not actually frogs, but baby toads that can be found around the cabins. James's purpose in life is to catch these.

At 8:00 we went to the Carnival. This was quite an extravagant event put on for both Camp Horizon and Camp Rainbow. We all dressed in Hawaiian shirts to celebrate this year's theme - Camp Horizon Beach. The carnival included 2 huge moon walks, a Ferris-wheel, a dunking tank, a strong man hammer, many pitch and toss games, a mini Putt-Putt course, a pitch-for-speed and accuracy machine and prizes, prizes, prizes.

Marq threw 4 baseballs at the dunk tank target and dunked the man in the tank all 4 times! I really wasn't all that surprised, as I'd seen his athletic talent all week long. At 4' 11", he could throw a football better than I ever could.

By the time we got back to the cabin, we were all exhausted. Nonetheless, we finished our evaluations, caught more frogs and got our showers in. Marq and I also wrote "mail". Each cabin has a mailbox outside and as the week goes on, campers and counselors alike have received little notes from other campers and staff. As a counselor, it means a lot to get supportive messages from the staff. I'm sure it means just as much to the campers. Since Marq is so popular, he gets lots of mail. When he got a bunch of mail this morning, he said he wanted to write everyone back. I thought it would be fun for him and I to get up early and go deliver our mail. He seems really excited about that also. I remembered about 8 or 9 interactions with other campers today, so I wrote them all notes.

Thursday, Day 6

Took my shower early so I could wake up Marq and go deliver mail. It was very nice to walk around the camp just the two of us quietly delivering mail to other cabins. Very few people were up and around before 7:30.

After breakfast, Morning Thoughts again prepared us for the day and reminded us of our goals. From there, our group walked to the stables and prepared for horseback riding. Because of all the rain, we were forced to stay in the riding arena. Marq rode a horse named Pokey, supposedly named that for his eating habits and not his trail skills. Even though he occasionally forgot the commands he had learned, Marq was able to control Pokey well enough for me to disconnect his harness lead. He was thrilled with this experience and talked about it for the better part of the day.

In Arts & Crafts we built and painted a wooden toy truck. Again I was surprised to learn that this was a new experience for Marq. I am beginning to understand how many little things in life I had just assumed all kids were exposed to. Marq is 10 years old and I'm not so sure he's ever hammered a nail.

As for afternoon events, I had asked him the night before which ones he wanted to sign up for. He said, "Let's do something YOU want to do, Jef". We settled on Archery, Panning for Gold and Swimming. Since Marq was left handed, the archery instructor gave him a special bow. Even though he hit the bull's eye with it, I could see that it was cumbersome for him so I suggested he try the right-handed bow just for fun. He promptly hit the bull's eye right-handed.

Every event we participated in, Marq seemed to like even more than the previous one. Panning for Gold was no exception. With terraced drums reminiscent of gold mining in the old west, the gold mining area next to the lower lake looked very real and included sand from Dahlonega. In addition to gold flakes and fools gold which, we learned from Jen, was pyrite, there were colored stones, glass beads and other treasures. Marq stayed longer than anyone else and left with not one but two cups of treasure.

From there we went to the swimming pool. Earlier in the week, Marq had joined Jeff's "Swim Club" and got some lessons from Jeff. He joined the group again today. Because most of them had advanced past Marq, he left the group and instead swam with me. His smile went away and he became visibly upset as other non-swimmers were applauded for passing their swim tests. When his sister passed her test, I saw Marq try harder than I'd ever seen anyone try to swim. His eyes showed both determination and frustration. It broke my heart. When I told Jeff about it, he took us aside and showed Marq what he needed to do and showed me how to coach him. It's so easy to see why these kids look at Jeff like a hero - he is nothing less. Unfortunately, it is really too late in the week for Marq to both practice and take the test. On the way back to the cabin I told him I would help him pass his test next year. He gave me a look that I will never forget. If I had to pick one word to describe it, it would be "trust". It was my second reality jolt. This isn't just a week at camp for these kids, this is their life and it's not to be brushed off or considered temporary.

Because we spent extra time in the pool, we missed Bingo. I think the combination of the swimming defeat and missing bingo caused him to be down and a little withdrawn at dinner. He didn't want to sit with me; he wanted to sit with Sierra's counselor Tara.

After dinner we went to the Braid Ceremony. Each camper and counselor was given two braids to present to their special friend at camp and to say why they chose them as a special friend. I of course gave one to Marq and the other to Brandon. I thought it was odd that Marq not only remained quiet, but that he didn't jump up and want to go first as was his style. In fact, he went last. He gave one braid to Mario, the tall staff member loved by all the boys. He gave his second one to Tara. This of course crushed me. Not all counselors received braids and the staff even before the ceremony pointed that out. It still hurt though. I brushed it off as best I could and continued on with campfire and then headed back to the cabin. By lights out I had gotten over the hurt and accepted it as just one of those things. About 20 minutes after lights out, Marq called my name. I went to his bed so I could see and hear him better. He asked me if I would be working again at Camp Horizon next year. When I said yes, he smiled and lay back down. I was overtaken with emotion.

Friday, Day 7

Marq and I got up early to deliver our mail. Len asked me yesterday what we were doing and when I told him, he thought it was a good idea so he wrote mail as well and asked us if we'd deliver it for him. Of all the things that we did together at camp, this was the most special for me because it was just he and I and nobody else seemed to be doing it.

After breakfast and Morning Thoughts, we went to the Media Center to work on "Memory Books". The campers got the pictures they had taken earlier in the week. Marq was very resistant to my suggestions about his book. I decided to just let him do it his way and just added my own finishing touches to whatever he did and he seemed to like that.

In Arts & Crafts we made plastic refrigerator magnets. Marq made a heart. He was very impressed with the "M for Marq" that I made for him.

In Self-Esteem class, we listed reasons we thought each camper was a star and then we had a party on the deck. I think it was here that we all felt the impending end of camp. Marq seemed to distance himself from me.

At lunch he complained about having to sit with his cabin. He wanted to sit with Kim or Tara. I'm not completely sure what his motivation is. They are two very attractive young ladies, but they are also two very loving counselors. I can't tell what Marq is seeking from them, maybe a combination of both.

After the counselors meeting we went back to the cabin for "Shoes Off" and the camp clean up and packing. At this point we lost control of the boys. They went absolutely wild, would not listen, would not sit down, and would not even stay in the cabin. I think it had something to do with their sensing that camp was coming to a close. It was a bizarre but brief incident.

After clean up and packing, Marq and I went on a nature hike. While hiking, I told Amanda about "Boys Gone Wild" and she related a similar incident with her cabin a year or two earlier, right at packing time.

After the nature hike, we went to the swimming pool. Marq talked all afternoon about being invited to swim with Kim. Once we got there, he stayed attached to Kim pretty much the whole time. It was a little awkward for me, but at least he was easy to find (Kim is tall as well as attractive)! It did give me a chance to spend some time with other campers and I felt very comfortable doing this. Marq didn't want to leave the pool so we missed bingo again. I think the "Fans of Marq" were more disappointed than he was.

At dinner, Marq wedged himself between Kim and Jamie. I pretty much ate by myself. After dinner we played with a giant beach ball in an ever-growing circle of campers while the Drama Center was prepared for the Variety Show.

Our skits went very well, I even got some laughs on my own. I was very bothered though with Marq's attitude. He acted bored and was rude while other people were performing. His eyes got wide when I finally told him to show some respect and clap for his friends the way they clapped for him. He did so from that point on.

During Campfire he moved away from me and into Tara's lap. Tara rubbed his hair and held his hand. At first I was a little miffed about this, but then I remembered I had tried to do the same thing to no avail. Marq was not willing to share affection with a man, but he was happy to get it from a woman. For whatever the reason, I need to accept that. After a while I was actually glad Tara was able to give him what I could not.

On the way back to the cabin, Marq got a piggyback ride from one of the female counselors. Again kind of awkward but I could tell something was going on with him and I needed to let him do it his way.

We finished packing and did our evaluations. At "Hug Rounds" the staff passed out T-Shirts for us to wear the next day. Lights out finally came around 11:30.

Saturday, Day 8

We were all up and hauling luggage out by 7:30. We had our last meal together at the Dining Hall and then got right on the bus. Marq kept his distance from me all morning. On the bus, he proceeded to entertain a group at the back of the bus until Kelli sent him up to sit with me.

Back at Oglethorp, we gathered and inventoried our luggage. The campers went in one room for closing activities and the counselors gathered in another. In talking to other counselors it became clear that other counselors had the exact same problems I had. It was very reassuring and I felt much better.

We reunited with our campers and together we watched a slide show of the week's events. The campers all sang a good-bye song and I did my best not to cry. We had sandwiches and Marq introduced me to his mother. He then grabbed his Arts & Crafts box and headed for the door. I chased him down and said goodbye.

You can never tell how kids will deal with separation. My heart goes out to Marq. I'm sure I have no clue about the things the little guy has to deal with. I wonder how I would react if I knew. I wonder.

In Closing

The week was exhausting both physically and emotionally. I didn't even realize how many things I had pushed aside because I didn't have time to deal with them during the week. I was overcome with emotion when I listened to my messages from the people who loved me. I realized then that I had missed feeling loved. Fortunately for me I feel that way when I'm home and not just once a year when I'm at camp.

As I unpacked my bags I could not stop the emotions. Everything I unpacked reminded me of someone or something that happened that week. Even though my bond to Marq did not feel strong, my bond to the campers as a group was very strong. I missed them all. I didn't want to give up the closeness I felt to the campers, so I sat down and read the camp log completed by them. It proved all over again that you can't tell what a child is feeling inside just by looking at them. Some of the camper's logs disturbed me while others warmed my heart. When I got to Marq's I was stunned beyond belief. There among the questions about family and favorites was the question "Who is your hero?" Marq answered "Jef".

This experience was painful. It was also joyous, heart-warming and rewarding beyond belief. I can honestly say it has changed my life. I look at things differently now. Some things seem less important and some things seem more important. I may still have problems in my life but I can honestly say that my heart feels fuller.

Thank you.

Jef Meulemans
Sunday, July 27, 2003