The summer of 2003 brought many changes my way. I came home from college for good, and with no idea what I was going to do in the future, the pressure was on to find a job. A friend of the family mentioned a Bible camp that was short-staffed and gave me the website name so I could apply. I was shocked to be accepted right away.
FAITH AND INEXPERIENCE:
I joined the staff at Still Waters Bible Camp in July of that year, as an assistant counselor. As I had missed staff training, I was left only with the brief words of the camp director to guide me: “The core counselor will let you know what they need. Just help them out.”
In truth, though, the first week I worked there, I felt more like a camper than a counselor. That week, we had senior high girls. All of them had been coming to camp for years beforehand, and I had no idea what I was doing. I felt intimidated and out of my depth.
The older campers played a lot of long, physical games, and I had been given no other direction. I knew there was no way I could run around camp, and I couldn’t find the director to ask him what I should do. Instead, I decided to offer my help in the kitchen. With hindsight, I know this probably was not allowed, but I felt strongly that as I was working there, I should not walk around doing nothing while my coworkers were on duty.
It was working my second week there when I was paired with a counselor I’ll call Callie, who really let me have it during a break one day.
“I’m struggling to do everything, and I need your help,” she told me seriously.
“Okay.” I hesitated. “I just need to know what you need. I haven’t been trained. I’ve never done anything like this before. I was just told to help out where the counselors mentioned they needed me.”
“Oh, I had no idea.” Callie looked shocked, and came up with a new plan on the fly: “Okay, here’s what we’re going to do…”
We worked it out, and I was able to be a moderately better assistant for the remaining days of that summer.
The following summer, I was trained as an assistant counselor and it did wonders for my confidence. Enough so that by the summer of 2005, I felt capable enough to work 10 weeks - almost the entire summer. Also, I was going to be a core counselor for the first time.
It was during our weeklong staff training where I was reminded, in stark terms, that not everyone was comfortable around disability. We were in the midst of a day of fasting, and had just finished praying for each other while standing on the stage in the chapel. I had climbed the short steps up to the stage just fine, but hesitated on the way down. It was the first time I had climbed them, and as is often the case, if nothing of consequence happens on the way up, I hadn’t thought ahead about the possible issues I’d face coming down.
“Tonia, do you need some help?” my boss asked, sounding completely unsure.
As I was in the process of figuring out how to organize my body - where my crutches and my feet needed to be at each level so I would not lose my balance - I could not talk to him beyond saying yes.
He stood there uncomfortably. “Um…. What can we do to help?”
I was still trying to keep my balance. I couldn’t deal with reassuring my boss that he didn’t need to feel awkward and neither could I articulate exactly how I needed his help while I was in the midst of trying to descend. If you want the truth, I had gotten used to a couple of coworkers (Callie, among them) who would extend a hand, or blatantly offer to lift me down if something looked perilous, so I could have the option of safety in immediately available, instead of having to figure out how to articulate what I needed to while trying to figure out how not to fall.
Knowing my boss was this uneasy around my disability made all of my previous feelings of inadequacy rush back.
“It’s okay,” I reassured him quietly. “I got it.”
And he stared, and kept staring as I sat down on the stage, and scooted down the steps on my backside, as I had not done since I was a toddler. I was so embarrassed that I ended up crying in the staff bathroom, convinced I should not be there at all. Convinced that my boss should have hired someone else, someone able to climb stairs.
I also dealt with a certain coworker who asked me every year, “What’s your condition?”
It made me feel put on the spot. Singled out. Different. I hated it. But as this coworker was actually several years older than I was, I felt compelled to tell him every year that I had CP. Then I endured his follow-up questions about what exactly that was, and how it affected me.
Being untrained when I first arrived magnified my insecurities brought on by my disability several million times. Not being used to advocating for what I needed, I asked once, for bars to be installed in the showers, and they were. But they were in the wrong place, and there was no way for me to dress and move safely on the wet surfaces, which kept me washing up at the sink all four summers I worked there. Many of my coworkers were fantastic about helping me, but my boss’s discomfort around my disability made me feel like I did not belong. And while I expected (and got) comments from children about my crutches and kids “talking about me in a bad way” I should not have been interrogated by a coworker about my disability at work.
FAITH AND MAKING A WAY:
Much like my experience in Costa Rica, though, I wasn’t alone when it came to doing my job with a disability. Over the years there were a few coworkers who were also disabled or chronically ill, and it was often we, who created access for each other.
During my second summer, the staff and campers were up at the rec building one evening (which was as far away from the cabins as we could possibly get.) It was an older kids week, which meant they had played night games. All the lights had been out for a prolonged period of time. When they were flipped back on and my eyes adjusted, I realized just how pitch black it had become outside.
|[Image is: Me hanging out in the rec building while working at camp. I'm wearing a dark green sweatshirt and smiling. Photo credit: Joy Brekke]|
At the time, I had no concept of my own place blindness, I just knew that this was going to be untenable. There was no way I could safely navigate back to my cabin and over obstacles like uneven ground (with holes), piles of gravel and most disturbing, I would have to cross a bridge over a moat filled with sludge to get back to the girls side of camp. Dealing with all those things in daylight was enough of a crapshoot. Dealing with them when I could not see my hand in front of my face? Impossible.
“I seriously can’t see anything.” I said, laughing nervously. “I have no idea how I’m going to get back. This is gonna be terrible…” I was rambling, and a bit panicky. I knew if I didn’t have some kind of help, I would be lost or injured. Probably both.
All around me, counselors and campers were confidently striking out into the darkness. Then, I heard a familiar whir behind me. A co-worker I’ll call Thomas, who also had a physical disability and used a scooter to get around camp, came up beside me. I thought he might offer to lead the way, having me follow his tail lights, as he had sometimes done in the past.
Not this time.
Instead, Thomas pulled up beside me and maneuvered himself to one side of the small seat. Then he said, “Get on.”
Both of our disabilities impacted our balance, so I hesitated, asking if he was sure.
“Yes,” he said. “Come on. Somebody will carry your crutches.”
I didn’t expect the heckling we both received from other guys on staff. Calls of “Ooh, Thomas!” and “All right, buddy!” made my cheeks (and his) burn hot.
“I’m just doing a sister a service!” he insisted. And with that, we headed carefully out into the night. Each of us hung onto a single handle. We didn’t fall off or crash into anything. I got across a good portion of the grounds with his help.
There was also a young coworker I’ll call Charlie, who lived with a chronic illness. I had first met him when he was a camper during senior high week. By my third summer there, he had joined the staff as an assistant counselor at seventeen. Charlie was funny and snarky, but also kind and genuine. The first to hold a door for me if I needed it.
On the way back up to camp with coworkers that year, everyone was in a rush to leave one of the staff member’s houses and get going. I was rushing, so as not to hold anyone up. I grabbed the thick stair rail with my right (more spastic) hand, which I had also failed to dry all the way after washing it, in an effort to save time.
I was already hanging onto the railing when I realized I could not safely grip it. Not even enough to sit down and scoot.
“Uh...guys?” I called, seeing all ten or so of them gathered at the foot of the stairs in the entry way.
“Oh, do you need help?” someone asked.
“Yeah, I do.” It was either admit I needed them, or take a nosedive down to meet them in the foyer.
There was a murmur of voices. Someone mentioned “piggyback ride” like it might be conjured out of the air. Then, Charlie stepped up.
“I’ll help you, Tonia,” he offered, like a gentleman. And he crouched in front of me, so I could hang onto his back. He was possibly less muscular than I was, and his slight body shook with the effort, but he successfully carried me down the stairs.
Again, the only one to step up and help me.
FAITH AND STRENGTHS:
It probably sounds like I was a burden and a mess, right?
Zero experience. Little self-confidence. But the truth is, working at camp gave me some valuable things. It magnified my strengths. I already knew I was good with children, but this allowed me to see that even the older kids were drawn to me. They often said they were glad to speak to me because they felt like I was “real.”
While on staff, we had to lead devotions. I had to do this at least once a week as an assistant counselor and more as a when I was a core counselor. While my cohorts were more versed in the Bible and Biblical characters and stories, I found myself sharing stories connecting faith to real people who struggled. On topics like how to cope with fear, and on forgiving ourselves when we sinned.
My own experience with trauma helped me know what to do when we had a tornado scare one night, our cabin full of eight to ten year old girls who were now terrified to go to sleep. I remembered a friend on staff telling me they had done something similar and ran it by the core counselor before inviting all the girls to move their mattresses onto the floor so we could be closer to one another and they could feel safe. Once we did that, no one was crying, they were all less afraid, and able to fall asleep.
My first week as a core counselor, I was paired with a capable, competent and happy assistant that I felt really comfortable with. I was able to ask her to hand things out while I led devotionals, retrieve a misbehaving child and bring them to me.
One such instance sticks out in my mind. That week, I had primarily nine to eleven year olds in my cabin. The odd one out was a fourteen year old, who had been recently adopted from overseas. Once, during a game, this older teenager grabbed one of the little girls physically, which was not allowed. My assistant counselor was quick to intervene as I requested.
We had been trained that physical aggression was not tolerated and that it needed to be dealt with swiftly and appropriately. That meant an unpleasant but short chore like sweeping the floor of a room we were in. I planned to have her do just that, but first I wanted to talk to her.
Back home, I’d had experience spending time with kids from hard places. This girl’s behavior seemed familiar to me and I knew there might be more to it than an older child bullying a younger child. I suspected her behavior was what had worked for her and helped her survive in the past. I sensed that she had likely grown up unable to trust adults to intervene for her.
“Come here, please. I want you to talk to me about what happened.” I kept my tone firm and my words direct, as English was not her first language, and I wanted to be sure she understood me.
“They were teasing me,” she insisted, her face set.
“She was teasing you so you grabbed her?” I clarified.
“Well, we don’t do that here. We don’t get physical with people. Here, if someone is teasing you, you tell an adult. So if this happens again, I want you to come and tell me. Don’t hurt the person. Come and tell me what’s happening, and I’ll help you. That’s what I’m here for. Does that make sense?”
“Yes,” she said, quiet and stoic.
“Okay. Now I’d like you to go sweep the floor.”
Days later, she remembered our talk, and asked me to intervene when two girls were bothering her. She did this calmly, with no escalation whatsoever. I wanted her to remember she could start trusting adults in her world to be there for her. I jotted down a quick note, praising her, and handed it to her so as not to embarrass her in front of the younger girls. And, that afternoon, I bought her a Pepsi from the canteen and gave it to her.
“Hey, I wanted to give this to you.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Because I wanted you to know I’m so proud of you for not hurting anyone today and asking for help instead.”
She was not elated by the treat, instead, she studied the ground and said seriously: “Thank you. No one ever tells me when I do something well.”
In fact, she went on to thank me, twice more, that day alone.
Working at Still Waters Bible Camp made me feel more confident and capable as a leader. I was able to work alongside people who respected me. I memorized lots of Scripture, and got a better understanding of the Bible. I didn’t start out a success by any means, but over time, I grew into someone who felt comfortable in a leadership position. Also, for the first time in my life, in this one place, not a single person ever offered to pray for my physical healing.
It was such a relief, and I was happy to grow there, into a stronger person with a greater understanding of spiritual concepts, the Bible, and my own ability as an integral part of the body of Christ.
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