I sat in a room surrounded by my four co-counselors and my division head with tears flowing down my cheeks in despair. It was the first week of my second summer working as a counselor at Camp HASC, a summer camp for children with severe physical and mental disabilities. As a returning counselor, I was responsible for guiding my bunk through the first few weeks and teaching the younger counselors how best to care for the children in our bunk. Sitting in the room with me were four other emotionally and physically exhausted young women who had just spent a week feeding, showering, grooming and entertaining our four campers, who all needed to be transported in wheelchairs for at least some of the day.
While I had loved almost all of my experience working at camp during my first summer as a counselor, there was one big reason I had returned that summer: my camper, Bassie. Simply put, she was the apple of my eye. Among several additional medical diagnoses, Bassie has autism and OCD and can get easily agitated and violent when she does not get her way. My friends, who would often hear Bassie’s tantrums from other parts of the campus, never understood my infatuation with her. But I did. Bassie and I were both headstrong individuals who liked to feel in control and we both sought structure and routine. I connected to Bassie and within my first few days of meeting her; I fell in love. I do not think I truly understood the love that a mother has for her child until I met Bassie. I was her best friend and her worst enemy. I would do anything for her but I also would never give in to her unless it was in her best interest. I helped fill her days with the activities and structure that she craved. The more I asserted myself firmly and showed her who was in charge, the more she learned to behave, and her ability to enjoy camp only became greater. While Bassie had been easy for me to love, I knew that she was a difficult camper to care for and that a counselor who knew and understood her had to return to camp so that others could be taught to care for her.
However, after the first week of camp, I was ready to give up. I had some new campers added to my bunk and it did not seem possible that my co-counselors and I would be able to attend to all of their different medical needs. I had not slept much or eaten much the entire week and I had done physically strenuous activities for many more hours than I was accustomed to. Bassie was not receiving enough attention and she was lashing out at everyone around her, which was heartbreaking to see. As I sobbed to my co-counselors, my division head looked straight at me, through the tears that would not stop leaving my eyes. She told me that she had seen how strong I was and how much love I could offer my campers. She knew that this week had been difficult to say the least, but she also knew that I could move past it and that I would be stronger for it.
Working that summer ended up being the most fulfilling experience I have had and the one of which I am most proud. Over the course of eight weeks, I learned so much about my campers, but most of all I learned about myself. As daunting as the challenge had initially seemed, I realized that I thrived as a leader. As difficult as the first week had proven to be, my division head had been correct, and it was even more rewarding to make progress with our campers because the beginning of our journey had been so terrifying. By the end of the summer, Bassie was truly a different girl. Her tantrums were rare, she was generally happy and smiling and her communication skills had vastly improved. We trained her to address us all by name and say please before a request. Bassie’s mother was shocked when her daughter returned home in better spirits and more willing to follow directions than she had ever seen her before.
Taking care of these children had not merely been a job for the summer; it was a labor of love that remains with me until today.
A year later, Bassie is a beautiful, thriving, 11-year-old girl who has a bat mitzvah coming up. Her counselors have been working together with her mother to create a bat mitzvah celebration that Bassie will never forget. We’ve started a gofundme page to help raise money for the bat mitzvah and for her future. Donate today online at https://www.gofundme.com/Bassie-sBM.
By Mairav Linzer