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OC HIGH: STUDENT NEWS AND VIEWS : One on One : Every kid has a counselor at St. Margaret's summer camp for children with special needs. In a first-person account by a first-timer, a student tells about the fears and challenges she faced leading a girl with cerebral palsy through a week of activities at the school's San Juan Capistrano campus. The payoff? The fun--and the eye-opening experiences--were mutual.

August 26, 1994|JEAN FREEMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Jean Freeman will be a junior this fall at St. Margaret's Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano

It was a compliment that came with the unspoken understanding that there would be much work involved.

The chaplain at St. Margaret's Episcopal School told me he thought I would make a great counselor for the school's Special Camp for Special Kids, held each summer for children with physical and mental impairments.

Was I willing to give up several precious weeks of summer for this? After thinking it over, I decided it would be a great experience and signed up.

The day camp, founded in 1992, is headquartered on the grounds of St. Margaret's school in San Juan Capistrano. There are four one-week sessions during the summer with a one-to-one camper-counselor ratio. About 25 campers attend each week and range in age from 6 to 18.

Counselors, drawn from the student body at St. Margaret's and nearby high schools, must attend a week of training before camp starts.

Each of us was assigned to one camper. We called the camper's parents before the session began to talk about the child's special abilities or needs. Some campers, for example, would require help in eating, walking and using the bathroom.

I was nervous before camp began. Many "what ifs" entered my head: What if my camper didn't like me, what if she would not eat? I had never had any experience with the handicapped.

During our training, we had to answer the question, "What do you want to get out of this camp?" I focused on the fact that a handicap is not a barrier to friendship.

I was still scared, though, hoping that I could handle the challenge.

Katie was my camper. She has cerebral palsy, a nervous system disorder that impairs motor skills. When I called and talked with her mother, I found out that Katie, who is 12, had attended camp last year and was excited about returning this summer.

As it turned out, since she was a camp veteran, it was more like Katie showing me the ropes. Although Katie could not speak, she could use a couple of signs. They were "I love you" and "eat." And she could blow kisses.

Even though we never talked, the relationship we formed in one week was unbelievable.

Katie was always smiling, pointing and clapping. Every day there was an off-campus activity. Our group went to Knott's Berry Farm, bowling and rope-climbing. And we ate plenty of pizza.

I think Katie enjoyed the horseback riding the most. Even though it took three of us 35 minutes to coax her into wearing a helmet, once she got on the horse she couldn't stop smiling.

At times I would get frustrated--when Katie wouldn't eat, go to the bathroom or ended up getting food all over her clothes. But when she would blow me a kiss, all my frustrations would vanish. And she always knew how to make me smile. By midweek, she started grabbing my shirt, indicating that she knew who I was.

*

Everyone enjoyed Katie. If you clapped, she clapped. If you were wearing a hat, she would pull it off and laugh. By the end of the week, I felt confident that I had indeed gotten to know Katie. Gone was my anxiety from earlier in the week. It was hard to believe how fast a connection was made. And I wasn't the only counselor with this feeling. By the end of the week, counselors and campers were very close.

It was an eye-opening experience, a reminder that these kids are like all kids. They like pizza, they like to play tricks and they fight with mom and dad.

Even though my job was to be a counselor, I didn't feel like a counselor. I felt like a friend. On the last day, each counselor gave their camper an award. I gave Katie the "blowing kisses" award. She then gave me a kiss on my cheek.

My week as a counselor was hard work and my patience was definitely put to the test, but it was a great experience. Katie was to attend the other three sessions of camp and I hoped her next three counselors could keep up with her.

As I said goodby to Katie, she blew me one last kiss.

I can't wait for next year.

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