Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Camp Rodgers

Friday morning I was a wreck. Wet hair, in a towel, I tripped down the stairs on my way on a mad hunt for my pink sweatpants. I debated the night before on sleep or staying up to finish packing. Obviously I chose sleep. 7:50...UGH, I told Kate I would be there at 8:30 to pick up her and Emily. Chandler sat by the door watching me run up and down the stairs...9:15 I pulled into her drive. Fifteen minutes later we had Em and Chandler in the back of the suburban with snack bags, DVD players, and pillows, onto Caribou drive through and then the highway....
We amateurishly navigated our way, checking the GPS, marveling in the fact that neither child was making a sound, laughed at the tiny towns we saw on the way, one in particular called Bock was two trailers and a bar, and Emily repeated Bock bock bock, like a chicken for awhile down the road. I watched them playing at the rest area on the slide...I put my head down in my hand, and closed my eyes to stop the racing thoughts..."What if he doesn't sleep? What if he hates the food? What if he, god forbid, gets out of the cabin...THE LAKE!"...breathe..."What if everyone knows each other and we are outsiders..what if...." Eyes open. It's going to be okay....
When we pulled up to the Camp Miller sign, my heart was racing..but I could see it was beautiful already. The towering trees, the rustic lodge, the playground with a giant hammock...."There it is Emily!" calls Kate in the direction of the back of the car. Emily and Chandler return our excitement with blank stares. Moms are wierd. A staff member greeted us right away to show us our rooms, help us with our pile of stuff, get us schedules...Wow, I could tell they were honestly interested in our comfort level. I looked around, half listening..."anything you need..."...."over there, there's the..."......"a number of activities..."......I was in a daze, could we do this? Silently praying, I lugged our bag full of movies and snacks toward the cabin.

Friday Night:
As they get settled, Em and Chandler are all over the place and we get a tour. Chandler finds a stim toy in the dining lodge that he claims weekend possession of, and immediately I sense his mood shift from uncertainty to joy. They are everywhere, checking out the games and the piano in the community cabin room, running down the hall, splashing through puddles down the grassy hill to the mini ponies and goats. Emily lights up, grinning at the horses and Chandler turns up his nose in indifference at the goat trying to eat his new toy. Emily gets to try out her photo skills when we come across an army worm on the way to the docks. Both of them bounce down the docks in delight, and dip their hands in to splash even on this chilly late afternoon. Giggles. After a spaghetti dinner (well, pop tarts for Chandler), and a fantastic introduction to camp, we sign up for pontoon rides. Under the sprinkling clouds, we float along the lake, and Chandler is bouncing up and down on the seat with happiness, and Emily is so excited that Kate and I take turns holding onto her life jacket so she doesn't go head over heels into the lake. After the ride, we split up for some alone time with our kiddos. I skip the teepee campfire for a walk in the rain under a giant blue umbrella with Chan. He is galloping and I try to keep up. We find several benches that are meant for church in front of a cross with the beautiful water as a backdrop. He snuggles up to me under the umbrella, and we sit on the bench for many minutes. He is at peace here, I can feel it. He smiles at me like he knows I understand.
 On our walk back to the cabin, I see the playground has a green mini zipline suspended from two fat, old trees with an odd triangular bench sitting underneath. The lightbulb goes off. "Channy!" I call, and pull the zipline to the far side over the bench. He furrows his brow at me and climbs up, unsure what I'm trying to accomplish. I put my hands over his to grab onto the handles and I say "Jump!" He lets go and jumps to the ground, confused. I show him again and again, he is getting agitated. I persist. This time he hangs on, and I call "Pick your feet up!" And he does. Oh dear Lord, he gets it! He is jumping and smiling on his run back to the bench. We do this about 30 more times, and he is saying "Mo" (more) until my arms are aching from helping, and my cheeks from smiling.

Saturday: Rainy, cool camping is secretly my favorite. I love the way it smells outside, and the sound it makes when the water hits the canopy of leaves above me. I love that I am carrying around the coffee (they have on all day for the parents) in a real mug and wearing Kate's big blue abercrombie shirt that I'm sure she stole from her son Noah, and her Texas hat since I can't find the one I stuffed into my bag in the mad rush. The activities after breakfast start at 9, and we decide to take the kids canoeing. But first we attempt the climbing wall. Belted with helmets on, I admire their courage and this is another first. I hold my breath as Chandler makes his way up the wall, slowly and carefully. He looks amazed, and I am amazed. And crying underneath my sunglasses. Afterwards, we walk down to the docks, and get on our "boat coats" (Emily-speak) and John, the staff member helps us carrying the canoe to the shoreline. We ask him to take a picture of the four of us, Em has her paddle (just like Diego's), and Chandler is bouncing and leaning over to touch the water as I pray we don't tip over. The water has a calming effect on them, and we peer into the shallow water to see shining shells on the bottom. I fruitlessly try to reach them with my paddle, and we go around in a wide circle for almost an hour. They don't say much, except for Emily. Occasionally, I think she is talking about Diego, and Max and Ruby. No stimming motions from Chandler at all, and he scans the scenery over and over. We only stop because it is soon time for lunch, and then its onto horseback riding!
Because we need to take a bus down the road to the farm, we walk out in front of the lodge to wait. Emily has other ideas. Bus=school, and that is unacceptable. Kate has to pry her fingers from the bus door, and she is crying in anguish. Finally, she submits when mom convinces her its not school, and we are going to see the horses. At the farm, Chandler tolerates the helmet, because he is eager to hop up on "Cracker", the pretty, white horse on the end of the row. He is a natural, his body swaying in the saddle. I ask him several times, "More or all done?"...Mo..Mo...Mo...we go around and around. I see near the fence that Emily is sitting on a horse. Kate's back is to me, but I'm sure she is either grinning or crying. She didn't want the horse to move, but getting on was a enormous step for her. Way to go, babe!
After we get back, we have over an hour before dinner, so we decide to take the kids on the canoe again. I say, "Chan, do you wanna go on the boat?" He smiles, and repeats "Bo-s, Bo-s" Down on the dock, we get geared up, and when we step in, Chandler is crying. I adjust his sitting position, and talk to him, and we start to move out over the water. He is now crying harder. We make one circle, and he is inconsolable, so we head back toward shore. Emily is not impressed. With both of them wailing, my anxiety is going up. On shore, Chandler is dropping his body, and scream-crying. My mouth open in confusion, I beg him to tell me what he needs. Kate hugs him and attempts to help decipher this one. Finally he takes my hand, and pulls me all the way down the dock, and opens the gate, stepping onto the deck of the pontoon! Oh Chandler! BOAT! However, it isn't time for pontoon adventures, and I cannot drive one! One of the staff members sees me struggling, and comes to my rescue. "Would you guys like to go for a ride anyway?" (Does cookie monster eat cookies?!!!) Of course! So she takes us, Em and Kate, and Tanner (another fun kiddo from camp who came to visit us in our room to show the kids his very cool stuffed spongebob), and Tanner's new friend Fred (the green worm) for a long, relaxing ride, pointing out a beautiful, scenic farm as Chandler is bouncing away, and Emily's eyelids are dropping until she gives way to sleep. Chandler forgives me with a hug, as tears fall again.
Dinner was chaotic in a good way, everyone laughing and talking about the day. The camp director was trying to figure out the microphone, and the silent auction items were being closed. She introduced Breanna, the founder of the camp, who because of her commitment and passion for this camp and her love for her son made all of this happen, came up to the stage amongst great applause. She apologized to the families for not being a great public speaker, and she started to talk about a letter she had received that had touched her heart...oh god...I could feel the tears welling up....Kate, sitting across the table from me said "It gets better, turn around" of the staff was holding a birthday cake, the candle flames hand covered my mouth as the parents and kids sang happy birthday...I see Chandler coming toward me with a cookie bouquet that was my gift from him. I couldn't even talk, I couldn't say thank you, the lump in my throat wouldn't let me choke out any words.
 After dinner we walked by two camp staff who were waiting for people to come on a nature walk. Perfect. We went stomping along, singing Ants go Marching One by One, hurrah! hurrah! We took beautiful pictures of solitary Emily and solitary Chandler walking down endless roads lined with majestic trees. Kate posted Em's pic with the caption "Walking her own path". Never a truer, more lovely sentiment.
That night was smores (which was chocolate frosting subbed in for the real thing, and Chandler put his nose to it, frowning. "All done", and he pushed it toward my mouth. Then, the campfire, which was warm and inviting, and the staff had a surprise for everyone. The entertainment was prepared with skits and songs.  Emily had ditched us, and hoisted herself onto the staff bench between two young staff girls and she was "chatting" with them. All the families and kids were just pure energy and joy, and were allowed/encouraged to share a song or a skit. Some did, and an older girl with autism came up, and sang a song quickly while closing her eyes. She did a beautiful job, and everyone cheered. What an amazingly inclusive part of the evening.  Emily's eyes danced with joy as she realized this was a public forum. She stood with the staff during a skit, and even blew the staff members whistle. Everyone was clapping for her. And she was adored, and loving it. Chandler even danced along to the music in his way, and I never saw such perfect moves. Emily returned to mom, but was fascinated by a grandma who was talking softly to her, and Emily was accepting her gentle hugs on this cold night, and Kate was crying again. Chandler and I were the last to leave the fire. The staff trusted us to kick the logs down when we were ready to go in. He watched the flame forever, and said "Fi-ah". So peaceful. Flames were swimming, as again my eyes filled with tears. I sang to him a song I used to sing when I rocked him to sleep.
Back in our room, Chandler was restless. I knew he was worn out from the day, because he was verbally stimming and restless. I asked him a few times "What do you need?" and finally he put his hand on my head and pushed it toward the pillow..."I.....want...yoooouuuu.....mommama...." Breathe in...breathe out...more crying...You got it bud! I layed beside him until he fell asleep and Kate and I stayed up to eat cookies and watch Mean Girls. Cookies, laughter and tears, the best combination.
As we fell asleep, in the dark, my eyes getting heavy I heard Kate say softly, Thank you. I smiled, as silent tears fell. This was such a good idea.

Sunday: We are leaving today. It is so bittersweet. I miss my bed, and my other boys, but this time I had with Chandler......I connected with him, and strengthened our bond over campfires and nature walks. The morning was blur, and we went back for attempt two of horseback riding. Emily refused to get back on, but she was thrilled to stand on the fence and watch the horses parade by, carrying kids from camp. Activites went on until one, but we spent the rest of the morning packing, and playing at the on site park.  As I sat on the swing, I watched Chandler, and thought about how much he has grown this past year, and how lucky we were to be here, living life to the fullest, and trying all the new experiences he wants to try.

Breanna, if you are reading this, please know how much you have done for our families. Rarely do we get to connect with our kids in an environment that is so inviting and calming. I would have never believed we could go to camp and have it be as successful as this weekend was. Everyone was like a family. Each and every child there like my own. Maybe every few months, I get to have a meaningful moment. A new word. A new experience. In three days, we had so many, I stopped counting. Words can never express what this weekend meant to me. I see my son in an ever brighter light, capable of anything. This weekend was not autism. Not therapy. There were no expectations, no limits. It allowed our children to grow, and enhanced the quality of our lives and relationships. I connected with my best mom friend on an even deeper level. This is a life bond. Our appreciation for what you accomplished by starting this camp runs deeper than you will ever know. Never has my son walked a birthday gift to me. I wouldn't trade this weekend for a million dollars. Thank you so much for giving us the best gift.


  1. You've made me cry now! Beautiful.

  2. How awsome for Chandler to "just be"
    Just be a kid
    Just be a camper
    Just be a rider, climber, boater......
    I'd love to take my Ben.

  3. That was a wonderful account, thank you for posting it! I am sure the staff from YMCA appreciates the amount of joy you all gleaned from the camp! I am so happy for all of you to have had the experience to fill your heart and memories forever.
    Best wishes,
    Dr. Larson Kidd