Now that I have had ample time to process, I would like to share the life-altering experiences I had at Camp Barnabas.
Backstory: Camp Barnabas is a christian camp designed for special needs campers aging anywhere from 8-40 years old. Needs vary from the physically handicapped to those with genetic disorders but all campers have something that would make it difficult for them to function at a typical christian summer camp. The newest camp that we worked at had only those with autism, downs syndrome, or other disorders that were a handicap but did not limit them to a wheelchair (the camp was on a lake and almost entirely rocky terrain so wheelchairs would have been extraordinarily difficult). Each volunteer aged 16-29 was paired up with one camper who would be their responsibility for the week. We could help each other and there were full time staffers who worked in each cabin as well as a cabin parent (adult volunteers) who was there for support as well. However, while we weren’t alone, we each felt extremely isolated and burdened with the seemingly impossible task of caring for, entertaining, and, most importantly, sharing/showing Jesus to our specific camper.
The Anxiety Before the Storm: We arrived at Barnabas with very little training (not at the fault of anyone, just simply unaware of all that faced us) and we received a very minimal amount of training when we arrived: how to deal with biters, hair pullers, how to change diapers and clothes, how to brush teeth, and how to deal with a crisis. Now I look back and question how instructions could have been generalized enough to apply to every kind of crisis we faced. The answer is they can’t be but I don’t blame them for trying to give us a basic blueprint. Throughout all of this time and training at the camp prior to the campers coming I was about as panicked as I have ever been. The idea that I was going to be responsible for any other human’s well being for a week, let alone one with a disorder that would make it even more challenging, scared me to death. Add in my perfectionist tendencies and you have the royal mess in my head and my heart when campers started to arrive..
THE CAMPERS ARE COMING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (go crazy)
Jarrod: The night before campers arrived our cabin volunteers picked our individual campers based on some very basic (and we found out later, inaccurate) camper applications filled out by the parent/guardian. The first sheet I picked up was one for a kid named Jarrod (spelled incorrectly but no one’s perfect). I don’t know if it was just the name at that point or the Holy Spirit already working on me, but I felt like he was the camper I absolutely had to be paired with. Everyone else agreed that “The Jared’s” would be an excellent pairing for the week, and so my journey began.
Jarrod is 10 years old, but his mental and social ages are similar to a 2 or 3 year old. He was born with xyy chromosomal disorder, autism, and cerebral palsy. Jarrod is non-verbal, meaning that he doesn’t know how to communicate with words, sign language, or frankly any means of basic communication (pointing,grunting,etc.). He is also entirely ADL (Activities of Daily Living) dependent meaning I was in charge of feeding, bathing, changing, and essentially anything else needed for him to survive. All of these were quite necessary: he was a choking hazard so all food was cut into small bites, he was only mildly potty-trained so he wore pull-ups that had to be changed multiple times every day, and he couldn’t communicate anything he needed so I had to be acutely aware at all times of how he was doing. The biggest blessing/curse about Jarrod was that he was so autistic that he lived almost entirely in his own world which consisted of him, a couple of small toys he never let leave his hands, rocks, sticks, and anything else interesting he found on the ground. All day, every day he sat down somewhere and would simply play with the things he had or things he found and would take with him to the next place. It was a blessing that he entertained himself so easily for literally hours on end and that he wasn’t a runner, but preferred sitting in one spot. It was a curse that he rarely made eye contact and had barely any interaction with me during the week unless I sort of forced (nicely, not as maliciously as that sounds) my way into his little world. It was also incredibly difficult for me personally to interact with Jarrod because he is the exact opposite of me. I want to engage in every activity; He doesn’t engage in any activity. I want to be in the center of groups of people; He wants to be on the outskirts of any group of people. I want to interact with everyone; He wants to interact with no one. It a conflict of polar opposites that took many shapes throughout our week together.
Fun Stories: Because Jarrod didn’t do much I don’t have lots of exciting stories but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the simple time together, so here are a couple of the more interesting stories.
I don’t know why our culture enjoys bathroom humor so much but even autistic kids get in on the jokes. When we would go swimming, pull-ups have to come off or they would just fill with water and sink like an anchor so Jarrod was only in his swimsuit before, during, and after swim time. On three separate occasions, Jarrod decided this was his opportunity to prove his manhood and pee wherever he stood or sat. It didn’t matter if we were standing on our second floor porch where his urine would rain down upon the unsuspecting porch on the first floor where it would narrowly miss creating a yellow puddle inside of a volunteer’s hammock. It didn’t matter if we were sitting amongst a crowd of people on benches by the pool and I had just dried him off. I turned back to him and saw a waterfall dripping off of his swimsuit and down his leg but it took me a mine to realize, no I had not just dried him poorly; he had to go, so he did. Awkwardly enough one of the biggest smiles and giggle attacks he had all week was after peeing by the pool. I guess he just loved bathroom humor, but couldn’t tell the jokes so he had to just create some!
Jarrod loves water. While he can’t swim at all and its really a miracle he never drowned since he hasn’t really figured out not to swallow all water that enters his mouth from the pool, he wanted to be nowhere more than around water. The legitimate biggest smile I ever saw from him was when we took him out for a boat ride on the lake. Something about water all around and wind blowing in his face combined for an enjoyable experience he may have never been able to enjoy before.
Not So Pleasant Stories: The part of Jarrod that frustrated me more than anything was the lack of an ability to communicate with him and vice versa. One of the main ways he communicates at all is by scratching and pinching. For the first day and a half he made me so mad by pinching and scratching me. He would get my attention by scratching and do nothing or would have my attention and pinch me randomly. It wasn’t until I had a heart change that I realized that this was the only way he could communicate mildly effectively with me whether it was pain, frustration, hunger, or just wanting my attention. After that became clear to me whatever pain he caused me didn’t bother me because I knew it wasn’t out of some irrational hatred of me, but out of desperation to be understood. What did bother me was the way he would communicate frustration, pain, or other troubles by self-mutilating. He would get upset and begin to pinch his arms and legs and even his temples till they were raw and red. What hurt me the most was when he was at his breaking point he would slap himself in the face. Not weakly, but actual slaps. When he became upset the red mark created by his hands on his face would be flushed out and every time hurt me because I didn’t know how to help him.
There was one night that Jarrod had developed a slight cough so we gave him some medicine to suppress it. During the talent show that was our event for the evening he let out a pretty big cough and immediately started crying. I was really surprised because these were the first tears I had seen out of him during the week and it seemed so sudden. He began sobbing and he started to pinch and scratch at my arms and hands. He also instead of slapping himself chose to beat his fists into the concrete floor as hard a he could. At this point I had learned that I couldn’t stop anything like this but that my one job was to protect him. So I sat with him for a solid 15 minutes, maybe longer, letting him pinch me and punch my hand instead of the concrete below. The thing that will always bother me is not the violence; I would gladly take the pain as opposed to him taking it. What will always bother me is that I will never know what happened. He couldn’t communicate what was going on, what started the melt down, or what I could do to help. I felt so helpless and like a failure because I couldn’t fix what was wrong.
Things I Learned: Selflessness- In a way that I don’t think can ever be duplicated, I was taught what it is like to be completely selfless for another person. Barnabas teaches selflessness like going and living in another country teaches you a language: full emersion. There is no better way to learn French than to go live in France and try and learn the language by experiencing it 24:7 and being forced to use it. In the same way I believe there is no better way for someone to learn how to be truly selfless than to spend a week caring for someone who is completely dependent on you. It takes a very special person to be able to handle caring for special needs people on a regular basis but I fully support the idea that everyone should experience it for a brief period during their life.
I can’t fix everything- Being a perfectionist and someone who just prefers to be in control, working with someone who can’t communicate issues to you was very difficult. I want so badly to be able to fix his problems. I want him to be able to live on his own. I want for him to be able to even say simply yes or no to me so I can help him, but he can’t. I had to learn that I can’t fix him. I had to love him for who he was created to be and do what I could for him, nothing more. This lesson may be the hardest one I had to learn but it could make the biggest difference in my life.
Everyone Needs Jesus- All people need Jesus. We are all broken in one way or another so we need a savior. The overall goal for the week was to show our camper what God’s love for them looks like and if we didn’t accomplish that, we failed, no matter how much fun they had. Even Jarrod needed to hear about Jesus. We had a designated time to talk to our camper about the Gospel and even Jarrod and I needed to participate. I don’t know what he understood but I went straight through the story of Jesus and how he died so that we could live in Heaven with God. I don’t know how sin works for people like Jarrod, but I know regardless of how he fits into the Kingdom, he does. He is loved by God just as much as I am and therefore needs to be told how much he is loved just as much as I do.
I had one moment that really defined my week with Jarrod. During our talk as the NRH Hills campus during our short break one day we were talking about why faces were so impactful on us. I mentioned that in my case that week that faces were all I had to communicate with Jarrod and faces were all I would remember since no words were spoken. Jason then told me the thought that had been running through my head since gospel time- One day Jarrod and I will be in Heaven together and we will be able to talk to each other and do things together worshipping God. That is the thought that made the week worth the effort and heart ache. That one day, because of the impact I made on Jarrod, we will get to talk together in Heaven.
I’ve left out a lot of stories and moments that I just couldn’t all fit in this blog. Frankly I could write a book on my experiences if i had the time, skill, or will power. Feel free to just ask me about it. When I say everyone should experience, I mean it. I fully support The Hills continuing to work with Camp Barnabas in the future so that more people can have the experiences I had with their own Jarrod.