A camp for the rest of us
At Camp ReCreation, being developmentally disabled is, well, perfectly normal
Tamara Walton stood in the center of the amphitheater stage, dressed in a red skirt and a frilly yellow top. Behind her the sun was setting over Eagle Lake, high in the Sierra Nevada. Suddenly she burst into song: “Crazy,” the great Willie Nelson tune made famous by Patsy Cline.
Tamara didn’t know all the words. In fact, she knew hardly any of them. And she was off key on almost every note. Had Simon Cowell been there, he’d have scowled.
Not this crowd, though. Tamara had them right where she wanted them, and as the song faded out, they went wild. For a shining moment, Tamara Walton was a star.
Tamara is my friend. She is also developmentally disabled. She lives in a care home in Paradise and works for the Work Training Center. I live in Chico, but we see one another only once a year, every summer at Camp ReCreation in Susanville.
There we catch up on what’s been going on in our lives. She shows me her engagement ring and pictures of her sweetheart. She reminisces about the year that I was her personal counselor and how I got her to “come out of her shell.” I was never her counselor and have never known her to be shy, but who cares? This was her week to enjoy camp life and to live in a world where she is a better singer than Patsy Cline.
This was my fifth year as a volunteer counselor for the camp, which is held at Camp Ronald McDonald in Susanville. Camp ReCreation provides a week-long program for people with developmental disabilities and a ratio of one counselor to every camper.
The first official day of camp, Saturday, began in Sacramento, where the volunteer counselors, who ranged from high-school seniors to middle-agers, met at 8 a.m. to board a chartered bus. We arrived at camp in the afternoon. It’s set in the mountains that overlook Eagle Lake, just a few miles north of Susanville. The air was crisp and fresh and the pine trees stood tall and sturdy. All the volunteers split up into their respective cabins and settled into the top bunks because we knew the campers would be taking the bottom ones.
I was a team leader this year, which meant I supervised five female counselors, each of whom had her own female camper to guide through the week of activities and daily grooming.
The volunteers reconvened at the covered deck known as the Arts and Crafts Pavilion. We learned what to do in case a camper has a seizure, how to transfer a person from a wheelchair to a bed or chair, and, most important, to always wear gloves.
“If it’s wet, and it’s not yours, wear gloves,” the nurse explained. After years of experience, I knew what wet things she was referring to, and I’m sure it didn’t take long for the innocent first-time counselors to figure it out.
The campers arrived on Sunday. Voices sang, “Camping time, oh what fun! Camping time, oh what fun! Hooray! Hooray! Hooray!” as each new camper arrived. Counselors chanted campers’ names as they walked up to greet us and we exchanged high-fives and hugs.
The five campers in my cabin ranged in levels of disability. Colleen and Leigh Ann were shy but enthusiastic and physically self-sufficient. Louise, who was originally from Staten Island, was outspoken and the only woman in our cabin with a watch, so she became our official timekeeper. Linda, who’s in her 50s, had a stroke years earlier and now needed a wheelchair. Kim, the most disabled of the bunch, had moments of frustration because she couldn’t express herself verbally, but she was a lover at heart.
When Leigh Ann’s stuffed dog, Angel, barked (courtesy of Leigh Ann), her counselor, Jeanette, asked Angel to please be quiet when Leigh Ann asked her to. When Colleen wanted to do archery, her counselor, Amy, held Colleen’s umbrella for her for half an hour so she wouldn’t get too much sun. When Louise wanted to hear the camp song about an elephant named Louise, her counselor, Meredith, made sure everyone sang it at the campfire. And when Linda wanted to sing “America the Beautiful” for the talent show, her counselor, Brittany, was the background dancer while Linda sang. When Kim wanted to take a shower but was afraid of the water, her counselor, Christina, and I waited 45 minutes for her to ease into it.
And so it went. Activities included the usual camp fare: arts and crafts, archery, canoeing, Bible stories, sports, campfires, a carnival, movie night, a talent show—the list went on, culminating in the dance at the end of the week.
I danced with a camper named Carl for a few songs. Every year for the dance, Carl dresses up like Zorro, complete with cape and mask. I was wearing blue and green neon pants and a tie-dye Superman shirt. I remember thinking, “Where else can you find a 21-year-old woman and a 60-year-old man dancing to ‘Celebrate Good Times’ dressed like lunatics and no one thinks twice about it?”
Saturday, the last day of camp, I watched as my friends left, one by one, in the cars that had brought them a week earlier. We exchanged hugs and high-fives for the last time for at least a year.
I returned to Chico on Sunday. I showed camp pictures to my friends, sang some camp songs that were stuck in my head, and told stories about all my unusual friends. They looked at me with blank expressions and seemed annoyed by my singing.
Monday morning, I decided to walk a different route to the CN&R offices. I was feeling down but still riding on the camp high I felt from seeing the world in a way that was filled with so much joy.
And then, as if she knew I needed her, there was Tamara Walton, doing her recycling route for the Work Training Center. She shouted my name and gave me a big hug. I told her I had to go or I was going to be late for work. We hugged one more time, and she said she was sure she’d see me around again.
It was enough to keep me feeling the spirit of camp all year long.