This past weekend I had the experience of a lifetime. I went into the weekend feeling like I wasn't emotionally able to be there, but decided to leave my personal problems and life at the gate. And by doing that, I was able to experience and be a part of the most amazing and awe inspiring weekend of my life.
As many of you know I do volunteer work with The Healing Center, working with children who've lost a loved one. This work, while heavy, has proved to be extremely rewarding and I smile every time I see these children. Through The Healing Center I found out about Camp Erin and was given this amazing opportunity to be a Big Buddy during their weekend camp.
Camp Erin was started by The Moyer Foundation because of an experience that Jamie Moyer had with a young lady who was terminally ill. Erin was granted a Make A Wish, which was to go to the Mariners' Spring Training and meet the Mariners. It was during that time that she created a bond with Jamie Moyer, and because of that initial bond Jamie visited Erin in the hospital many times before she passed away. After her passing, Jamie and his wife wanted to create a camp in honor of Erin, a place that children could go to grieve and be a part of a group of people that are on a similar journey.
Through The Healing Center I found out that I could be a part of Camp Erin. I was able to draw on my experiences as a camp counselor and become a Big Buddy and to be a part of someone's journey of healing. Even knowing what this camp was about, I was not fully prepared for the journey that I would go on for the 3 days that made up the camp. I went in feeling like I wasn't 100% emotionally ready for what was to come, and was pretty hard on myself for most of the drive to the camp. But after passing through the gates and driving through the woods to get to my campsite something came over me. I passed through a part of the forest where the sun was breaking through the canopy in streams of light. I suddenly felt at peace and everything that was on my mind melted away. And I began to think about the teenagers that were soon going to be walking into my life for the next three days.
As the campers started to arrive I reconnected with the two that I'd met weeks prior at the pizza party and met the other two that would be joining us. We had some activities and made the journey to our campsite. While I felt like there was a bit of apprehension on both sides, we awkwardly made conversation during the 20 minute walk. We couldn't help but talk about how beautiful it was at Camp River Ranch, how still the lake was and how the birds were chirping around us. None of us were really sure what to expect, and were nervous about the things to come. As we got into our wagons (we had to sleep in wagons...they were larger than life Conestoga wagons with four beds in each...no lie) we laughed and continued talking. And it was soon time for our first talk where we all had a chance to share the reasons why we were at Camp Erin.
I watched as my four campers opened up for the first time to each other, and to their two Big Buddies. Some letting themselves be more vulnerable than others. I told them how I felt like it was a privilege for me to be there with them and them allowing me to be a part of this weekend. It seemed almost instantaneously that our four campers bonded. One of them made the comment that hit the nail on the head. He said, "I wanted to come to Camp Erin so I could finally be around other people who are in the same place as me." We all want to feel normal, and when you are dealing with a loss you tend to feel like no one understands, or that they are walking on eggshells around you. At Camp Erin, we are there for a reason, and knowing that can be a comfort.
Over the weekend I stopped many times because I was completely overwhelmed with emotion. This was my first time and I was going through a lot of the same things these campers were. On Friday night we sat around a camp fire and the 45 teenagers took turns telling their stories. They opened up and shared their biggest fears, their sorrows and their personal losses. During those 2 hours tears rolled down my face as each camper took their turn talking. Some took 15 minutes while others took only a few. But throughout the entire time each camper sat there and respected the other person's time and space. I was just in awe as I sat there on the sidelines watching this amazing scene develop before me.
We had so much fun on Saturday with the challenge course and the different activities...and lets not forget the amazing food which seemed to always be just around the corner! But Saturday night took the cake for me. After dinner all the campers decorated a four sided luminary. It was made out of rice paper and then was wrapped around four dowels that were in a piece of wood with a candle in the center. They were able to draw an image that reminded them of their loved one on one side. Write a message to them on another, write words describing how they've felt during their journey or during that time and then on the other side write what gives them hope. After doing this we all made our way down to the lake, it was about 9 at night and the sun was down and all the stars were out.
We sat at the edge of the lake, music playing in the background, and two by two the campers set out in a canoe to the middle of the lake to let their luminary go into the lake to float on the surface with all the others. One of my campers asked me if I would be willing to take his out because he didn't want to get into the canoe. I was so overwhelmed by this, and I agreed to do it for him, knowing how big of a job this was. When I got into the canoe I sat down on the bottom, one of my other campers sitting in front of me with his luminary in his lap, and we were paddled out to the middle of the lake. Tears started to stream down my face as I thought about the people I lost in my life and then I began to think about the person my camper lost. When we got to the center we released the luminaries and made our way back to the docks. The campers were allowed to sit on the docks and watch as the luminaries floated across the lake.
As I stood there I was completely over taken by the amount of sorrow and grief that filled the air. I watched as campers sat there holding each other, crying and talking about their loved ones. I watched as others sat there silently staring at the lights floating across the lake. I left the dock to find another adult that I could hug and let my own emotions out. And each one said to me, the first time you are a part of this is always the hardest. Each time is powerful, but the first is always the most emotional. I happened to see the head of Teen Camp, I walked up to her and she hugged me. I told her that I felt so blessed to be there, and she held me tighter and said how important I was to this entire process and that she was happy I was there. After my time on shore I made my way back out to the dock to be with my campers. They were given the opportunity to stay out on that dock for as long as they wanted.
I walked back to camp that night in silence, I had all these emotions coursing through my veins and I was holding each and every camper inside me. We made it back to camp and we had entertainment time until after midnight again. The campers laughed and joked and ran around like goofballs. And as Big Buddies we interacted with them and encouraged them.
As I crawled into my bunk that night, I didn't want to fall asleep because I knew that when I woke up I'd only have a few hours left with these amazing people that I'd grown to love in such a short period of time. I reluctantly closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep for the few hours that remained before breakfast. I woke up feeling slightly refreshed and on this high that I can't even describe. I wanted to get as much out of my campers as I could in the remaining time.
Yesterday consisted of cleaning cabins, packing things up and taking group pictures. We also sat around the fire pit and had a chance to open up to one another for a final time. One of the male campers said, "I want to thank all the Big Buddies. You brought so much humor and laughter to what is probably the most depressing camp ever." We all laughed, but realized that he was right. Over the weekend we laughed, cried, screamed, felt anger, felt peace and many other things. I was amazed at how much emotion was packed into three days.
When it came time to walk down to the Meadows for the campers to meet their parents or guardians it was bitter sweet. We'd just had this amazing weekend and made all these connections and now we were all going our separate ways. Some of us going back to work, others going back to their homes where they don't necessarily feel loved or cared for. I wish that camp could be year round, that each child would have a place to go when they needed it, for however long they needed it. But sadly, that's not the reality. That is the thing about camp...it's a retreat, a place where you go to heal and be around others who understand and don't judge.
I feel so fortunate to have been a part of this past weekend and I know this was a long post, but I didn't even say 1/4 of the things I wanted to say. As tough as it was to hear all their personal stories, I feel like I'm a better person for being there, for being a part of it and being open to the weekend. When I got home yesterday I posted the following status of facebook...
"Brian is home now from the longest yet shortest 2 days of my life. I met 45 of the most amazing teenagers who willingly shared their stories as well as their greatest fears and deepest sorrows with all these other strangers. Camp is an amazingly wonderful experience, but it becomes even greater when all these young people are coming together for a purpose, especially when it's to grieve for and celebrate the lives of the loved ones they've lost. Thank you Camp Erin for healing me as well these last two days, I am truly humbled."
I went into camp not knowing what to expect. I left camp feeling like a different person. Thank you Camp Erin for everything you do for these children...and the Big Buddies.