Back in April 2019, when I was tucked up in bed, a mint tea on my bedside table going cold, procrastination from exam revision was in full swing (first year of uni doesn’t count innit). I found myself on the Camp America website. Friends from home had branded it as ‘life-changing’ and the ‘best thing you’ll ever do,’ so I wanted to explore this new trend. The company is essentially a programme that assists applicants in obtaining a visa and finding a camp across the U.S to work at. It’s one of the most well-known companies for wannabe travellers like me, who are looking to work abroad.
Of course, ya gal decided to take the procrastination to the next level and begin an application, with absolutely no intention of actually pursuing this.
And then the 17th of June came around and I was hopping on a plane, alone. I managed to hold back the tears until I was six hours into the plane journey, with the realisation that this is real, smacking me in the face.
Arriving at camp only brought me yet another (metaphorical) smack in the face. Accommodation for the next 8 weeks involved a cheap wooden bed frame and a green mat. That was it. No cupboard to unpack my overflowing suitcase. No privacy: there was ten of these ‘beds,’ if you can call them that, in each cabin. Nine other counsellors were already moved in, confidently introducing themselves as if this wasn’t the most ridiculous way to spend your summer.
At the end of the cabin, I’m even more over the moon to find that between the ten of us, we have one toilet to share. Being the hygiene freak that I am, I examine the toilet. Where it was once white and clean, it is now yellow, with crusty edges. The other counsellors all seemed settled in and excited for the upcoming events, whilst I just wanted my bed and my family. And some vegetables; American food is not the one.
Skip forward 48 hours and I’ve learnt how to create an unforgettable summer for campers with physical and/or mental disabilities, how to change a diaper, how to g-tube feed, the basics of using an AED, the basics of putting out a fire, how to safely do a two-person lift from a wheelchair to a shower chair and less importantly, how to sit on a dirty toilet without entirely freaking out.
My favourite quote from one of my campers goes something like this; “I think having only one boyfriend is easier, but my mum said I can have as many boyfriends as I want.” What a queen. Although I agree having more than one boyfriend would be a shit show, I will not pass judgement if you go out and get 3 sugar daddies and 2 boyfriends. You do you mate. It’s 2020.
My favourite toilet behaviour was from a guy – in order to take a wee, he’d take his shorts and boxers down. Ok, that’s logical. But then, without fail every time, he’d also have to remove his T-shirt before he allowed himself to urinate. When he did piss, he would not hold onto his hose pipe, so it would go all over the floor. And who was responsible for cleaning our cabin? Me (and 2 other counsellors).
My favourite skill I achieved was learning how to unawkward any awkward situation. For the physically disabled campers, obviously they relied on us to shower them. No one wants smelly balls and I am now able to happily scrub a guys balls, whilst singing ‘Let It Go’ from Frozen. I can have a great chat about unicorns whilst letting a camper lean on me for support, whilst she patiently waits for her poop to come out. Nothing gets to me now.
My favourite week was Prader-Willi week. This was a session for people with Prader-Willi syndrome only. I had never heard of this condition before, so it came as quite a shock when my more experienced friends explained it to me. It’s a condition where they eat uncontrollably – they can never feel ‘full’ and constantly crave food. I had to lock my toothpaste away because otherwise they would eat that. I could not mention food around them. They were on a strict diet for the entirety of their lives, as their metabolism rates were a lot worse than the average rate. One person picked through their poo in the toilet in search for food.
One camper was a transgender woman. In order to complete the process from male to female genitals, you need to use a dildo to stretch your new vagina out. The woman was committed to her transition and did this regularly. But one afternoon, one of the counsellors heard a rustling noise coming from the bathroom. She opened the door to investigate (there were no locks on the doors). The woman had stored sweets inside her to hide them, and proceeded to snack on them in private, cheating on her diet but simultaneously stretching out her fanny for medical reasons. You might be wandering at this point why this was my favourite week – the campers were full of energy, hilarious and I had great conversations with them. Some even had degrees from university – it amazes me that someone can function in society so normally, yet have just one specific part of their brain functioning so not normally.
Despite these wild events, I really bonded with the campers. I can only admire their positive outlook on life, despite their various disabilities. I’m there to serve them, to put a smile on their face that never stops, but it’s them too also changing my life. They have opened my eyes, showing me how much I take for granted on a daily basis – with my veggie diet, I’d be requesting a diaper change 6 times a day, so thank fuck I can take myself to the toilet.
Some of the girls I cared for were my age, but some will never learn to drive, go solo travelling, have kids, speak or walk ever again. One week, I had to wake up at 6 am every morning to prepare for my campers meds. Initially, I dreaded this (I’m far from a morning person), before waking up to the fact that this is only one week of my life, whereas this is the reality for the rest of his life.
You are literally a carer, a doctor, a friend, a mum, a teacher, a hairstylist for the campers. I was exhausted at times to the point that I had 3 bowls of cinnamon crunch after dinner as pudding – I needed the energy. I didn’t shower for 4 days straight at one point because by the time I was free in the evening, an extra twenty minutes of sleep seemed worth the sacrifice of hygiene. BUT – I honestly can’t think of any kind of experience more rewarding. Although not many camps are disability camps with Camp America, I would strongly recommend doing one.
Bit hypocritical saying that, because, will I be yeeting it back over the North Atlantic Ocean to the land of Trump? No. This summer Geena has no funds and other plans – more on that later, *wink face emoji*. Maybe after graduating when I’m having a mid-life crisis at age 21, I will go back to Camp America to ‘find myself’.