Special needs camp counselor: In over my head

I’ve always been awestruck by the challenge special education teachers face on a daily basis. I became even more impressed a number of years ago when I served as a weekend camp counselor for a mentally and physically disabled boy. I found the experience eye-opening.

. . . . . .

Joey, a 12-year-old boy with severe autism and cerebral palsy, looked down at me like I had lost my mind. For a second as I lay lying on the tile floor tangled with his feet, I thought he might be right . . . that I had gone crazy.

We were going to go outside in the chilly spring air to play with the other kids and I had tried to help Joey put on a long-sleeved shirt. In the process, I stumbled over his lanky legs and fell to the tile in a crumpled ball.

Joey (name changed to protect his identity) had limited speech capabilities and seemed to barely notice. He normally showed little if any emotion. However, when he finally looked over and saw me sprawled on the floor like a floundering fish, Joey broke out into a quiet giggle and awkwardly clapped his hands.


I had tried a half dozen ways to reach Joey throughout the weekend, but they all worked to no avail. We had hiked what seemed like 12 miles around the wooded camp ground, gone canoeing and almost tipped the canoe into the water and played a million different camp and board games.

I had tried to get any kind of response from Joey . . . a smile, a frown, anything that would give me an indication that I was reaching him. The best I had been able to muster from him the previous two days was an occasional clap. Despite everything, my unintentional, klutzy fall broke through his stony haze.

How did I get myself into this situation?

My then-fiancé Kathy had persuaded me to work a long weekend as a counselor at an Easter Seals Camp for physically and mentally disabled children and adults in a rural community outside of Richmond, Virginia. Throughout college, Kathy, a special education teacher, had spent several summers working first as a counselor and then assistant director at the camp.

I had listened to her talk excitedly about the camp so many different times with her college friends that I felt like I was missing out on something and that helping out one weekend might be something fun to try. Kathy prepared me for the weekend the best she could, but she did leave a few things out: the pesky, dive-bombing mosquitos and that it would be a sink or swim situation. Since Kathy would have her own camper to look out for, I would be on my own with my camper for much of the weekend.

Second guessing my decision

I got teamed up with Joey. My job was to work one-to-one with him and support him throughout his stay at the camp. I learned reading the introductory sheet that camp organizers had sent me that in addition to autism and cerebral palsy, Joey also routinely experienced epileptic seizures. He could take care of himself for the most part, but still needed assistance in eating and dressing himself. In addition, he said only a few words, most just gibberish.

Kathy couldn’t wait for the weekend to start. For me, however, the reality of the situation started to hit me. I read and re-read Joey’s background sheet and my stomach churned with fear. Up to that point, I didn’t have a lot of exposure with special needs children. The news of possible seizures just added to my worry.

As we left our Alexandria, Virginia apartment to drive to the camp, I peppered Kathy with questions: What would the camp be like? What kind of problems would I face as a counselor? How would it be?

Finally after a litany of questions, Kathy finally said: “Relax Brian, you’re worrying yourself over nothing, you’ll be fine.”

When we finally reached the dirt road leading to the camp, I gave myself one last pep talk: “I can do this. It’s just one weekend, what’s the worst that can happen? I’ve got this, no problem.”

Yea, right, keep telling yourself that buddy.

All good in the end

Nothing I had ever experienced before prepared me for the weekend. I was on-the-go from Friday evening to late Sunday evening. I was running after Joey, making sure he had fun, but also that he was safe. I tried to guess his needs because he couldn’t always communicate them.


But I also learned that Joey was a smart kid. He was kind and giving too. Despite my initial worries, Joey and I worked well together. I was able to get Joey to dive into the indoor swimming pool, something his mother told us on the final day, he hadn’t done in ages.

As we gathered Joey’s things to go home, I looked at him one last time to see what kind of reaction he would have. I tousled his hair and said ‘goodbye.’ I wasn’t expecting much, but he surprised me with a smile, a clap, and a quick hug.

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