By Caley Griebenow, associate editor-in-chief
On the surface, signing up to be a Camp SOAR (Special Outdoor Adaptive Recreation) counselor sounds like just another activity to add to one’s resumé or college application. But to senior Meghan Schmit, becoming a counselor has had a tremendous impact on her life.
“[Being a counselor for Camp SOAR] surpassed my expectations,” Schmit said. “I didn’t believe it would affect me that much, but it truly did.”
Camp SOAR pairs kids with special needs and/or learning disabilities with volunteer counselors for a week in the summer. The campers’ conditions could range from autism to Down syndrome, severe Fetal Alcohol Syndrome to cerebral palsy and many other handicapping disorders. The counselors are at least 15, and the campers range from seven to 19 years old. The purpose of the camp is to foster a healthy relationship between counselors and campers, and to create an environment where campers can thrive.
Some of the activities involve arts and crafts, swimming and creating a memory book for the campers to take home with them at the end of camp.
Last summer, Schmit was paired with a camper named Nico, and her brain disorder is so rare is does not have an official name. She was eight but had the “brain of a three-year-old.” While it could be frustrating for Schmit when Nico wouldn’t cooperate or would have trouble transitioning between activities, she was amazed by her loving personality.
“Nico was very happy most of the time and she just wanted to have fun,” Schmit said. “All the kids there just wanted to be treated normally, and at [Camp] SOAR there’s really no limits on what the kids can’t do.”
In order to understand the campers’ conditions and behavior, the counselors arrive at camp a day early and study their camper’s file so they know it like “the back of their hand.” The counselors must understand how to deal with their camper’s tantrums and how to calm them down.
For instance, when Nico would become upset when she didn’t want to rotate activities, Schmit would read her Bambi or the pair would listen to Taylor Swift. She would be in a much better mood afterwards.
One of the most rewarding parts of camp for Schmit was at its conclusion. Nico wanted to jump into the lake all week, but couldn’t bring herself to do it. But finally, on the last day, Nico built up her courage and jumped in with Schmit by her side.
“It was really amazing to see how she overcame her fear by the end of the week,” Schmit said.
Also at the end of the camp is a talent show, which can be emotional because the camper’s parents return to see their child for the first time all week. They express their gratitude towards the campers by thanking them for their time, and Schmit marvels at their perseverance.
“As much as I love the kids, it is very hard to watch over them around the clock,” Schmit said. “What we do for a week they do year-round. I can’t even imagine.”
Counselors must assist the the campers in tasks like brushing teeth, getting dressed, bathing and in some cases going to the bathroom. Essentially, the campers cannot be left unsupervised.
While taking care of the campers can be taxing, Schmit is grateful for what she has learned from her time at Camp SOAR.
“The kids are more grateful to learn something new, even if a disability stands in their way,” Schmit said. “They’ve taught me that whatever problems I have, they’re probability insignificant.”
She also encourages anyone to volunteer to be a counselor.
“Not that anyone walks in with the sole intention as putting this on their college applications, but by the end of camp that not on anyone’s mind,” Schmit said. “It’s bigger than that.”