Friday, February 14, 2014

The Full Circle

The first time Heather Chism, a nurse, had to feed a child with disabilities, she was uneasy; she was afraid the child might choke while in her care. Soon after she married her husband, Mark, Heather decided to work for a home designed specifically for children with disabilities in the hopes of assuaging this anxiety. “This is where I gained my experience,” she says. “I just wanted to get rid of that fear from my nursing background.”

Before Mark met Heather, he had been in the army reserve. In the early 1970s, the army wanted to improve its image after the war in Vietnam, so it encouraged its members to do community service. Mark ended up being sent to—would you believe it?—Mt. Hood Kiwanis Camp to volunteer as a camp counselor. He laughs, “I'm pretty sure I was the only active duty member to serve as a counselor up there.” This was Mark's first exposure to the disabled community.

Neither Mark nor Heather knew they would have a child with disabilities, but when Aaron came into their lives 29 years ago, they felt at least somewhat prepared to be better parents for him.

After Mark's experience with Kiwanis Camp, sending Aaron there to try it out seemed natural. Still, as parents, Mark and Heather were nervous about leaving their ten-year-old son in the hands of strangers for a week.

“He was a pretty dependent person to be letting go to camp as a little guy,” Mark says. “It was hard letting him go to camp, and his ability to communicate back to us whether he had a good time or not was not great.”

However, it only took one summer for Aaron's parents to see they had made a good decision in letting Aaron try camp out. “We knew next year because he was so excited to go, he could hardly stand it. We knew he had a great time.”

“Camp is the highlight of Aaron's life,” explains Heather.
“Except for Christmas,” Mark chimes in.
“Yeah, that's probably true. Next to Christmas. But to go away where's he's so dependent and everyone focuses on each of the kids; they get so much attention. It's like an extended family.”

MHKC has a fun social/familial dynamic.
But really, how could you not love this face?

This family dynamic suits an extremely social Aaron just fine. He has gone up to camp seventeen times—almost every summer since he was ten years old—so returning staff members have gotten to know him well. Aaron looks forward to seeing his old friends when he returns to camp, and in spite of being non-verbal, he loves making sure that everybody is introduced to one another.

About six months ago, Heather and Mark moved to the Oregon coast, allowing Aaron to live at their home in Tigard with a caregiver-family, helping him transition into more independent living. Aaron got to show his caregivers “his camp” last summer, which was very exciting for him. According to Heather, sharing his experience with others is part of Aaron's warm and fuzzy nature.

Photography has played a huge role in Aaron's ability to share his camping experience. Every year, Mark and Heather send him with a couple disposable cameras and get them back filled with pictures of Aaron, his friends, his counselors, and all the activities they do together. At the end of camp, it is tradition for Aaron to get his photo taken with his counselor so he can show everyone. It's his way of sharing his world and telling people, “Hey, this was my counselor this year. Look at all the awesome things we did.” The photos, which Heather puts in an album for Aaron, don't just give Aaron a way to tell people about camp and relive the memories; they also allow Mark and Heather to see what Aaron does at camp and that he enjoys himself there.

Mark describes Aaron as a full-range beneficiary of the camp but makes special note of Aaron's fondness toward the horses.

“He loves the dance, he loves swimming, and he loves the horses. He always takes a bag of carrots to feed them. One of Aaron's main activities during the year is participating at a program at a miniature horse farm. So he really likes horses a lot.”

“He loves walking,” Heather adds, “so I'm sure whatever counselors he has walk their feet off because he loves to walk and hike. It's not a fast pace, but he loves just walking around the lake and up on the trails.”

Both parents appreciate the unique outdoor experience Mt. Hood Kiwanis Camp provides Aaron and the social impact it has on him, and both stress what an amazing opportunity it is to be both a camper and a counselor at MHKC.

“I've been really elated that Portland State has had this connection because I think it's made the camp what it is. So it's not only good Kiwanians that do their work, but it's also work that students of Portland State do that makes this camp unique,” Mark says, pointing out that children with disabilities get to interact with people their own age, but once high school ends, that interaction basically stops.

“Most of the kids who don't have disabilities are off to jobs and college and all those things, and most of the time they don't look back. That's not criticism, it's just a realization of how life really is. The cool thing about Kiwanis Camp is that it's a chance for our young people with developmental disabilities to interact not only with other people with developmental disabilities, but also with all these young counselors. They just love that. It's really a wonderful, mutually beneficial relationship that happens.”

Heather agrees that both campers and counselors have something incredible to gain from spending time with one another.

“It will be life changing for them. Not only will they gain a confidence, but they will gain a new friend. There's an element of enrichment when people with disabilities become part of your life. You just feel more fulfilled.” With endearing mother's pride, she continues, “Aaron has given way more than he has gotten. People just love him. There are times when I think he's the one who's got this thing called life figured out. Less complicated and full of joy. It's really easy to receive so much joy from people with disabilities.”

“We're all unique individuals, and these folks aren't that much different from anybody else,” Mark says. “They appreciate being respected, they love to have a good time, and they love other people.”

The important thing is that over the course of a week or two—depending on whether one is a camper or a counselor—wonderful social interactions take place. Kiwanis gives all kinds of people the means to learn about one another.

And, as Heather and Mark can attest, you never know when experiences like this come full circle.

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