Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Part 2: Allan Cushing and the Life-Changing Mt. Hood Kiwanis Camp Experience

Allan Cushing, Director of Programs at MHKC, in top right button

This is part two of our interview with Allan Cushing, the Director of Programs for Mt. Hood Kiwanis Camp. Click HERE to see Part 1. In part two, we find out more about the campers and camp experiences.

Allan’s Favorite Memory

First, I wanted to know what Allan’s favorite MHKC memory was. He said there were so many to choose from, but one that stands out for him involves rock climbing, and an intrepid camper. It was the first year at Mt. Hood Kiwanis Camp for this camper, and “he was really nervous about trying the rock wall, and even scared about putting on a harness and helmet” Allan said. They started out by just touching the wall, and the camper would shyly touch it and then move back. He continued to slowly warm up to the idea of the rock wall, but still wasn’t ready to climb, even though all of the other campers had taken their turns. Allan asked him, “do you want to come up and touch the wall? Maybe put a foot on it?” The camper put two hands on the wall really slowly, and then, suddenly, as soon as his foot hit the wall he started climbing! He climbed up so fast, and he didn’t even stop for a breath. Before long the camper was at the top of the wall. It was unbelievable. Allan said, “when he got down and we unhooked him he was jumping and pumping his fists and screaming ‘I did it! I did it!’ There wasn’t a dry eye there.” Allan was blown away by the change that happened in just two hours, and how this camper was able to conquer a fear and accomplish something he didn’t even think possible. The camper continued the week feeling proud of his achievement, telling everyone how he speedily climbed the wall—“he was just beaming for the rest of the week” Allan said joyfully, noting that “there’s a lot of things like that that will bring a tear to your eye. Special stuff happens at Mt. Hood Kiwanis Camp.”

Favorite Activities at MHKC

Next I wanted to know what activity seemed to be the most popular with campers. There are so many great activities at MHKC that it is hard to pick one. Allan, who was a ropes facilitator for years, was partial to the ropes course, but he said he thinks the barbecue is actually the favorite activity for everyone. Part of the reason the barbecue is so popular is because the activity involves a skit night. Allan said, “we highlight the campers, and they are the stars of the show.” The campers get to perform for everyone—donors, counselors, parents, other campers, and staff. They sing songs, do comedy routines about staff, and they have a great time being stars for the night. It is special, because for a lot of the campers being the “star of the show” is not something that happens in their day-to-day life. It’s really special when they are the star of the show in front of 200-250 people” Allan said. The barbecue takes place on the last night, which is Thursday night. They also have burgers, hot dogs, baked beans, and all the normal barbecue stuff. They eat outside and a band plays all the classic camp songs. They even have older campers join them; people who have been coming to MHKC for 35 years! If it rains, they have dinner in the main dining hall, then they clear it out and set it up for the rest of the activities.

Fun on Rainy Days

Speaking of the rain, I wondered what happens to all the activities if it rains at MHKC. I know MHKC takes place in summer, but this is still the Pacific Northwest. Allan said that they still have a lot of activities if it is raining. If it is safe and not very wet, they do the activities outside, but when it gets too rainy or thunderclouds roll in, they move indoors. They have art, and games, but one favorite activity is the Adventure Beauty Parlor. For the Adventure Beauty Parlor Allan says they have a “big bin full of nail polish, nail polish remover, make-up, hair ties, and all these other things. We’ll put on music. It usually turns into a dance party talent show and singing contest too.” It is really fun for the campers, because everyone enjoys the nail painting, and the campers realize that it is okay to just have fun with everything. No one is there to judge anyone else, and the campers can just let loose and be silly.

Campers CAN!

Not feeling judged is important for us all, but especially for campers who might not always feel so supported. Along those lines, I asked Allan what he wanted campers to experience while at MHKC, and he said “I want them to feel loved and valued for who they are, to feel cherished for what they can do.” Allan says that a lot of campers tend to hear about what they can’t do, but at MHKC, “we try so hard to make all of our activities accessible for all of our campers.” Sometimes medical conditions will limit activities, but if the campers want to try it, the MHKC team will figure out a way to make it happen. MHKC is really “at the forefront of adventure courses as far as being able to adapt for all sorts of different body types and disabilities” Allan says. They have multiple equipment styles for different activities. For example, they have adaptive saddles for campers that want to ride a horse, but have trouble sitting up. The swimming pool is accessible, and “it is heated up to 85 degrees, so it is therapeutic” Allan notes, allowing for campers who use wheelchairs to “relax and extend their limbs that have been tight for the last couple of days.” MHKC counselors also encourage their campers to give things a try. Counselors gently “push campers outside that comfort zone, and help campers realize how special they are and how amazing the things are that they can do!”

A Respite for Caregivers

When counselors are reminding the campers of what they can do, staff reminds the counselors that they can also do this. Part of the joy of being a counselor is “being able to put yourself in other peoples’ shoes and help campers have an amazing time for one week.” “You forget sometimes what it means not only for the camper to be independent…but also what it means for the parents or caregivers,” Allan says. “It is a week when they might not have to be that primary caregiver, and just knowing that their camper is getting that special attention and getting to have fun and be a kid again, well, it is pretty amazing.” Allan talked about one camper who had tried about five other camps before coming to MHKC, but the camper had never had success at the other camps. On pick-up day, the camper’s mother came over to Allan crying. He was confused, and asked “’is everything alright?’ And she goes, ‘I just can’t thank you guys enough. This is the sixth camp that we tried to take our son to, and this is the only time he’s ever made it through an entire week.’ She hugged me crying, and of course I started crying too.” Allan said.

Camp Connections

Unfortunately, it is just hard for some campers to find places where they can get true and genuine relationships. "At MHKC, that’s what we are built upon—genuine interactions and close connections that allow people to feel comfortable making a life-long friend.” Allan says that he also talks to at least 3-4 campers everyday on the phone who just call to say hi. He talks to some other camper friends on instant messaging and Facebook. He says of his camper friends, “they just want to see how you are doing. They want a friend.” It is terrific that MHKC can provide those connections. After all, it is the connections we have with others that make us so utterly human, and why should people with disabilities be excluded from human connections? I think this goes back to Allan’s wish that MHKC instill in every camper that they are valued and loved for who they are and what they can do. In this, it is easy to understand how Mt. Hood Kiwanis Camp is more than just a camp—it is a life-changing experience for everyone!

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