Wisdom from Camp and Winnie the Pooh
Over the summer, I broke every self-care rule in the book. I slept very little, ate a terrible diet, and once worked a full eight-hour day when I had a cold and an ear infection. I expelled a ridiculous amount of emotional and physical labor and didn't expect anything in return. I returned home so drained that I became sick and dizzy and thought I had another ear infection. In short, I had the best summer of my life.
I served with AmeriCorps as a programming assistant at a camp for people with disabilities in Wisconsin. AmeriCorps is a national service organization that provides volunteers with a small living stipend throughout their term of service and then an educational grant at the end. The job description can be summed up in three words: "duties as assigned." I did everything from attending to campers' personal care, to leading programs, to cleaning up sewage when the female dorm flooded. I spent most of my days wandering around camp asking people "Would you like any help?"
The camp served campers (ages six to one hundred and six) with a wide variety of disabilities. My idea of diversity has been flipped on its head. Diversity is usually framed in terms of race, religion, and LGBTQ status. Although our campers exemplified these differences as well, it was mostly their unique behavior that made them "diverse." There was a little boy who was so obsessed with fire extinguishers that we had to hide them all or he would set them off. I spent one week following a completely nonverbal camper around the basketball court as he dribbled incessantly. And then there was the occasion in which an adult camper decided that the best way to put cheese on her baked potato was to use tongs to grab cheese from the salad bar, walk it all the way back to the table, and drop it onto her potato. We already had cheese in a bowl on the table, but cheese did end up on the potato, so I can't really argue with her method.
The campers arrived at noon on Sundays and left at around two on Fridays. During those six days, we worked essentially nonstop. We started work at seven every morning and didn't get off until nine or ten every night. And all of the staff had to do overnight duty two or three nights per week. I would compare it to having ten weeks of back-to-back finals, but it didn't feel that way. Rather than being up late writing a paper, I was up late with campers who couldn't sleep. Instead of being distracted during meals because I had a psychology exam I needed to study for, I was interrupted as I ate by campers who needed help or by counselors who needed help so that they could eat. I spent almost every waking moment doing something for someone else.
At Oberlin, no matter how hard I am working, I am doing it mostly for myself. I sit here writing this blog post to increase my online presence and to practice my writing skills. But last summer I wasn't my own first priority. In fact, I made a list of whom I was prioritizing, and I wasn't even in the top five.
I loved it. I loved it because the campers made me laugh so hard that I couldn't breathe. I loved it because I worked with an amazing group of people who became my temporary family. I loved it because I had to live moment by moment. I loved it because I became a horizon.
During training, they explained to us the best way to handle difficult situations with campers through a simple metaphor. Campers were always on physical and/or emotional ships. Occasionally, storms happen, and their ships get knocked around. Our job as counselors was to not get on the boat with the camper. Instead, we had to be the steady horizon. We had to be the person they could look at and know that we would always be stable, no matter how bad the weather got.
I've never been an emotionally stable person. Most of my friends would describe me as extremely neurotic, at best. I'm the stereotypical, erratic writer whose friends often double as parents. When my housemates were jokingly assigning family roles to everyone, my friend's cat was the anxious teenaged boy, but I was the puppy. I'm loving and loyal, but also prone to socially inhibited behavior, being the default comic relief, and hiding under the couch during thunderstorms. (The couch thing is a metaphor, but you get my point.) I'm the person you don't want around during an emergency.
Yet, over the summer, I pulled it off. I was by no means the best at handling behaviors (I was firmly below average), but I wasn't the worst. One week, we had a camper who had an OCD diagnosis and persistently repeated her counselor's name over and over again. If you engaged her in conversation, her obsessiveness would escalate until she was screaming at the top of her lungs. She did this every night before bed, and the only way to prevent a sure-fire screaming match was to sit beside her on her bed and completely ignore her. Every night for a week, I sat next to her and ignored her until she lay down and fell asleep. I was her horizon.
At Oberlin, people often say that if you're not taking care of yourself, you can't take care of others. This simply isn't true. No matter how exhausted you are, you will wake up at 2am if a camper needs you to. No matter how hungry you are, you will let your camper eat first. It doesn't matter if you're about to fall off your ship, you can still be someone else's horizon. I'm by no means against self-care, but I am against underestimating your own resilience.
One of my fellow counselors wore a bracelet with a quote from a Winnie the Pooh movie. It guided my summer, and I hope it can serve as a piece of wisdom to all of you stressed-out first-years: "You're braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think."