By: Dan Butler
Our 31-year old autistic son has been a camper at Camp HASC for 24 summers. Some years ago, fresh from her most recent master’s in special education, my wife took a break from her doctoral program to serve on Camp HASC’s educational administration. So I got the opportunity to spend weekends at Camp HASC–an opportunity few outsiders have.
I was given a glimpse into a world that only exists in Parksville, New York, for seven weeks every summer. Not to minimize how much I enjoyed the beautiful sunshine, blue skies, mountains, forests, fields, flowers, babbling brooks, and the occasional sun shower, the most incredible things I saw were the things that the people of Camp HASC did for each other.
To me, it was almost confusing that in a place with hundreds of disabled children, where I expected unhappiness, even depression, I found happiness and optimism–every single day.
Every day at Camp HASC–on the playgrounds, at the pool, in the dining room, in the classrooms, in the bunks–there are fleeting moments that would bring you up short, if you were there to see them. They would make you catch your breath in your throat. They would bring a tear to your eye. And you would never be the same. If only you were there to see them.
That summer, I was lucky. I was there. What follows is some of what I saw.
With her husband sick, and with a multiply handicapped child, she had a full plate. But when her husband died, her plate shattered, and the strain of caring for a child with so many problems became more than she could handle. When she heard about Camp HASC, she was hesitant, but she needed a break. Her son, Dov, couldn’t walk, talk, or feed himself, but his Camp HASC counselors, one brand-new and one a three-year “veteran,” seemed not to comprehend limitations. It was their idea, and one by one they enlisted the cooperation of teachers, the camp doctor, fellow counselors, and a range of therapists.
When his mother arrived on the last day of camp to pick him up (the camp bus was going to Brooklyn and they lived outside the city), she was met in the office by the counselor. They had met on the first day of camp and on visiting day. But as she looked at him, she saw something new, something different.
It was his eyes. They seemed much bigger and brighter than she had remembered. Like somebody who had just been laughing. Or who was just about to cry. Without a word, he handed her the videotape. “What’s this?” she asked. He said, “Take it. It’s a gift from us. It’s of Dov.” When he turned, she began to follow him. And then he stopped, turned around, and looked her right in the eye. “It’s of Dov’s first step.” She looked at him quizzically, almost angrily, as if to say, “What do you mean? Don’t you know my Dov can never walk?”
It wasn’t her fault. One of the therapists said later that Dov’s IEP, the Individualized Educational Plan which every school is required to tailor to every special child, didn’t even discuss the possibility of his walking. Nobody ever expected him to walk.
As if in a trance, she followed the counselor out of the office and up the hill toward Dov’s bunk. Suddenly she saw them, and stopped short, as if frozen. A small knot of counselors was heading her way, slowly, from the general direction of Dov’s bunk, and as the knot of counselors got closer to her, the counselors fell back and she saw him there. Struggling . . . struggling mightily . . . and with such a tremendous grin on his face, with his eye on his mother who was rooted to the spot, slowly spreading her arms, beckoning ever so slightly, with tears running down her cheeks. And there, in the warm August sunshine of Camp HASC, surrounded by the people who had spent all summer working toward this moment, slowly and unsteadily walked a little 9-year-old boy named Dov, who wasn’t ever supposed to walk. Except that it was his good fortune to have two counselors who could not comprehend limitations.
Did any mother of a “normal” child ever appreciate her child’s first step more than Dov’s mother did that day as her 9-year-old seemed to float toward her on a river of counselors while struggling for each step? Did any mother more fully appreciate the squeal of delight that came from her child as he reached out toward her with legs trembling, shaking, and unsteady? Amazingly, most of the counselors and campers not actually participating in Dov’s little parade at the moment didn’t even notice what was going on. They were caught up in miracles of their own.