I was just a kid so I didn’t know what was wrong with my Sunday School teacher, really—only that she was sick, in a wheelchair and morphing from a young, vibrant mom into a woman who was greying and increasingly immobile and incredibly sad. The grownups talked about Sister Nadia in hushed tones, especially on the special Sundays, when her husband dropped off her daughters at church to spend the day with their mom. I was nosy and I loved Sister Nadia, and so I would eventually find out what was going on: disabled from a neuromuscular illness, she was living in a nursing home, away from her man, her babies. The only time she could see her girls was at service, early Sunday morning. Love with limits—that ain’t living.
Not going to lie: Sister Nadia was on my mind last week when I made an hour-long trek to a rural town east of Atlanta to visit the Georgia MDA Summer Camp, run by the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA). There, nearly 100 children between ages six and 17 with limited muscle strength and mobility were wrapping up a week of activities.
But where I was prepared for sadness, there was only light and laughter and children living out loud, without limits. There were wheelchairs, yes, and some kids who were unable to move on their own, too, and still others who got tired easily and needed help walking and some who had to wear leg braces. But the barriers—they were gone. Gone.
Instead, there was pure joy.
That’s a smile that was put there, in part, by MDA, which hosts nearly 75 weeklong summer camps across the country, offered at no charge to families. The camps are designed specifically to give thousands of kids with muscular dystrophy and related muscle-debilitating diseases “the best week of the year,” in an environment where they get life-changing experiences, build self-confidence and independence and make lasting friendships with kids who just, like, get it.
I was invited along with a group of dynamic bloggers to experience the energy of the camp and, let me tell you, within moments of entering the serene camp grounds, the magic was palpable. Colorful signs dotting trees encouraged passersby to enjoy the moment, believe in magic, and accept that not every day would be perfect, but there is goodness in every day.
The real fun was in the grand dining hall, where all the campers were assembled for breakfast. It was there that each cabin group was enjoying the most important meal of the day, sure, but also revving up for a day full of fun. Most adorable: the morning shout-outs, extended from one camper to the other. One was congratulated for catching a fish; yet another for going down the water slide 20 times; yet another still for being a “cutie patootie.” We should all wake up to this kind of encouragement!
I had the fortune of being paired with Cabin 5, an adorable gaggle of girlpies, ages six to 11. One, with the most fantastically intricate cornrows pulled into a bun atop her moonpie head, marched right up to me and asked, “Do you work for Nickelodeon?” What I wanted to say: “I wish, kid.” What I did say: “No, I’m a writer.” Turns out my camera, a Nikon, made her a tad curious about why I was hanging around. That didn’t stop her from getting on with the show: she was about to ride shotgun in a morning canoe ride down a gorgeous lake, where the sun was bouncing off the tranquil waters. Each camper was paired with her own counselor, who was responsible for assisting their young charges in each activity, plus attending to their needs—bathroom breaks, medical treatments, assistance with activities, lots of encouragement and an incredible amount of insistence that the girls do as much as possible on their own. For sure, the girls met that challenge, disappearing down the lake, their canoes zig-zagging across the water, their giggles kissing the air. No girl, by the way, was left behind: a special apparatus at the end of the dock held the canoes secure so that even the girls who were physically immobile could slide from their wheelchairs onto a special seat that safely slid them into and out of the canoes without so much as a splash of water.
My group was full of personality, and that shone through when the girls made their way to John Allmett Studio, where they were tasked with formatting their own radio show, lending their special talents to running said show and, of course, picking deejay names. By the time they finished, the Cabin 5 Show was cued up for prank calls, jokes, gossip, weather, news about the evenings big dance, commercials about Skinny Pop popcorn, interviews, sing-alongs and Justin Bieber music, of course. The show, on a legit radio station that could be heard across several towns outside the campground, was broadcast live in the courtyard for fellow campers to hear while they participated in activities of their own. Later, after a medicine and Skittles break, the girls headed over to archery to try their hands at shooting arrows at bullseye targets and apples. Though the bows felt like they required a bit of super-human strength to pull—typical of the instrument—none of the girls was deterred from getting her Katniss Everdeen on. With just a little help—and a few arrows flying into the bushes—the arrows mostly met their mark. Kinda.
The girls were adorable, but what was equally heartwarming was the love and tenderness extended by the counselors, an assortment of students, like Lauryn, a rising high school senior who thought it would be fun to work at a summer camp, and Shan, a first-year med student who wanted to tuck the experience of working with special needs kids into her skill set, and Kayla, a nurse who’d begun working at the MDA Summer Camp when she was a young nursing student. The counselors, all there as volunteers (but whose stay was covered by the MDA), consistently told me that they came back to the camp year after year, forgoing vacation and paychecks to do so, because the experience was like no other. “There’s joy here,” one counselor, a firefighter from Atlanta, told me as he helped prepare campers for pool time. “For a week, these kids are having the time of their lives, being independent and doing things they don’t get to do at home. And here, no one is looking at them or asking awkward questions. Everyone gets to be exactly who they are.”
And more. My favorite time at camp was poolside—not just because it was the coolest place on the campground in such hot weather, but also because it was there where small miracles were taking place. I hadn’t a clue, but I found out rather quickly that campers loved the water most because, in many cases, no matter their physical disability, once in the water, they feel strong. One little girl who spends the majority of her waking day in a wheelchair, can get into the pool and “walk” as if her muscles and legs and feet are fully functioning. Another first-time camper, told me she wanted to come to camp “to get a break from my parents.” At home, she’s under a constant microscope, but at MDA Summer Camp, she’s encouraged to soar past limitations that, back home can sometimes hold her back. Especially in the pool. “When I get in, I feel free.”
I’m so happy to have been given the opportunity to witness this amazing camp, and especially to have spent time with this incredible group of kids. I’m so proud of them, and proud of MDA, too, for making it its mission to give individuals—and the families who love them—strength, independence and the support to live longer and grow stronger. In addition to supporting research breakthroughs across diseases to accelerate treatments and cures, MDA takes special care to champion families with services and support across America. One of its many goals is to send 20,000 kids to camp by the year 2020.
Talk about living unlimited!
Do me a solid: help me support MDA by visiting www://www.mda.org/LiveUnlimited to create a personalized image you can share to social media that shows you reaching beyond your limits. We’re calling it your #LiveUnlimited moment. Whether your #LiveUnlimited moment is crossing the street independently, graduating from college, getting married, skydiving or traveling the world, join MDA to share. For every #LiveUnlimited moment shared through July 31, 2016, a generous partner will donate $5 to MDA, up to $30,000.
This post was sponsored by the Muscular Dystrophy Association. All experiences and opinions are my own.
Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.