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My Summer of Service This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

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     When friends and family heard what I was planning, they wondered if I had gone crazy. I admit it was sort of humorous because although I live in the country, I am not a country girl at heart. I prefer shopping to gardening and surfing online to camping in the woods. Yet here I was, on a plane to work at a youth ranch in New Mexico.

While I may seem "prissy" to some, I am not shallow. I wanted to give back to society and discovered Eagle's Wings Youth Ranch, a nonprofit camp near Albuquerque. Founded in 1998, it provides a free week of camp to youth dealing with poverty, divorce, physical and sexual abuse, homelessness, illness, death, and drug or alcohol abuse in their family. I agreed to serve as a camp staffer for kids ages nine to 13, five days a week for eight weeks. My main responsibility was to lead recreation with miniature horses and carts. Yes, horses.

More than anything, I was excited. I had the opportunity to impact these kids' lives. I could help them have fun and be kids. Still, I couldn't help feeling nervous. What if they didn't listen to me? What if I was inept in leading the horse carts? What if we found no common ground and couldn't relate?

By the end of the first week, I felt completely at ease. Each child listened obediently and enjoyed the recreation I led. Everyone was able to drive the cart themselves; "steering" the horse was a great accomplishment. Interestingly, my fashion sense even came in handy as I taught them to French braid the horses' manes and tails. Even the boys had a blast.

These kids, many moody or disinterested, took a vacation from their troubled lives. More than that, they were shown the affection everyone craves. This camp was their haven, and each child truly blossomed in our care.

Some of the transformations were greater than others. For example, the first week of camp I met Alex*. The day he arrived, his brother informed us that he never spoke. The large scars and burn marks on his arms said a great deal, though. During the week, I was able to talk to him and let him know I cared. His last day, he grunted in response to my questions and even hugged me good-bye. He had the biggest smile on his face and his brother said he'd ever seen Alex so engaged.

The following week, Brittany* really touched me. She'd grown up with an alcoholic father who had recently been thrown in jail for domestic abuse. She was often responsible for taking care of her younger brothers but the week of camp, she was able to just be a kid. Brittany opened up, becoming more outgoing and expressive, even making friends.

Harrison* was probably the most troubled child we saw all summer. His teacher, when recommending him for the program, said that he had a severe inability to deal with anger and was constantly targeted by bullies. As soon as I met Harrison, it was clear that he'd never been shown kindness, affection or patience. His temper would unexpectedly fly out of control. At one point, he had a disagreement and began to run. I followed to make sure he didn't leave the ranch. He threatened to walk home, saying, "Albuquerque is just over that mountain." Eventually, he sat down with me. Worried I would hit him, or yell, I had to assure him that I would do nothing of the sort. Instead, I simply let him talk. After going home, Harrison's mother commented how differently he reacted to others and how much gentler he had become.

The campers were not the only ones who changed. I grew to appreciate my caring family. Completely humbled, I became more patient, too. My eyes were also opened to the different situations people live in. Giving of myself to show them love was the most amazing part of my service. According to playwright Jean Anouilh, "Love is, above all, the gift of oneself."

*Names have been changed

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.






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