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Donna

“Jesssuuss!”
“That’s right Donna, Jesus!” I heard Stephanie coo as I swung the cabin door open and retreated to my bunk bead. All of my energy had disappeared after helping countless middle-school girls carry their numerous (and excessive) suitcases to their assigned cabins. I threw my limp body onto the torn pink quilt my great aunt Mary made and kicked my feet up to the bottom of the upper bunk. After catching my breath, I came to realize that my cabin had become the shelter for a fairly large group of people that circled around Stephanie and the new camper. An elderly couple held hands and tilted their heads with each of the counselor’s comforting statements. Behind them stood a few middle aged women and the camp director, my boss. I immediately jumped to my feet and joined the gathering.
“Tara! I didn’t even notice you come in!” Stephanie yanked on my sleeve and slid her hand over my shoulder. “This is Tara,” she introduced. “Donna, this is your other counselor. She loves Jesus too!” In front of me stood a short, plump woman with a pink foam visor, high water jeans and worn out shirt that read “Jesus secured myspace in heaven.” The woman giggled and clapped her hands, and it soon became apparent to me that Donna was not normal. My heart plunged and I painted a fake smile on my blushing face. I was good with kids and elders, but the mentally challenged was an area that I preferred not to explore.
Donna turned, wrapped her stubby arms around the elder couple and let out a monotone “byeeee…”. The woman took Donna’s face in her hands and planted a kiss on her forehead.
“Be good for these ladies sweetie,” she waved and said her goodbyes. “We love you!”
Stephanie turned to me and said under her breath “She’s 37….” My eyes expanded and my blood boiled under my skin. Oh my God.
When the last member of the Donna clan had finally exited, the camper turned towards us and shoved her hand in the jean pockets that hung just above her stomach.

“Yayyyy!” Donna shrieked. My nightmare had begun.












* * *


Stephanie later explained to me that she had a cousin who also suffered from Donna’s condition, and as a result had been chosen to be her primary caregiver for the week. However, Stephanie was eighteen and as a senior counselor she was also expected to assume all responsibilities for the other ten thirteen year-olds that were assigned to our cabin. I soon realized that Stephanie would not have the time to wait on Donna hand and foot, and therefore, that became my job.

Donna latched to me. She didn’t just like me, or wave when she saw me around, but she almost literally attached herself to my hip. It started on the night she was dropped off. Stephanie was cleaning up the cabin and asked me to go ahead and take Donna to the dining hall for dinner. I opened the door for her, and said a quick prayer asking God to make the walk short and painless.
I didn’t know what to say to her. I felt abandoned and out of my league. My plan was to stay quiet. She was developmentally slow, and therefore, I assumed, would not realize my intent to completely disregard her presence. I was wrong.

After walking in silence for about thirty seconds, Donna must have sensed the dullness of my company in contrast to Stephanie’s outgoing, bubbly personality. Her solution was holding hands. Donna sneaked her tiny fingers into my palm and spread them like the red sea to make way for the rest of her grip. My body jumped, not expecting this little woman to make such a gesture of friendship. I looked down and searched her face for any sign that might give insight to her motive. She didn’t make eye contact, but continued walking as though nothing had happened. I saw a tiny smirk creep across her mouth and I let out a chuckle. Donna had caught on to my social awkwardness. She speaks my language, I thought. From that moment, we were inseparable.












* * *


The week with Donna was incredibly challenging. She required a lot more out of me as a counselor and as a person than any of my other campers. She needed constant supervision otherwise she might wander off campus. At any sign of a storm, whether it be a roar of thunder, a bolt of lightening or even a dark cloud, Donna would shriek and point at the sky, often sobbing and demanding that we “pray to Jesus for help”. Her eating needed to be monitored otherwise she would try to gobble down the entire buffet. The other counselor’s would often express their jealousy, saying they “wish they had the opportunity” to work with this bundle of joy, tempting me to scream out every obstacle the situation had placed in front of me (at the top of the list, lack of sleep). She needed help applying her sunscreen, picking out her clothes for the next day, and had to be given instructions for taking a shower. Donna could only say a few words, among the most common were “me,” “you,” “boo,” and “Jesus;” the remainder of her dialogue was indicated through hand motions. Swim time was now consumed with Donna-Sitting, as I struggled to keep her entertained for two full hours with no break (because many of the counselors had taken the week off to go on vacation, Stephanie had been assigned a double shift lifeguard duty).

Although the difficulties became ever so apparent through my waning desire and enthusiasm, the other campers in our cabin were old enough to understand my position and work with whatever ounce of counselor I had left in me. We became a family. The other girls loved Donna. They’d buy her grape soda from the snack shop and tell her knock-knock jokes, sending the woman into convulsions of laughter. These acts of kindness never failed to put a smile on my face.

I began to enjoy Donna’s company, and as the end of the week drew near, the thought of a normal day with an average cabin of young girls could send me into a slight depression. Donna required a side of me that I never knew existed and forced me to mature leaps and bounds. I formed a friendship with her. Donna didn’t care about my social awkwardness or my inability to find the right words to say at the right moment. She didn’t care whether I clapped after a good deed or told her to eat her vegetables. She didn’t even mind when I laughed at her failed attempts to play a prank on another camper; in fact, she’d laugh until I decided it wasn’t funny anymore. Donna didn’t judge me, and she loved me for who I was. I didn’t have to be the world’s best counselor- I just had to be me.

When the week came to a close, I dreaded the return of Donna’s parents: the little old couple with white hair and trail of strong perfume. She was overjoyed at the sight of the ones who loved her most. Donna’s real life caregiver began to tear the sheets off her bed as the camper caught up with her family.

“Did you have fun?” The scrawny mother inquired.

“Yes. Youuu..miss youuu,” Donna wined and leaned her head against the lady’s chest.

“I know sweetie.” My heart cried as I watched Donna’s father trace his hand along her back, in whose eyes I could see all the hurt, pain, enjoyment, and love that was their lives- something I had only experienced a segment of.

I hugged Donna and held in my tears as she gave us all her final goodbye’s. She seemed virtually uninterested in the declaration of her departure, which almost hindered the feeling of accomplishment I was anticipating. As the white minivan drove away, I swallowed the lump in my throat and gazed at the empty beds lining our cabin, one standing out in particular. I picked up the broom and began sweeping, preparing to welcome a new set of campers. As feelings of loneliness set in, an overwhelming thought flashed in my mind: I signed up for this.











* * *


The next summer rolled around sooner than expected. I was busy meeting parents and signing forms in my cabin when I caught a glimpse of a familiar body trotting outside my open door. I handed the pile of papers to my assisting counselor.

“Sign these, I’ll be right back,” I instructed and scurried out onto the patches of dirt and ant piles that decorated the ground. Sure enough, I saw a figure sporting a pink visor and high waters making her way to a cabin south of ours.
“Donna!” I skipped over. Beaming, I held open my arms for a hug but hesitated. She looked confused, almost as though she didn’t see me but was staring right through me.
My heart pounded and I pleaded with God to please, please trigger a memory. He shook his head and refused.
Donna didn’t remember.





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