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My Happy Camper
She was a beautiful girl. Shoulder-length, sandy colored hair and large brown eyes filled with a knowledge rare in most nine year olds. She had the most adorable little gap between her two front teeth. When she smiled, she lit up the room around her in a way that made you smile too. She was the most sociable little girl I had ever met.
It was just after the opening ceremony. Families, staff members and campers still remained in the campus chapel, becoming informed on what a week of sleep-away camp entailed. Each pair of us counselors, one head and one co, stood in a loose line along the edge of the basketball court by cabin number. I was the co for Cabin 4. We waited anxiously for the streams of nine year old girls to come bursting out the suddenly fragile looking chapel double-doors. A few more nerve-racking moments passed before the ceremony wrap-up music began; only to be drowned out by the shrieks and giggles only little girls could produce.
She was talking before she was in listening distance. She was barely able to get her name out between sentences so my head and I could mark her off as 'here'. I smiled at her, pleased by her enthusiasm. She immediately grabbed my hand as our group headed in the direction of the cabins. The short walk, usually marred by the usual awkwardness of just-introduced campers and counselors was surprisingly comfortable with her chatter. I can't say I remember what she told me, but I can certainly recall the way she spoke. With such animation, such feeling; I could sense her eagerness for camp spreading like a pep talk to the rest of the less anticipatory girls. I was surprised by her exuberance. Most girls would begin to feel homesick, or at least fearful at the idea of being without the familiar for an entire week. Not her. I soon discovered why.
That night was the all-camp bonfire. Log benches wrapped circles around the simply fashioned fire pit; a hole in the dirt ground outlined by stone grey rocks. We silently took our seats, not wanting to disrupt the oddly peaceful scene. She sat next to me, still holding my hand. This was testimony night, one of the most powerful times you experienced at Christian youth camp. One counselor stood and introduced herself after only a moment of silence. She began to tell her life story to this group of young girls, all strangers to her. I remember feeling a slight awe for her courage. The only sounds that could be heard were her voice and the crackles from the fire popping in the night sky. As her story reached its climatic point, the moment she began describing her mothers' cancerous death, light sniffles filled in more of the empty sound. I was surprised to hear one of those signs of tears coming from right beside me. I looked down as she looked up and met my gaze.
"My dad died." Suddenly, she dissolved. This sweet, beautiful girl was now as sad as she was once excited. Tears ran streams down her cheeks and she hugged me, burying her face in my side. Shock, hurt and understanding all came crashing down on me at once. Suddenly, I was crying too. Comforting her and crying with her. It was a level of emotion I'd never before experienced.
I never heard the end of the one counselors' testimony. She and I left the peaceful little circle as soon as we could. We sat on the porch of our cabin, and I listened to her. She sat there, crying and talking almost in circles. She spoke in a fragmented way, with no timeline or sense of when one story ended and the next began. I could only manage pull a few key points out of her stories.
She and her four sisters lived in foster care. They heard from their mother maybe once a week, if they were lucky. They had no idea why they were in foster care while their mother was still alive. They had never gotten a straight answer from her. Their father had died only a few months before camp. The way she described his death made me wonder if he had been murdered. Also, at one point, their house had burned down and left them with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Her social worker had paid for them to come to camp that week, in -what I suspected to be- a plot to get them out of the way for a while.
I sat on that porch with her after knowing her for only a few hours and listened silently. She told me everything, things that made sense and things that didn't; memories she had that made me want to lay down and cry for a week. She talked late into the night and early into the morning. I was finally able to get her to sleep.
That night, or morning, I sat in the counselor room. I sat there, on my knees, shock frozen onto my face. No wonder.... No wonder she had been so excited for camp. No wonder she hadn't been homesick or fearful. She had been dying for attention, for the love she didn't receive from the people who cared for her. She would've given anything to leave her home, to get away from it all. I was suddenly aware that I was crying. So many emotions had coursed through me in that one night, I couldn't name them all. I remember two of the strongest: shock and anger.
I was undeniably, absolutely, completely shocked. That girl should've been the most depressing girl in the entire world. She should've been a complainer, a troublemaker or just dead-pan. She was the opposite of everything she should've been considering all that she had been through. How could she possibly be as happy as she was?
Anger followed. Furious anger at myself. How dare I? How dare I ever complain about anything? I will never, in my lifetime, face an ounce of the pain that she already has experienced in nine short years. How could I possibly deserve a happy family, a beautiful house, a stable environment when she had nothing?
I wish I could tell you her name. Due to her circumstances, I probably shouldn't. I wish I could tell you, so that you could think about her; pray for her as often as I do. And I wish I could tell you, so that every time you heard it, you would realize how much you have to be grateful for.
It was Saturday morning. Closing ceremony had just wrapped up, and she was the last to be picked up. Parents and grandparents stood all around us in groups, claiming their precious girls. My heart almost broke as an unfamiliar woman drove up in an unfamiliar car and formally introduced herself to me and my happy camper as the chauffeur for her and her sisters. My campers' smile didn't waver as she began to animatedly describe how much fun her week had been. The woman smiled at the little girl politely, in a nice but detached way.
I gave her one last hug and slipped her a paper with my cell phone number on it. She fervently promised to call. Then, she was gone.
It's been months. I don't know if I'll see my precious camper again, but I still think about her all the time. I remember that paper and her promise. Every night before I go to sleep, I stare up at the ceiling and pray. For my family, my friends, and my happy camper.
"Please, God. One day, let her call."