Sunday, July 15, 2007

Summer Camp Transformations!!!

We arrived back home last night after a wonderful week of church summer camp at La Foret, the United Church of Christ's awesome facility located in the Black Forest area of Colorado Springs. Matthew and Kenny went, and I was allowed to attend as Kenny's adult "companion" to assist as needed and work with him individually. We left last Sunday and were there for one week.

Prior to going, I flip flopped a number of times about whether Kenny should go or not. On one hand, I realized that most experienced adoptive parents of older kids would consider it insanity to involve their child in such an activity so soon after arriving in their new home...after all we have only been home with Kenny 4 weeks! On the other hand, if Kenny was capable of doing so and would enjoy it, I figured it might be worth a try and the worst thing that could happen is I would be proven to be the idiot so many probably already think I am and would leave and return home. Thanks to the Christian missionaries who had already so blessed his life and led to his adoption, he already had an understanding of the concepts of God, prayer and Christ, and I thought there is no time like the present to begin to nurture that in a more personal way for him. Soooooo after a long phone conversation with the Director of the camp...wisely or not, off we went!!

Matthew attended La Foret last year for the first time as a soon-to-be second grader and already knew the ropes. I made a promise to him that I would try hard not to be "mommy" during camp, that he would stay in a different cabin and could completely ignore my presence as I was only there to help Kenny.

I was to drive over a total of 5 kids, Matthew and Kenny, and 3 others from our church. Everyone spent the night at our house the night before so we could get an early start for the long 5 hour drive ahead of us. At 6:00 AM we were up and in the car and on our way to the Air Force Academy which is quite near the camp. My biggest surprise was how much the kids all enjoyed it, even the three girls who were with us! After a picnic lunch on the grounds we toured the gift shop and museum area, visited the beautiful chapel and then saw the cadets marching in formation. It was a memorable afternoon for all of us, and I so enjoyed all the kids I was with...the girls are all very close to our family and I love them dearly, so it was great fun to spend the time with all of them.

On to La Foret...and Kenny and I were graciously offered a cabin of our own so that any "meltdowns" and disciplining could be done in private. Our cabin was right across from Matthew's cabin so we were able to visit all the time and were not at all left feeling like outsiders while still having a place to go to mellow out if needed. In fact, Susan, one of the Counselors, went out of her way to make a velcro icon schedule packet that we used daily to explain to Kenny what was going on each day in pictures. We spent the next 6 days doing crafts, swimming, singing, going on hikes and walking labrynths, taking blindfolded trust walks, etc. It was AWESOME!! Along the way I was able to sit back and observe Matthew and Kenny both, along with all the other kids, and the transformation in that short 6 days was nothing short of astonishing.

Upon arrival the first day, Teddy, the Director, allowed me to say a few words to explain to the other 22 kids in this age group where Kenny was from and why he could not understand them or speak English. In our group there was another little guy adopted from Guatemala as a toddler along with Matthew and another domestic adoptee with special needs.

Day 1 and Day 2 Kenny spent on the fringes of the group. We had to go back to the cabin a couple of times to reinforce that he was to act like a Big Boy, not a Baby Boy, and that if he didn't want to participate fully in an activity he would have to go back to the cabin and take a nap :-) Uh...yea...not what he wanted so he finally got the idea that he would either become involved and follow along or spend the next week on his bunk. He tended to hang back, to revert to very childish behavior at times with arm flapping, dancing, singing out loud when bored, etc. This was NOT all the time, but at times when he had decided he wanted to disrupt things a bit to get attention. I realize from this description this almost sounds like autistic behavior but believe me it is nothing like that at is simply to gain attention when things aren't going his way! The kids were not at all mean or exclusive, he just wasn't at a place yet where he could join in so he was mostly left on his own after a couple of attempts by a few of the kids to communicate and involve him. While it bothers any mother to see their child as the outside in a group of their peers, it was totally understandable.

The night of Day 2 brought about a change though. We were in the cabin with Matthew's half of the group and out of the blue Kenny makes a cool origami frog. Suddenly, every kid in the cabin wanted to make paper frogs and Kenny showed each of them patiently how to do so...and the ice was broken. He was part of the group then, and I noticed two or three of the kids going out of their way to pat him on the back and say "Cool, Kenny!". He then went on to show them all how to make a beautiful origami bird and they all "Ooohed" and "Ahhhed", and you could almost see his chest puff up a bit. I too was as surprised as the other children, and it reminded me there is so much I don't know about my oldest son, so many hidden talents waiting to be discovered. From that moment on things changed for Kenny at camp. His frogs became part of a play about Moses performed by the older kids, and the other children realized that just because he was a bit different and couldn't communicate well with them, he was bright and kind and that was all that seemed to matter.

The next day was really amazing. Kenny matured a bit and tended not to revert to the more childish antics as often. We had a 2 mile hike in the heat and he didn't complain at all until the end. Later in the day while gathered inside one of the lodge rooms he started goofing around with a couple of the other girls, pretending to direct them while singing and it morphed into an act for the talent show on Friday afternoon with "Kenny and the Aspenettes" (the Aspenettes are named after the cabin they all were in) and he stood up in front of the entire group importantly "directing" his girls in songs that had been learned at camp. It was a great way for him to be included without needing language, and he was followed around by his little groupies for 2 days as they practiced their act. While he still showed no real interest in any of the outdoor sporting activities such as basketball or tennis which all the kids were playing during free time, he didn't seem disturbed by it at all and instead elected one day to spend his free time cleaning up the sporting equipment shed.

We had an evening chapel service with the entire camp which included grade and middle school aged children as well as a few adults, and it was a moving, magical evening spent in the company of enthusiastic, bright, loving kids who all have special gifts and talents. The singing and accompanying guitars provided the background music while children of all ages shouted out one at a time their "thank you's" for various things in their lives. As I sat there watching not only my children, but the glowing faces of other children whom I had come to know over the past few days, I felt hope for the future, hope for what our world might become in spite of the naysayers and doomsdayers. And I felt so blessed to be there at that very moment with 2 of my 3 sons, watching the changes taking place in each of them over the days, weeks and months of their lives. That alone is an incredible gift from God...the gift of witnessing changing life. As we all sang "Our God is an Awesome God" it was hard not to agree...

So Kenny had a very successful time away at camp, one that brought about new language skills, new experiences, and new friends. Matthew showed remarkable maturity in keeping "Mom" separate from the camp experience, in understanding that I was not there at all for him but for Kenny and for not taking advantage of my presence. In fact, he ignored me quite easily! Hahahaha! But interestingly, when I asked him on the way home which year he enjoyed the most, mainly to ellicit a response about Kenny's presence and if it was embarassing to him or not when he acted up, he said that this year was better than last year because I was there and even though he knew he was supposed to pretend I wasn't around he felt good knowing I was there anyway. For my son who keeps his emotions quite close to the vest, this was high praise indeed.

While I came home quite exhausted and in need of a rest, I too felt transformed by the experience. I had reinforced for myself that I should trust my instincts more often, that even though others might not do what I elect to do, that does not mean I am wrong for my family...I do know my own children better than anyone else whether it is a question of adopting out of birth order and artificially "twinning" my kids, or having our newly adopted son attend camp. That doesn't mean I won't sometimes make errors in judgment, but more often than not if I listen to God's leading and plan for our lives I will make the right decisions, even if they are questioned by others. Secondly, I came away from the experience feeling closer than ever to my God, being with children has a way of doing that for us all, and being with children in a nature setting is that much more moving. I saw how quickly a "family" atmosphere is naturally created when a group of people of any age is thrust together for a certain length of bonds are created with people you might never connect with in another setting.

I also finally flushed down the toilet the laughter and derision I once oozed over the "It takes a village..." concept, as I saw firsthand how valuable the input from others is for our children, how they can take away lessons from others that I don't have the specific life experience to teach them. We can't do it all on our own, nor does God want us to. He wants us to build bridges to one another and then to cross those bridges to learn all about what is on the other side. That does not mean we abdicate responsibility for our children's upbringing to others, but that we need to reach out to others to help fill in the gaps and lift us up when needed. I was offered warm words of encouragement all week from three fine ladies who didn't think I was nuts to have taken on this challenge. I was witness to their kindness, their patience, and their wisdom when working with Kenny, Matthew and all the other kids.

My first summer camp was one I will never, ever forget, and neither will my children.

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