Thursday, October 24, 2013

Camp Goodwill

Laura Hand, - June 28, 2011

I sometimes forget that when I was a kid, I went to summer sleepover camp. It was Camp Goodwill, in Chittenango, New York. I'm going to take a guess that this was in the summers of 1978 and 1979. The article above is from 2011. All the other links I found were to either defunct pages, or simple business directory pages with name and address only, no reviews or descriptions. I suspect that Camp Goodwill is now closed for good.

Camp Goodwill was a summer camp exclusively for kids with disabilities. I probably could have attended a "mainstream" camp and had a good experience, but the experience I did have was very good. My first year started with a week-long bout of homesickness that still makes me cringe in embarrassment, but I settled in eventually and I really looked forward to and loved my whole two week session the next summer.

One of the things that stays with me to this day is the camp’s contrasts in tone. There was definitely a difference between how the management spoke to us and how the counselors did. The management acted as you might expect of people running a place called "Camp Goodwill”, with a mixture of generic condescension, hippy platitudes, and vaguely evangelical Christianity. The counselors on the other hand …

The counselors were the bomb, the absolute tits.

First of all, several of them were British. Maybe there was some sort of program where college-age Brits and Europeans got summer jobs being counselors at US camps. Anyway, they were all great people, at least in my experience and of the kids I made friends with. Second, and I sort of think this was related, they were fun in totally harmless, but decidedly transgressive ways. They mock ridiculed and made fun of us constantly, not as people with disabilities … though our particular impairments could be fair game … but as individual people with unique personalities.

They swore like sailors, or maybe like football hooligans. They taught us all sorts of dirty drinking songs, one or two of which I can still remember but I will not attempt to prove it here. I have a very clear memory of laughing hysterically when one of the other campers asked a senior counselor why we had to play Wiffle Ball, and he replied, in a completely deadpan voice, "Because it's fun in the sun". Imagine the voice of comedian Steven Wright.

More significantly, Camp Goodwill was the first time I met people around my age with a wide variety of disabilities. It’s when I first started to realize that while a quadriplegic or someone with cognitive impairments seemed very different from me, we were all there together for a reason, or for similar reasons anyway. It's when I started thinking I might be part of an "Us", rather than standing to the side and looking curiously at "Them".

I did stare though, in frank wonderment of a few of my fellow campers. I especially remember the kid with no legs whose preferred mode of travel was sitting on a skateboard and pushing himself with the backs of his somewhat deformed hands. It worked for him, though I remember how calloused the back of his hands were all the time. I’m amazed nobody thought to give him gloves. He was something to see, but I did get to know him more as a person. Turns out he was a bit of an asshole, and that taught me something, too. He probably thought the same of me.

I also made one really solid friend, and we hung out all the time, probably because we had similar disabilities … I think he had Cerebral Palsy, but we both were "walkies" ... and compatible senses of humor. We were in the same cabin both years, and kept in touch with a few letters in between, mainly to make sure we would connect and get adjacent cots the next year. We knew we’d get along, and neither of us were all that ambitious about forging new friendships once we’d found ones we were comfortable with.

Above all, I discovered that people with disabilities ... and the topic of disability itself ... could be funny. As in, not depressing, not heartwarming, not boring, but funny in the best sense.​

I’d love to hear from other people with disabilities who went to disabled kids’ summer camps in their youth. Was your experience good, bad, or indifferent? Would you recommend "disability-only" summer camps to kids with disabilities today?

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