Submitted by Judy Vogel
My husband Terry and I are the parents of Charlie, a 17-year-old young man. He is the joy of our life. He is a loud, happy, very social, curious, busy young man with a great sense of humor. When he was in grade school, my husband mentioned at an IEP meeting, that Charlie is always looking for a party, and the teachers said, “No, Charlie is the party!” There is another side though; he is all encompassing. He must be watched 24 hours a day, and when I say 24 hours, I mean 24.
Back to the beginning of our story. We were married 18 years and living in Kentucky. I was working as a pediatric nurse when I was assigned to Charlie’s case. The short story is at about 20 months, a doctor at the University of Kentucky who saw Charlie for his seizure disorder, said he would never run, he may walk, but that it was doubtful, and that he would have very little language development. I knew better, so we adopted him about a year later. At the time he still had no speech and could not walk. We hit all therapies hard; I quit work as we could see this child, even at two-and-a-half, was going to take everything we had. No one could have prepared us for the life we were about to experience. He didn’t sleep much back then either, he also escaped frequently. He didn’t play like the other children.
In 2011 my husband’s job transferred us to Iowa, and what we found, or didn’t find, in rural Iowa was hard. There were times at the beginning of the first year I thought I should take Charlie and move back. My husband and I came to the conclusion that Charlie needed a family more than he needed therapy, so we muddled through our first school year. Then came summer. I’m ashamed to admit I was filled with dread. What was I to do with this child over the summer? I had a husband that traveled most weeks, I knew very few people, certainly very few that would understand Charlie, and had no family around this area. I can’t remember exactly how I found out about Easter Seals Iowa and Camp Sunnyside, but it is truly by the grace of God that I did.
It was time to fill out the Camp Sunnyside application. It is easy to describe your child until you get to the negative behaviors. How do I tell them you must watch him like a hawk or he will run away when he sees something he’s curious about? Or, that he is always in someone’s space or business. It’s one thing to tell about how he loves to laugh and have fun, and is usually enjoyed by people, but how do I explain the other end of this? He will spit, punch, hit and even kick if he’s upset. The application said it wouldn’t cause him to not be accepted, but they needed to know. I thought to myself, “so much for this” and filled out the application truthfully with apprehension. And then…he was accepted! What? He’s accepted! For the whole summer! Thank you, Lord.
The first day of camp I dropped Charlie off. He was all too happy to be on his new adventure. He was about 11 at the time and thrilled to have a break away from mom, dad and home. I was honestly relieved to have some time away from Charlie. The Camp Sunnyside counselors took him, and assured me he was going to have a great time, and off he went! I got in my car and went to Hy-Vee. I had my phone set on loud so I would hear when they called me to come back and get him saying, “He’s not like other children. He’s too much for us. Maybe you shouldn’t bring him back tomorrow either.” I got my groceries in half the time as usual. Everything that went in the cart wasn’t going back on the floor. I even leisurely looked at the produce instead of just having to grab and run, or worse yet leave a full cart because Charlie wouldn’t cooperate. I checked out, got in my car and called my sister. I remember it like it was yesterday, thinking, “Well, I know my phone is working and it’s been almost an hour and a half. Should I push it and go to Target too?” And I did!
It has been more than eight years since I was able to have that first summer break. When you have a child with a disability, parents aren’t always able to pursue normal relationships or friendships, even with each other. Your child is taking everything you can give him since there isn’t a specific mold they “fit” into. Charlie is a toddler with hormones, or as my husband puts it, “all jet fuel and no rudder.” In our case Charlie is intelligent enough to know he is lonely. It’s heartbreaking to watch other children laugh and play on their way home from school, or in their yards knowing the one thing your precious child wants more than anything is something you can’t give him, friends. Enter Camp Sunnyside!
Back to picking Charlie up on his first day of camp! The counselors told me about Charlie’s exciting day. It was awesome, they were awesome, and they were looking forward to seeing him the next day! And so it went for the rest of the summer. Camp Sunnyside is so wonderful. There aren’t other opportunities for Charlie to be challenged socially, physically and emotionally away from family. He learns and will follow directions from peers and friends in a completely different way than from us. His counselors have cheered him into doing so many things at camp; I was shocked when he tried the zip line! They speak Charlie’s language, encouraging and supporting him with positive affirmation. They find strengths and build on them, and when a weakness or a problem arises, they always teach and encourage better choices and move on without Charlie feeling like a failure. I have watched them successfully pull Charlie out of a tantrum, which I am rarely successful at doing. As a mother, one of my biggest fears is what will happen to my child when I’m not around. I have total peace when I drop him off at Camp Sunnyside.
This isn’t a program where one size fits all. In fact, it’s not a program at all. It’s about people, all kinds of people with all different abilities. I marvel at how every staff member seems to truly want to be there. It’s so obvious it’s not just a job. It’s counselors, office staff, grounds keepers, even Matt the cook! Charlie comes in for his meals, and they aren’t complete until Matt whispers in Charlie’s ear with his prickly beard.
Last year Charlie was able to tell me several camp stories. One involved counselor Olivia. I don’t know who was more thrilled—Olivia, Charlie or me! You see, I’ve tried for years to debrief Charlie’s school days with minimal success. I usually stop short as he gets frustrated with too many questions. Usually after a day at camp Charlie gets in the car, waves goodbye to everyone, then loudly says “no” to me, even before I can ask him if he had fun today.
On one particular day on our way home, I could see his wheels turning. He said, “Frog! AHHH! Olivia!” and laughed. I said, “were you with Olivia today?” Yes! “Did you see a frog?” Yes! “Did a frog surprise you?” Yes! “Was Olivia scared and she screamed?” Yes! More laughter. I texted Olivia when I got home to see if she had any frog surprises lately that made her scream. She texted back, “LOL, that SO makes my day!” She was so excited that Charlie was able to convey that event to me! Charlie’s speech automatically increases when he wants to share about the place we all love. We hear of horesy rides, pool, swim, lake, balls, Matt’s beard, and most importantly his friends. Old friends and new friends, friends that know his Charlie-isms.
Almost every summer morning when we get to the bottom of the hill driving into Camp Sunnyside, Charlie stretches out his arms and says too loudly, “Horses here! Friends here!” Every morning we go over the rules: “Charlie you must check into the rec center.” “Yes.” “You must wait to go with mommy.” Yes. “You must not run to the horses.” Yes! Well by the time we get to the rec center he’s clapping his hands, jumping in his seat, waving out the window to his friends- ready for another day at Camp Sunnyside. My heart fills up. All rules fly out the window and out the door he runs to the horses. We love when we pick Charlie up at the end of the day. He’s usually filthy, exhausted, filled up, and not happy at all to see us! It’s just another glitch in the day-to-day life of Charlie that the counselors cheerfully help us with too!
The bottom line is that Charlie’s world and our life is better because Camp Sunnyside exists.