Wednesday, September 07, 2005

A Week In the Woods

The t-shirts read, “Birch Camp: It’s more than just a week in the woods.” The t-shirts are right. Last week, I spent a week in Putnam Valley, NY volunteering at Birch Camp – a camp for families and kids with HIV/AIDS. I spent my time there as a Sports Counselor and I stayed in a cabin with the 7-10 year-old boys. That means that during the day, I played sports with all of the different age groups and at night I helped wrangle the 7-10 year-old boys and get them into bed. No small task.

We had eight boys in our cabin and they were all rambunctious – some more than others. Rarely did we get them to bed “on time.” Mostly we were just satisfied with getting them into their beds doing something other than shouting or fighting.

During the daylight hours, my job as Sports Counselor was to try to make the kids as tired as possible while also showing them a good time. Therefore, we spent a lot of time playing soccer (with an oversized ball – about 3 feet in diameter), ultimate Frisbee and a game unique to Birch Camp called Ga-Ga. Most of the kids really enjoy these games, but what they really look forward to is the waterslide that we set up for the last two days of camp. We roll out a 25-30 foot plastic tarp, wet it down and coat it with baby shampoo then we dunk the kids in a very cold, very large bucket of water and send them down the hill. They love it – and so do the counselors. Everyone gets wet and muddy because everyone always ends up sliding past the end of the slide and creating a big mud pit at the bottom.

There are myriad other activities such as arts and crafts, fishing, boating, swimming, etc. Also, there are plenty of campfires and goofy camp songs just like at any summer camp. However, none of these things is what makes Birch Camp great. It’s the people, the freedom, the hugs and the emotion that make Birch Camp the kind of place that can change your life.

The families that come to Birch Camp are all from New York City – most often some of the worst parts of New York City. Birch Camp gives these families a chance to forget about their problems at home and just escape for a week of fun in the woods with a bunch of strangers that will soon become some of their closest friends.

You spend every day getting to know some wonderful kids and parents and as the week passes by you share touching moments and many, many hugs. It’s amazing how quickly you become attached to the kids and how quickly they become attached to you. The end of the week culminates in an event called “Reflections” where each age group gets to do a little skit about their week at camp. The parents always go last and usually sing/hum a song in the background while they each take turns talking about how much they love their children. Within seconds, the entire room is in tears. This final “skit” slowly becomes a big love fest with children and parents and counselors exchanging hugs and thank yous for a great week at camp. You’ll even see the toughest of kids with tears in their eyes giving people hugs who they’ve given nothing but gruff all week.

In the end, you walk away from camp with a profound sadness because you miss the kids you were so close to all week, but you can’t help but feel spiritually refreshed and filled with hope because you spent an entire week seeing some of the best of humanity.

I can’t do Birch Camp justice with my words. It has to be experienced to be understood.

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