Kid’s Camp is another week long LYQ (Lutheran Youth of Queensland) camp that I led on over a month ago, but I still think about it. I think about it because of one kid. For confidentiality purposes, we will say his name was Michael. Michael made my camp.
Michael was in year three and was in my duty group. Duty groups are pre-organized small groups to make mealtimes and transitions smoother. The leaders had to show up a day earlier than the campers for an afternoon of planning and organizing. During this time, we found out who was in our duty group, and if we had any special needs kids, special diets, etc. I discovered that Michael was in my group, and he had Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). He also had an older brother with ASD and ADHD. The mom wrote about the boys’ behavior and the issues we might face on camp. She wrote that Michael’s older brother might beat up on him and try to boss him around at camp. She wrote that Mike might be closed off and have a hard time expressing how he was feeling or what he needed.
The first day the boys got to camp, they showed up a little late. I waited to greet them, give them their name tags, and then took them into the hall and sat at the back with them. Immediately after that first session was lunch. The boys went and found seats on their own. When lunch was almost finished, Mike came over and asked me, “Could I go sit in the dorm and set up my bed? Its really loud in here.” I said, “Sorry Michael, you can’t go into the dorm by yourself, but I can sit out on the deck with you if you’d like.” He said yes, so we went outside and chatted. He told me about how he likes to work on motors and engines with his grandparents, and proceeded to tell me how a motor worked. I told him if it ever got too loud and uncomfortable for him at anytime during camp, he was welcome to find me and I was happy to find a better space with him.
After lunch, there was a big group session in the hall, and we were playing games in our duty groups. Mike said he didn’t want to play and sat on the side. I went sat by him. I could tell he was feeling on edge and anxious. I assumed it was caused by being in the loud hall with all the other kids. All of the sporting equipment and crafting supplies were sitting in the corner, so I got out some tennis balls and tried teaching him how to juggle. His mood instantly changed and became very focused/engaged on juggling. We used the tennis balls a few more times throughout the week when we were in the hall.
After almost every meal time and during big group sessions in the hall, I was sitting outside with Michael or in the back of the hall or off to the side playing with tennis balls. He told me about how he liked to climb trees, and how he knew he wasn’t allowed to climb the tree on the deck, but then did it anyway. I calmly talked to him about how it was a unsafe, how the other kids would see him and think it was okay to climb the tree, and if the directors or site manager saw him, they wouldn’t be very happy. He finally came down from the tree.
Another time spent with Mike, we were outside playing ping pong (which is another alternate activity we did during the sitting in the hall time). I was asking him if he had made any friends at camp yet. He said, “Not really anyone except you.” I told him a kid in our duty group seemed to like hanging out with him. He said, “I’m just different from these kids. They like video games and movies and I like being in nature and working on car engines. I have ASD. I just think differently from the other kids.” I was pretty amazed by his self awareness.
Mike would act out sometimes with the other leaders, in the big group times, or around his brother. He would refuse to do something he was told or do the opposite. I knew it was because he was feeling anxious and restricted at those times. This happened a few times at the beginning of the week, but by the end of the week he was feeling very comfortable at camp. I knew the goal of Kids Camp was not to conform Michael to the scheduled activities, but to make it enjoyable for him because it was HIS camp.
A few times Mike told me he wished he could have a choice in an alternate activity because he just was not interested in sitting in the hall. I told him about LYQ Summer Camps, and how those might be more his style because everyday there are multiple electives happening at once that the kids are free to choose from.
There were a few incidences with Mike’s brother where they both got into some trouble. Once at dinner, Mike’s brother told him to tell another boy something inappropriate. The other boy got mad and almost came over and punched the brother. Michael was holding the other boy back so he wouldn’t hurt his brother. I saw this unfold and broke it up. Afterwards, Michael and I went outside and debriefed the situation. He knew all of the things he did wrong and wished he wouldn’t have done them. He is a smart and aware kid. The only times he misbehaved is when he was feeling anxious or when he was with his brother. I think a lot of Michael’s anxiety comes from his relationship with his brother. Michael cares about his brother a lot, and I think it is tough on him when that care isn’t reciprocated by his brother. His brother really beats up on him quite a bit, so it was good to give them space from each other during camp.
Another incident happened at the end of camp. We were in the hall doing a big closing camp session. I finally talked Mike into sitting in the back with me. The 6th graders were asked to go in the middle of the circle so we could bless them, since they would be too old for Kid’s Camp next year. We all put our hands on them during the blessing, and Mike was very excited to put his hands on his brother. During the prayer, Mike’s brother was pinching him and pulling his hair. When I glanced up at them, I noticed this was happening and signalled to Michael to come next to me. He came over by me and then, as soon as the prayer was over, he ran under the chairs in the back of the room. I went to the back and squatted down next to him. He looked up at me with tears coming down his face and said, “WHAT?!” I said, “They are blessing the rest of the campers in the circle now. Can I sit here and pray for you?” He nodded. I sat with my arm around his shoulders while he cried and I prayed.
My last few moments with Mike were approaching. I knew saying goodbye was going to be really tough for me because we spent so much time together, and I would miss him a lot. I didn’t know if it would be tough for him. Throughout camp, Mike and I built up mutual respect for each other. We were truly friends, so when it came to those times when I asked him to do something (or stop doing something inappropriate) he listened. When you actually care about someone, you are much more likely to listen to them because you don’t want to disappoint your friend.
When Michael’s mom arrived, he gathered all of his things and started moving them towards the car. I was following behind. He stopped about half way to the car, dropped his stuff down, turned around, ran over, and gave me the biggest hug ever. It made my heart so happy.
After camp, I still think about Michael. I wonder how he is doing, how he is learning at school, how his relationship with his brother is going, and if he ever thinks about camp. A few weeks after camp, LYQ emailed me asking to write about Michael’s behavior on camp because his mom is applying for disability support, and it would help with the application. It was a privilege to be able to share my time spent with Michael on camp and reflect on it again. LYQ passed on my story with Michael’s mom, and she responded with: “Michael made the comment that the lady who looked after him ‘got him’ like no one ever did before. That was awesome to hear from a 9yo who hasn’t had the courage to go to a camp or stay anywhere without family.”
I share this story, not only because it was a memorable part of my experience as a YAGM, but because these types of stories happen during every single LYQ camp. These week-long camps provide children with the comfort, love, and support to help them feel safe, gain confidence, and grow as individuals. It has been amazing to watch God work through the leaders and directors to impact the lives of these kids who come on camp.