Last week Independence Day was celebrated across the country. But those of us who have kids or who remember being kids or who are involved with kids in any way know that independence is not something that occurs in a day, but in fits and starts and seasons that ebb and flow across time.
And in the lead-up to this year’s Independence Day, our child was entering into his own independence days.
It started with a declaration, out of the blue, on a car ride after camp one afternoon in late June: “I want to go to Wolf Ridge.”
In the front seat of the car, I narrow my eyes, trying to place to what this non-sequitur from my 9-year-old, seated in his booster seat in the back, relates.
“I’m not sure what you are talking about,“ I proceed carefully.
“I want to go to Wolf Ridge,” he declares again.
We go through a few more rounds of this until we get to something useful: “The Migvan overnight trip. I want to go on the overnight.”
Yes. The optional overnight trip that Camp Olami offers for kids in his age group, “Migvan”. We had discussed it when I signed him up for camp back in February. He had very clearly stated that he did not want to go. No interest. Did not want to leave his bunny and light-up, musical sea horse with which he sleeps every night. This disinterest was no great surprise – he had never even wanted give up these creature comforts to stay at the JCC for the one-night overnights offered for each of the younger groups. And I had let it go without further discussion or advocacy, recognizing that pushing this kid into an overnight he did not want to go on was a recipe for disaster. So where had he picked up the thread of it again?
“Were the kids and counselors talking about the trip at camp?”
Hmmmm. “What made you think about it?”
“The Camp Olami magazine.”
Ahhh….The summer camp brochure from the JCC that he had been looking at recently. “Well, we talked about it when I signed you up for camp and you said you did not want to go. What’s changed?”
“I want to go. I want to go.” Like the responses given by politicians to difficult questions from reporters, this information does not answer the question and has already been covered. I move on to specifics.
“You know, Bunny and Seahorse can’t go on the overnight. They will need to stay home.” This condition has always been a deal breaker for him. But this time it does not throw him off.
“I still want to go.” This response shows the real seriousness behind his interest. He does not lightly agree to leave behind these two life-long companions.
We go through some additional obstacles together:
- Since he’s never actually done an overnight away from family, he will need to successfully need to do an overnight at the JCC. “Yes. I will do it!”
- Without Bunny and Seahorse. “Yes. I will do it!”
- And we have to see if there is space for him at this late date.
And then I think through some of the obstacles of which he is unaware. Because with this kid it’s never quite as simple as just signing him up for something. He is a kid with significant special needs. And anything he does requires extra steps and planning:
- Someone has to explain to him what the trip will involve and what they will do during the 5 days they are away – because I have no idea what he has in his head. This is a nature-centered trip to an environmental learning center. And this is a kid who repeatedly tells us he does not like outdoor things.
- Then, if he somehow remains interested in spite of nature and outdoors, I have to see if the staff thinks it makes any sense.
- And, if the staff thinks it makes sense, we have to discuss whether they can handle and support him adequately on the trip.
- And, if they do and we all decide to let him do it, then documents will need to be written and meetings will need to be had and, and, and.
This is not a small project. But he is truly enthusiastic. And it is all entirely driven by him. It is him striking out and starting to assert his independence in a big way for the first time. No suggestions from anyone else. No coaxing or convincing. No pushing or prodding. It is all him. And that makes all the difference.
I can’t quash this fledgling emergence of independence. If there’s a chance to clear the path to allow him to make this happen, I feel I have to do so. I put the wheels in motion. First stop – the Inclusion Manager at the JCC/Camp Olami who has known this kid for 4 years. “So, out of the blue last night, he declared he wants to go to Wolf Ridge.” I get a reaction of surprise that quickly shifts to figuring this out with me.
She agrees that first, he needs to prove he can handle an overnight at the JCC. There is one scheduled for the group a year younger than his that week which he can attend.
This kid remains committed and enthusiastic. The night before the overnight, he practices sleeping in his sleeping bag at home. With Bunny and Seahorse. But on the floor in the sleeping bag. When I leave him at the overnight the next day, he leaves Bunny behind without any problem. The next morning I go to camp to drop off his lunch and pick up his overnight stuff. He runs up and greets me, shouting “I did it! I did it!” and rushes up for a hug. He is so excited and so proud.
Hurdle number one successfully completed.
Next up, explaining the trip to him and seeing if he is still interested. The inclusion manager handles this one. She tells him about the outdoors and the nature. She tells him that once he is there, he is there. She tells him he will need to participate in the activities. I remind him about the nature and the outdoors. His dad reminds him about the nature and the outdoors. He says he is excited to try new activities. He remains interested and enthusiastic. Every day he asks whether he can go on the trip. The staff, I and my husband continue to wonder whether he has some angle or ulterior motive – he usually does—but he is very convincing.
So, hurdle number two successfully completed.
The next hurdles are mine. I put together my document, outlining his needs so the staff can figure out if they can handle them. And then we meet.
All of the staff – the Inclusion Staff and the Camp Olami Staff are excited about Gabe’s interest and want to make this happen for him. Their
commitment to him and enthusiasm for helping him take this leap into independence is incredible. Taking him on this trip will not be easy – he will need to be given a shot and helped with numerous ADLs (activities of daily living for those not familiar: feeding, bathing, toileting, dressing, etc., etc.). But they are all up for it. And I am beyond grateful because, without them, this kid would not be able to bring these independence days to their culmination.
Hurdles number three and four successfully completed.
I let the inclusion manager tell Gabe. Upon hearing the big news, he runs all around camp to tell each staff member that he is going to Wolf Ridge. He is beyond excited. He is beyond proud of himself.
And on Monday, July 8, he is set and ready to go. He wants to say a blessing for the trip, so we say a shehechianu and the blessing over children that morning. He says goodbye to Seahorse at home. He kisses Bunny goodbye as he gets out of the car. He excitedly greets his camp advocate who is there to support him and the rest of the staff and then bounds excitedly onto the coach minibus that will take him to Wolf Ridge. We wave goodbye. This is his independence day.* One of many to come we hope.
*At least until he arrives at Wolf Ridge and declares that he does not like the nature – insert eyeroll – and misses Bunny and Seahorse and tells his advocate to tell me he wants to come home. Sigh. Independence does come in fits and starts. So, here’s to camp and independence and fits and starts and little kids in all their perplexing glory. Even when their perplexing glory results in your making an eight-hour round-trip drive to camp to fetch your little kid from their foray into that independence.
Just a note: My kids’ independence days were brought to him by his enthusiasm and camp and amazing camp staffers. Camp is a place where many kids first and most clearly test out and assert their independence. Away from parents and family, in a place where they have more freedom than usual to shape the culture. For many kids, this is just a typical part of being a kid, requiring signing up and getting packed and maybe overcoming some homesickness and separation anxiety. For some, it requires a bit more prep, to manage some moderate special needs. And for others, with more significant special needs that involve ADLs and developmental skill delays and behavioral differences, it requires a lot more effort and a staff with more experience and capabilities. My son, husband, and I are deeply, deeply grateful for the funders who support inclusion in our Jewish and greater Twin Cities community and especially the Inclusion Department at the JCC. They support not only fantastic camp inclusion for younger kids, but many activities for kids and adults of all ages.