Church camp is one of our favorite weeks of the year. Rachel’s, mine and Jonathan’s. I’m pretty sure church camp and summer camps are not a favorite for many people, and I’m not just talking about those with diagnosed disabilities.
One year it was not my favorite time. I’ve blogged about it and can’t or won’t bring myself to let go of it. First, Rachel was assigned to a group of girls younger than she was. They were kind but they did not include her. There’s a big difference. They put together a talent act for the talent show and didn’t include her. In a group of six girls, she was the only one they didn’t include. She sat by herself and watched and cheered for them all while wearing her trademark beautiful smile. I’m not sure she realized she was left out but I knew. I cried myself to sleep in the bunk. My eyes fill with tears thinking of it. It felt like I was the only one who noticed. I didn’t say anything because believe it or not, it gets tiring being the one who has to speak up. She is my child and I was left to wonder where are the other adults? So it’s not just IEP wounds or doctor offices. There are “Church Wounds” and “Camp Wounds,” and they leave deep, deep scars too. I know from conversations that church is where the wounds may be the deepest. A mom told me just the other day that they were struggling most at church. Her daughter is in kindergarten. Years ago a mom called to inquire where Rachel went to vacation Bible school. Seems her church said they couldn’t accommodate her daughter who has Down syndrome. They found a new church.
Why am I writing this? Because I hope someone, just one current or future youth minister, youth teacher, camp counselor or parent will read this and “get it.” We are fortunate. Besides the aforementioned experience for the most part Rachel has been included, loved, celebrated and friended. Honestly, she gets more positive attention and has more protectors than the kids who are a little different who do not have Down syndrome. When I say protectors, I don’t mean people who baby here either. People who include her and try to treat her as a friend. People who try to be her mentors. One mom from church said to me the other day “Rachel is one of the popular kids. Mine aren’t.” I knew what she meant because I’ve observed. She then went on to describe not just her pain, but the entire family’s pain as they have been left out. It hurt my heart.
I do find it curious that I look around at a camp of 300 kids from multiple states and see that Rachel is the only child with a disability. I know there are some other kids who you can’t tell by looking but what does that say about us? What does that say about the church and inclusion in 2013? Why is it that many families of children with disabilities do not send their kids to typical church or summer camps? I know that most of our friends with disabilities go to camps just for kids with disabilities. While that is their choice, I know that some of them make this choice because of fear and because they don’t feel included the rest of the year so the thought of their child being at a camp away from them all week is just too much. That is the sad reality. Yes, we’ve come a long way baby but we have a long way to go.
However, there are many kids who do not have a disability who are left out and left to feel like there is something wrong with them. The wounds last for a lifetime. It is in the most innocent things. Like playing basketball or dodge ball. Leaders, when you have a group of kids playing indoor dodge ball, you need to facilitate and model the inclusion of those who are not athletes and who are not the popular kids. I witnessed this very activity a while back and saw a young teenager who was totally ignored by everyone including the adult leaders.
I’ve watched as all the girls climb up on the top bunks to chat. This is great but for the two girls who are afraid of heights and aren’t climbing up on a top bunk. They are left out of the conversation and fun. I watch as the group takes off to the next activity without thinking about the child that has shorter legs and/or walks more slowly. Rachel has to work so hard to stay with everyone else in a group cognitively. Add to that having to work so hard to keep up physically, and she has to get tired. It always makes my heart happy when I see a girl or two stop and wait on her or tell her they’ll walk with her.
Mealtime. Do you wait on the kids who are a little slower? Do you save them a place at your table? Are you watching to be sure the kids you are chaperoning are doing these things? I want to give the biggest kudos to our church kids last year. Rachel’s group would always save her a place and make sure she knew where they were sitting. Did others do this for the other kids though? I’m ashamed to say I’m not sure.
So I’m going to challenge each of you to watch “Just Like You – Down Syndrome.” The Down syndrome is secondary to the lessons you will learn about slowing down, waiting, being kind and respectful and learning how to be a decent human being. Those are lessons we can apply anywhere. I’m gonna challenge anyone reading this to step out of your comfort zone and see how you can help someone feel more included. Let’s make camp, VBS, and youth activities at church Just Like You, too.