By SARAH FRANCES HARTLEY
A happy child skips down a grassy path hand in hand with a teen-ager who listens intently to the child’s cheerful chatter. Although this child appears to be happy and just like most elementary age children, she has experienced pain. She knows how it feels to be ignored; she knows what it is like to need. However, this grassy path provides for this sparkly eyed girl a haven of happiness. In this refuge she is given love, support, and total undivided attention. This place of love is Camp Opportunity.
Two fellow St. Joseph High School students, Kellie Catina, Julie McGrath and I, Sarah Frances Hartley, recently spent a week volunteering as counselors at Camp Opportunity. During this week 80 underprivileged children came to a camp facility in North Carolina, where each of the campers was paired one-on-one with a teen-age counselor. The counselor and camper spend the week together, canoeing, swimming, making crafts, hiking, and wall climbing. While the children enjoy having fun doing things they have never done before, they are also thriving in an environment that abounds in love. I feel that the greatest thing these children take home at the end of the week is a sense that they are important and that they are loved. They leave confident and empowered all because someone showed complete interest in them and cared enough to love unconditionally.
Camp was filled with many high points, but I think that the highlight, for me, was when a camper came up to me and gave me the tightest hug I have ever had and gave me about five kisses. Most of the time children you have only known for several days do not react to attention in this way, but these children crave love so much and have so much love trapped inside. It is strange to me that the counselor is the designated “giver” of love in the relationship, because it seemed to me that the campers gave twice as much love in return. The campers taught the counselors about genuine, unselfish love. While the counselors totally gave of themselves for the week, these children gave the entirety of their hearts to us in return. It was touching when I received notes on my bed from campers saying I love you.
One note in particular read:
Dear Sarah, You are so sweet, kind, precoius, gental. And you are a good frind and here’s a poem just for you!!! Roses are red Violits blue Candy is sweet And so are you.
Julie McGrath, a senior, said the highlight of her camp experience was when her camper came up to her and said that she loved her. “My little girl came to me and said that if she had to pick anyone to be her counselor next year, it would be me. She said that she would miss me a lot. The fact that she came up to me and said that so sincerely let me know that I made more of an impact on her life than I had ever imagined.”
The campers let you know that you do have an impact on their life. These children have had so many trials in their life, yet they do not hide behind it. They are candid and frank and tell you what is on their mind. Kellie Catina, a junior, said that it was incredibly touching when her camper told her the struggles she encountered in her life. She told Kellie that she had never met her mom. “It was amazing when she said to me, ‘I wish you were my mom.’ At that point I realized how different her life was from mine. She has never known what most children get to do,” said Kellie. Her camper told her that in most of her foster homes they would just watch TV. They didn’t really go out to the park or into nature and see what there was in the world. “All these children have been through so much and had so many different families that they do not really know what is normal. They have had to grow up faster than most kids.”
I am so humbled that I was given the opportunity to help these children. It is good for them to be aware of the fact that there is genuine love in the world and that there are people who care. Even though it is not in our power to change their lives, I think that it is important for them to experience unselfish caring so that they know it exists and so that they know they are valued. Julie agreed with me saying, “It is important to give them love and attention because they have been through a lot of tough situations and need someone who cares to sit down and listen to them. They need a role model because they haven’t really had one in their lives.”
On the last day of camp we all helped our children board the buses bound for their homes. Many tears were shed by counselor and camper alike. As the buses drove away we could see their little faces peering out of the bus windows and tiny little hands frantically waving good-bye. As they disappeared down the road the counselors all stood in the dusty gravel in disbelief. In a week we had all come to love these children. We were part of their lives, and they shared the troubles of their lives with us. It was sad to see them leave and have to go back to negative and sometimes harmful environments; however, we are consoled by the fact that we have put a spark of happiness in these children’s lives. They know what love is and that is what Camp Opportunity is all about. It is a place for children to experience love and for them to realize that there is so much for them out in the world. However, it is also a place where teen-agers learn a lot about others. While the campers are getting to have out-of-the-ordinary experiences and participate in many new things, the counselors learn that not everyone is as fortunate as they.
“We saw situations that we have never come in contact with before. We realized the situations that a number of children are unfortunately brought up in. It is a unique experience for all because we all were exposed to a totally different environment,” said Kellie.
We understand that even though it did not feel like we were changing these children’s lives or doing anything heroic, we did have a huge impact. As counselors we hope that these children will carry the love that we gave them home and implement the confidence they received from it into their lives.
Sarah Frances Hartley is a senior at St. Joseph High School and a parishioner at St. Mary Church in Greenville.