April 18, 2017
I was about 13 years old when a good friend recommended becoming a counselor at Camp ReCreation, an annual summer camp that builds relationships between teenagers (the camp counselors) and people with special needs (the campers).
At that time, I knew little about working with people with special needs, but I figured there would be cute girl counselors there and it was a chance to be away from my parents for once. I was homeschooled, can you blame me? So, I decided to go.
Despite my immature reasoning, the Lord in His providence made this to be one of the best decisions of my life, and I have continued to go to camp almost every summer since. I wasn’t wrong about the cute girl counselors and I even fell in love the very first week, but not with any of them. No, I fell in love with those who struggled to walk, those who needed assistance eating, and those who depended on caregivers during every moment of the day.
Camp ReCreation is divided into two separate, four-day sessions scheduled during the first two full weeks of June. Camp first began at Assumption Abbey in Richardton over 40 years ago, but has since been moved to Richardton-Taylor High School. During each week of Camp, activities include: a bonfire, water-fight, dances, talent show, sing-a-longs, art projects, religion classes, and an assortment of games, bowling, BBQ, magic show, and many other activities. From the moment the campers arrive each year until the closing Mass, it softens even the hardest of hearts to see how the campers enter with great joy and uncontained enthusiasm into the activities of camp. But, while camp has a fun and lively atmosphere, there are also powerful moments of faith.
At camp this past summer, a young man with Down syndrome begged me to stay by his bedside for a few minutes before he went to sleep. I was tired after several days of camp and was anxious to get going.
“But, I have some questions…about Jesus,” he said as I attempted to leave.
I am a seminarian. How could I say no to this?
So, he asked questions; I played the role of teacher and did my best to answer his questions as simply as possible.
After a few minutes on this topic, I began to realize in astonishment how much this young man truly loved Jesus and longed to know more about Him.
As our conversation continued, his eyes began to fill with tears. Eventually he asked in a sad voice, “But, why did Jesus have to die on the cross? Why were the soldiers so cruel?”
It was at that moment that I realized that I was no longer the teacher, but the student in the conversation. From all my studies as a seminarian, I could say many intellectual things about Jesus and the cross, but have I ever been moved to tears at the thought of it? Not really. And, here was a young man who loved Jesus with a love so tender that I could not help but to learn from him.
Such are the experiences of many who give their time at Camp ReCreation. Throughout the years, teenagers have come to camp with noble intentions of serving and giving of themselves in love. But, as camp ends each year, one can always hear them saying things among themselves such as, “we wanted to be loving towards people with special needs, but they are the ones who have showed us how to love” and “the campers are so joyful and carefree, they have taught us how to really be ourselves and not worry so much about what others think of us.”
My friends, when you meet a person with special needs, that is, when you spend time getting to know them, when you listen to them, pray with them, joke with them, cry, dance, play games and sing with them, a fire begins to build within you. It’s a fire that warms you with joy, scorches away your selfishness, consumes your pride, and so purifies your heart that nothing remains in you but a burning love for each daughter and son of God the Father. In that moment, your whole interior being cries in uncontained joy, “I am fully alive! This is how living was meant to be!”
Praise God for the gift of Camp ReCreation and for all the fruits it has produced through the years. Because of their experiences at camp, many of my counselor friends have gone on to find other ways to serve and to give their lives away in love. For me, camp has been a significant part of my call to go to seminary.
If you or someone you know is looking for an opportunity to serve Christ in the most joyful and carefree, I encourage you to consider involving yourself in Camp ReCreation.
Paul Gardner is currently a diocesan seminarian studying Pre-Theology II in Denver at St. John Vianney Seminary. He grew up in the New England area attending St. Mary’s Church.