The Painted Turtle Camp is a refuge for children with serious illnesses. Worries are eased by meeting the individual medical and emotional needs of each camper, so that they can all “raise a little hell” and enjoy camp to the fullest. I was fortunate enough through STEP to spend a week this summer as a volunteer cabin councilor.
This experience showed me that everyone is fighting a battle of their own. I learned how strong and resilient people can be, especially children. Many of the young women in my cabin stepped out of their comfort zone just to come to camp; They had to leave their families and their normal medical staff, and put their trust in strangers to care for them. Beyond that even, this group of girls are at the age where peer validation seems to mean so much. They were brave and vulnerable and let each other see their true selves, even though there was a possibility of social rejection. My cabin grew immensely during the week, all while battling their medical issues and challenges in their home lives.
The relationships at The Painted Turtle had the greatest impact on me during the week. Since coming to Ohio State, I’ve realized that one of my favorite ways to challenge myself is to try something new where I don’t know anyone else. I seem to grow the most in these situations because there is no safety net. This experience at TPT was one of these challenges time 10: I didn’t know anyone, I was across the country from my friends and family, and I really had no clue what I was getting myself into. I think these situations open me up to the full understanding and beauty of interpersonal relationships because it gives me the opportunity to start from scratch and watch the relationship build in real-time. The first few relationships I built during this week started in baggage claim at LAX. I was waiting to be picked up and transported to the campgrounds, alone, in one of the largest airports in the country. I was nervous I was in the wrong location and that I wasn’t going to make it to where I needed to be. After what seemed like 30 minutes (but was honestly closer to 3), I saw another woman with a Delta Zeta t-shirt on. Delta Zeta’s national service project is The Painted Turtle, so I knew I found a fellow volunteer. We continued to wait together and gradually picked other TPT volunteers out of the crowd. In the grand scheme of things, I didn’t spend much time with this initial group of volunteers, but whenever I was them on the campgrounds I knew I had someone close by that I could count on.
As camp officially started, the relationships continued to multiply. My fellow cabin councilors were some of the most down-to-earth, selfless and welcoming people I have ever met. One of my co-councilors in particular had the most comforting presence. At times I would get overwhelmed because most volunteers had worked at TPT before and knew exactly what to do. I, on the other hand, was completely clueless. I didn’t know what to expect most of the time, and for me that is one of my biggest stressors. I was put into a leadership role when I felt like I was the one who needed guidance. This co-councilor of mine had been there all summer, and it was obvious she felt completely comfortable in her role, yet she always made everyone feel like her equal. She always respected our thoughts and made sure that our opinions were recognized by the group. The most amazing part, though, was that her actions were completely natural. I don’t think she even recognized the impact she had, it was second nature. Her leadership style was incredible influential to me when it came to my interactions with our campers.
The relationships i built with the campers definitely had the biggest impact on me. As I mentioned before, TPT placed me in a leadership role I didn’t quite feel qualified for. I think this effected me most when surrounded by other volunteers because it was obvious they felt more comfortable than I was is the same role. When the campers showed up, I felt much more natural in my role. I was initially shocked, however, to find out most campers were returners. I thought to myself, “How am I supposed to be their leader when they know more about camp than I do?” I quickly realized, though, that my role wasn’t focused on being in charge and directing these young women, but to be a good role model: to be reliable, show them they are free to be themselves, make them feel comfortable, and most important help them connect with one another. During the week, being in the position of councilor and observing the campers, I started to realize just how much these girls had on their plates. Most of them were started new schools the week after camp ended, some of them had challenges in their home lives, and they all had the knowledge of their illness constantly weighing on them. Putting the cherry on top, they all were making such strong bonds with each other and knew that they were going to be separated in just a few days. None of this, however, kept them from trying new experiences (i.e. the high ropes course) or from enjoying the time they did have together. Not a moment of camp was wasted. Their bravery will impact me forever. I could feel the strength of their bond from outside…or at least I thought I was outside looking in.
On the last night, I had ‘Night Duty’ and had to sleep in the campers’ room. I walked in to see they were all still up, past their bedtime, whispering and huddled around a single flashlight. I didn’t want to disturb the as I knew it was their last few hours together, so I quietly climbed into my bed. As soon as I laid down, ready to fall asleep, I heard a very quiet and airy “Jeanette.” Confused, I sat up to see the girls holding up their hands in the shape of a heart. “We love you,” they whisper-yelled. That is a moment I never want to forget. All of camp I wasn’t sure how much of an impact I truly had on these girls lives, and I’m still not completely sure, but one thing I do know is that they all left their heart-shaped hand prints all over my heart forever.
This experience was significant and valuable in so many ways. Ways I recognized immediately, and ways I’m discovering with each passing day. One way I recognized right away was my growth as a leader. During this experience, I occasionally felt like I wasn’t doing my job because I wasn’t interacting with the campers non-stop. I brought this up to some of the other councilors and they shared similar feelings. This is when I knew that sometimes being a leader is more about guiding others to create their own experiences and learn by action than it is about making sure they always follow the ‘right path’. The biggest lesson I learned, though, is that that everyone I meet has a lesson to teach me. I learned how to be brave through vulnerability from the campers, how to be silly from the entertainment team, how to appreciate the environment around me from Randy, how to be creative and spontaneous from Kylie, and how to trust my gut from myself. I know this experience will shape who I am in my everyday life: personal, academic and professional. Currently, as I make decisions about what program to pursue in graduate school, I keep this experience in mind. It was incredible challenging, but even more rewarding. So, how can I keep on this path and create more transformational experiences in the upcoming years?