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Because we have a child with Down syndrome, school breaks
often present a challenge for our family. Looking for activities and camps for
our son requires extra steps, extra scrutiny and invariably, extra costs.
son is now 9 years old, and this year we decided to enroll him in the YMCA
camp because he takes swim lessons at the Y and is involved with other sports
there. The local Y has provided a nice community for us.
We hoped that the small size of the camp and the staff's
familiarity with our family would make it an easy and comfortable place for him. (I've found over the years that many organizations don't assimilate
children who are different well. The willingness and ability to incorporate
children who aren't typical into a program is not something you notice if
you're not looking for it. In my family, this issue takes priority.)
But the first day at camp, our son learned that 9-year-old
children aren't necessarily willing to make adjustments for him. While he is
enthusiastic and very much a team player, it takes him a little more time to
catch on. He also has a speech delay, which means that listeners must be
On the third day of camp, my worst nightmare was realized. My son
called me to explain that he'd spent a half-day at camp and the rest of the day
with his Lala (grandma). I asked him to put his father on the phone, who
explained that he'd called the camp because of a bad feeling he'd had.
Tears started to fall from my eyes as I listened to my son's father explain that he wasn't taking him back to camp.
staff told him that our son was crying and having a hard time. His dad went to
the camp to see what was going on, and when he arrived our son told him one of
the boys had called him retarded and wouldn't include him in the games. Hearing
these words I was reminded of the occasion when, as a teenager, I'd been cruel
to a child who had cerebral palsy. Tears started to fall from my eyes as I
listened to my son's father explain that he wasn't taking him back to camp, and
that his grandmother had agreed to keep him for the remaining days.
When we hung up the phone, I felt so much fear about my son's
future. It's been my job to help him learn to communicate and to assure him we
are here to support him. For an instant, I wanted to hurt that kid, but immediately
I remembered being that kid, over 30 years ago. I remembered the boy I
teased on the school bus for no good reason other than just being mean and
ignorant. I recalled how wrong I was for telling jokes about him and speaking
unkindly to him, and I knew that the little boy at camp wasn't aware of the
impact he was having on my son. I cried for the teen I was, the boy I
teased, my son, and the boy who teased him. I cried for hours until there were
no more tears.
The next morning when I woke up I realized that some part of
me had been waiting for the day when my son would encounter a kid like the kid
I was—a kid who can't make space for children who are different, a kid who
isn't compassionate or uses humor inappropriately at the expense of those who
can't defend themselves.
I couldn't help but feel that the universe was giving
me a chance to see how impactful we are, even when we are not thinking about
it. I wonder if the kid on my bus told his mother about being teased by me, and
if she cried or told him to ignore those mean kids.
After checking in with my
son and learning that he was OK, I told him I loved him and that he never
needs to worry about feeling unsafe and alone again. I think we've finally
learned that camps designed for children with special needs will best serve our
needs from here on out. And although I've long known that what goes around
always comes back around, the truth of that concept has become painfully