Amp Camp: A Love Letter
Well, another year at our home away from home has come and gone. Amp Camp has played an extremely integral part of my adult life, coincidentally, I even owe my track career to these baby birds. I didn’t even know about running legs or Paralympic sport until I worked at camp and entered this weird world of removable body parts. It transformed me in virtually every way possibly- and that is a debt I can never repay.
Amp Camp is a magical place where now over 140 kids with limb loss or limb differences can come and be themselves. For many of our kiddos, they arrive and it’s like for the first time they can finally exhale from holding it all in. They can breathe. They can just be. For the kids, they get to undo their defenses and be who they are as children, NOT as children with special needs. We have kids that range from the sweetest creatures on earth, to some of the most savage animals I’ve seen and in between (but I’m assuming that’s a pretty typical range for most kids aged 10-17). I love watching them grow not only over the course of the week, but for over 7 years now I have been able to watch kids become adults and even a few fellow counselors.
One of my original baby birds; now my colleague in the craziest week of the year was having a serious heart to heart with me in the wee hours of the last night at camp. She said something that really struck a chord with me. Her first year as a camper was my first year as a counselor, so she was just reflecting on 7 years of insane growth and love she’s experienced at camp, including all the different capacities she’s felt were affected. She then said something that kind of threw me; she told me that coming to camp every year actually makes her feel MORE self conscious than self confident.
What. Whoa. Why?
Of course at this time we had three campers come join us and want to be taken to go hang out with the boys in their age group (teenagers REALLY like to “hang out” I’ve noticed)
And the more I think about it the more it makes sense. Amp camp is the place where your leg/s/arm/s are the common denominators. It brings us close to each other in a bond that is extremely intimate, unique and rare. At the same time, we use our leg/s/arm/s in our daily life away from camp as our shield of armor. For one week, the very things we carry around like badges of honor to a “normal” person is no longer our cross to carry alone. We are stripped of our shields and in an almost ironic way, we become “just like everyone else.”
We are exposed to each other in a profound way because we are all “that guy with the leg.” So instead of putting on the face of strength, courage, inspiration, or whatever adjective you’ve ever heard that’s way over used when referring to someone with a disability, we are forced to be ourselves. To see ourselves and be seen.
In a sense, we are lucky because our shields are made up of titanium and mis-shaped body parts. They can literally come off and rest loyally by our sides while we sleep and be ready for our protection in the days to come.
At camp we are forced out of our comfort zones on basically every level. Between shower and sleep negotiations to ropes courses, dancing and Ga-Ga we are pushed to try and do something new. Both kids and adults have to sacrifice our own comfort for the well being of someone else, at least if even for a moment. You change because you have to change. It’s a beautiful thing, really. You learn that “inspiration” isn’t what you imagine. It isn’t this weirdly sympathetic yet somewhat self-indulgent sentiment of watching some struggling soul figure out their capabilities to achieve mediocre level menial tasks. It’s watching someone acknowledge their own initial adverse responses to something outside of them and choosing to overcome that defense and do the right thing. It’s a group of friends who have known each other for YEARS be completely open and welcoming to new people they’ve never known because they know that feeling of being ostracized. An outcast. An other. We all know how much it sucks to be “that guy with the leg,” for the rest of the year so we encourage each other. We know that return to otherness at the end of the week is inevitable.
Something we often forget, is that even though we feel separate from “normal” people- we aren’t. We all experience important emotions that bond us in the human condition.
Fear. Confusion. Anger. Sadness. Loss. Vulnerability. Shame.
Amp Camp makes me think that while the rest of the world sees us as disadvantaged; we have the upper hand (sometimes literally) in this situation. It’s a gift to have something so symbolic that proves to us that we are not our external bodies.
This year has been SO HARD FOR ME. I am experiencing peaks and valleys from all the emotions of just missing the Rio Team Selection, my dad’s affairs and consequentially my parent’s messy divorce. Of course throw in a few big boyfriend drama moments and moving and training and leg stuff; and I’d say I’m still very delicate in my emotional stability but through all of these trials I’ve learned a lot of critical things.
There’s something very elegant and profound in pain and loss, I think that’s called vulnerability. Those uncomfortable emotions that are our most basic and human moments are incredible opportunities to grow- to see yourself and be seen. They are also the emotions that most people try to avoid for the majority of their lives. Which in a sense, is kind of tragic because allowing yourself to feel that range of depth in life is truly a gift that many people don’t experience. It is something we have all felt in the most simple ways in the most complicated of situations. To be able to sit down with them and to understand them is something I am grateful for.
If everyone could take off their shields, like us, what would they see? That we are all just really afraid? That we fear we are not important? That we’re afraid we are always going to be an outsider looking in?
Being in the amputee community is incredible in that once you join, you realize there is absolutely nothing “other” about you. You lose a limb but you’re exactly the same human you’ve always been. Not one gender, race, sexual orientation, or any qualifying feature is more prone to limb loss than anyone else. We accept literally everyone. The only difference between us and others is an instant.
When I started being a counselor at camp, I thought I was giving myself some sort of pat on the back for being a “role model.” I thought I could be their “inspiration” after all I was a popular cheerleader. I could help them find confidence in themselves. But it’s so much more than that.
I needed camp more than ever this year because these kids are the ones who fill my cup. When I felt like the lowest version of myself they changed my perspective. Honestly, these kids don’t know or don’t care that I am a professional athlete and that’s what makes me feel so inspired. As much as I’ve thought I was empowering them in my successes, it was empowering them just to be and see myself. I returned to camp this year feeling like a complete loser. I thought I was a failure and they see me as if I am flourishing each day just being myself. What a novel idea- to see great value in vanilla moments.
Dudes. This camp changes people, for real. It continues to profoundly change me. I am so blessed now to have a first generation I’ve watch grow now be an AMAZINGLY solid group of counselors for the future groups of kids. They are incredibly caring, genuine, giving, loving, encouraging, inspiring and everything in between.
When we drop our suits of armor we discover our strength was indeed there the whole time. Those moments of confusion, hurt, anger, sadness, or loss; you have the strength to be your own comfort because there are so many people who believe in you and see your strength. At camp you learn no one can give that to you, but they can help you discover it in yourself. As we go on, we still very much need other people to help us, remind us and change our perspectives. Even though we have removable parts we are always connected and I praise all that is holy to live in this day and age of social media just for that reason. It warms my heart so much to see my campers interact with each other ALL THE TIME during the year when we are at our homes away from home.
So to my AmpCampFam (including all honorary amputees), my wish for you is to be brave. Even when you’re scared and angry; expose yourself. Find and feel all that stirs inside of you and then be gentle. Treat yourself like you would a best friend. Take care of yourself like a child. Know that you are so incredibly and deeply loved not for what you do or look like, but simply for being. You are incredibly important and what you think, feel and say is valid. If you feel lost know that somewhere in the world there is someone who knows and feels what you feel. Find comfort and strength in yourself and be thankful for experiences that bring you deeper into this world and all of its ups and downs. Let people in and be seen because we are all afraid. The things that make us different are the very things that will bring us together. Go after what you want. Even if it’s one leg at a time.
I love you I love you I love you.