I dropped my daughter off at camp yesterday, which brought back a rush of memories for me of my own camp experiences. Most memorable for me were the two years during high school where I spent my summers as a camp counselor. The camp I worked at was a small camp still under construction; a lovely piece of property had been donated to the camp foundation, with a house large enough for kitchen and dining hall for around 50, situated on a country lake in rural upstate New York. Volunteers from the churches supporting the camp had built huge platform tents and constructed 2 bath-houses around the lake on the boys and girls sides. It was beautiful, but very rustic (more so than my daughter’s comparably posh-yet-woodsy accommodations) without any electricity outside the main house.
I probably came across several hundred children over my two years of multiple camp sessions, and I honestly don’t remember many individual names. I was “Chief Sarah” and I worked in tandem with “Chief Pam” in our little village of around 12-15 girls. Admittedly, I have a few names I recall just because I had to say them over, and over, and over again trying to keep order. But there is one young person who does stick out in my mind. Her name was Elizabeth.
Elizabeth had never been to the country, let alone the woods. She arrived with long, tangled blonde hair and her clothing…two outfits…in a brown paper shopping bag. The pastor of her church had personally brought her and managed to find money to pay her registration. I learned in the brief interaction at registration that she lived with her grandmother, who was having surgery that week. She had no where else to stay and no one to care for her.
This story occurred long before I was a social worker who might have had really important questions to ask about these arrangements. As it was, I was 16 and I had no idea what to say about this information to those who gave it to me. But one look at Elizabeth told me it was going to be an interesting week for her, and for me. I put her in my tent group.
Elizabeth was sweet, but socially awkward. She had asthma which she’d learned to keep mostly managed and the nurse kept her inhaler in the main house refrigerator. Perhaps not surprisingly, Elizabeth woke each night needing her inhaler. And so, we would walk together in the dark around the lake in the beam of light supplied by my flashlight to get to her medication. All six nights, our shadows could be seen…my arm around her, slowly walking as moonlight gleamed on the lake as she would tell me about her house, her grandmother, her neighborhood, her school, her parents and what had happened to them. They were her stories…and by and large, they were not happy ones.
By day, Elizabeth developed friends, and worked through the tangles in her hair, and mixed and matched her clothes so she appeared to have more outfits than she did. She learned to swim and fish, and became a superior fire builder which earned her a position of honor on our wilderness camp out. Every night, she would profess to be OK before bed, but every night she would wake in need of her inhaler and ask me to walk with her to the main house to get it. Or maybe, as I learned one night when we arrived and she forgot why we had set off on this walk in the first place, she needed the moonlit walk along the still lake beside a listening ear.
I couldn’t fix Elizabeth’s life situations, but I couldn’t shake her story either. I didn’t come from a family with lots of money or possessions. But, we had health and stability. I became aware during our lake walks of what comparable comfort I had in my own life. College was a reality I was heading toward, and I never had a lack of clothing or food or caregivers. Even amid the teenage angst I had about a lot of other things, I became aware of and grateful for what I had in my life. It seemed unfair to me that others didn’t have access to the same opportunities, or hadn’t been told how to access opportunities that may actually be available to them. Later, I would go to college and give up a more lucrative path in science to study social work. I would learn about the concepts of “privilege” and “empathy” and consider these through the lens of my midnight walks with a young girl who had so very, very little but gave me so very, very much to think about. Wealth is not only measured in dollars and cents.
I knew with certainty, somewhere that during that week of lake water and moonlight, that I would be OK and so would Elizabeth. As the week went on, her own stories became less about the ways she saw herself as different and more about the people who loved and cared for her, about those she missed and looked forward to seeing again. She would go back to her daily life knowing she had mastered some survival skills….learned to care for herself, built a fire, learned to fish, learned to swim. And I had learned how to walk beside and listen. How not to fix, because I couldn’t. But instead, how to be present and build strengths and question how to change the systems that led to these challenging life situations. Our walks together revealed that I had faith in her, and she had trust in me. That is a powerful combination.
It has remained true across my life and career that wealth and money don’t go hand in hand. There is a richness in the human spirit, and a call to something larger than we are that binds us together in the human condition, and as people of God. It is not OK for me to be comfortable while others lack. But I can’t fix all the poverty, all the injustice, or all the oppressive systems either. I have learned that I can walk beside others as dignified equals, and use the positions I have to build strengths, and raise questions, and bring awareness to injustice and privilege. I have refined my professional knowledge over the years so I can do that more effectively. I am grateful for the positions of leadership I have…and will continue to have…that allow me to affect change.
But, at some level, I am still walking with my arm around a young person, sharing a beam of light as we walk together around a lake. And for that, I am grateful.
(This post was inspired by Week 4, What Owns Us, in the “Who is My Neighbor” series at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church.)