Two weeks ago from today was my fifth time volunteering at Royal Family Kids. For those of you who don’t know, it is a camp for abused and neglected foster children where we give them the ‘royal treatment’ and give them the best experiences they’ve probably had in their whole lifetime. After the first time volunteering, I was deeply moved by the experience and vowed to keep going every year as long as this particular camp keeps coming back.
After the second week there, I had pretty much assumed that I could predict how hard every time at camp would be. The camper I was assigned to for three of those trips was very introverted, quiet, and easy to work with. After he ‘graduated’ last year (meaning he grew too old to go), I was assigned a new camper. One who was the polar opposite of the previous camper. Day in and day out at camp, he tested my patience and exhausted me both physically and emotionally in ways I’ve never been tested or exhausted at RFK before. He was a very good kid but a rebellious one too. I sat with him and listened as he explained his emotional pain, the kind that no child deserves to carry.
There was one evening when we were walking back to our cabin and my camper was already upset. He was feeling guilt that he didn’t deserve to have. He blamed himself for the far too many times he had been taken from one home and put into another, and he desperately missed his biological mother. He sat on the steps in front of the cabin, telling me to go away and that he didn’t want me there. Since the rules didn’t allow me to leave him alone and since I didn’t want to leave him to begin with, I sat on one of the steps behind him, telling him that I can’t leave him because he’s important to me.
“I’m important to you?!” My camper responded. It sounded like he was having a hard time believing me, and given his history, it made sense. That week was the time I had to show him as much as possible that people can stick by him no matter what and are.
After almost a whole week of being accepted and then rejected by him over and over again and struggling with his rebellion as he tested my perseverance with him, he came up to me on the last morning, told me he loved me, and said that he didn’t want to leave the camp. Later when he wrote something on a rock he was meant to throw into the campground lake as a symbol of leaving something behind, I couldn’t read what he wrote, so I asked him. It was set like a dramatic scene from a movie. Without looking up at me, after a short pause, his answer was:
Right then and there, I saw a child weary, sad, and heartbroken from the crap the world has dealt him. Right then and there, I was heartbroken myself, because this young child with a winning smile, wide-eyed enthusiasm, and the desire to sing used that word to describe himself and how he was feeling. That day was the day I cried harder than I’ve ever cried in my life, and I honestly thought I had cried as hard as I could before that.
When we all returned from the campground for the children’s guardians to pick them up, the children were all getting on a stage to sing a few of the songs they learned at camp. My camper didn’t want to go up and sing with them, as he was already feeling very down on himself for losing so much of his voice while at camp. I told him he should do it, but he kept turning down the offer, so I left him alone. A few minutes later however, he asked me if I really wanted him to go up and I told him I would love it if he does. He let that be enough, and he joined the rest of the kids to sing the songs.
Parting with him when his guardians came to pick him up was one of the hardest moments of my life. I knew that I was going to see him again eventually, but having to part ways in that moment was still heartbreaking and challenging. When he hugged me before leaving, he didn’t let go for a while. I told him I’ll see him again and he said ‘okay’, and it was clear in his tone that he was sad to go, but was willing to trust me when I said that to him.
So many of these moments I just mentioned felt like scenes out of a dramatic movie, so I wondered how I would be able to tell these stories to my friends without them thinking I was lying. Even after all that though, even though I’m still recovering from that week and probably will be for a while, and even though that was easily the hardest and most challenging week I’ve ever had at RFK, I cannot wait to apply again for next year.