A Phoenix Burning

Willingly and With Love

Little did I know when I crossed this threshold way back in June of 1989 just how substantially my life would be changed.  My friends, my perspective on life, my relationship with my family, my Self…all took a very different path once I entered these grounds, “and that has made all the difference.”

My parents were against my decision to work at this camp for developmentally disabled adults from the moment I mentioned an interest.  First of all, I was 18 and it was a “live-in” camp…they weren’t thrilled with the idea that I would not be under their roof for an entire summer.  Secondly, my boyfriend (who they were not particularly fond of at the time) would also be there—reason enough right there to keep me home.  Thirdly, I would be living with and working with “those people.”  They knew I was drawn to the field of Special Education, and yet I don’t think the reality of what I would be doing struck them until that summer.  They could not envision their 101 pound daughter working with adults who needed an enormous amount of supervision and care, lifting, feeding, and changing.  The fact that some of these individuals could be violent did not warm them to the idea, no matter how much training I would receive.  I fought tooth and nail to work there that summer of 1989, yet acquiesced (yeah, more like lost that battle.)  It didn’t occur to me back then that I was 18 and could do as I pleased, and I wouldn’t have disobeyed or disappointed them even if it did.  I wound up working as a bank teller that summer instead, visiting the camp every spare second I had, becoming a glorified volunteer (AKA “Zan’s girlfriend”) and vowed after my very first visit that nothing and no one would stop me from working there in 1990. 

My stubborn streak paid off, and I passed under this sign with my bags packed and Zan by my side in my little blue Ford Escort in June of 1990.  Visiting could not prepare me for the experience of living and working there, and the next few years brought me back again and again…I logged four summers, Zan logged eight, our last summer spent there as a newly married couple.  It was a total immersion experience–it was a reality TV show asking to be made.  Back then we didn’t have cell phones, or internet access…we were secluded and isolated, the only contact with the outside world on our infrequent nights out at the hick bar up the road, or a rare day-off excursion out into the big world beyond the camp gates.  Most counselors came from far away, so going home wasn’t an option…I could have gone home, but didn’t.  This place was home.  We became an extremely close knit unit…We were mostly college kids, filled with passion, energy, and a good strong dose of stupidity and recklessness.  We loved the job and we loved each other, and we formed bonds that were overwhelming in strength.  It is no surprise that many counselors later married fellow counselors.  We had to depend on each other for emotional (and at times, physical) survival, and had the strong self assurance  that if we could do that job, we could do anything. 

We worked at Camp Wilton back in the days when institutions were still in use in the state.  Most of our campers came from institutional settings and it was their vacation time—one week (or two) out of the year that allowed them to escape the confines of the white walls and routine.  Our job was to see to it that they had a good time and were well cared for during their stay.  We lived in cabins with our campers, and were responsible for them 24 hours a day.  We had day and evening activities including arts and crafts, music and drama, and recreation & pool time everyday.  We wrote morning and evening cheers, ate State issue food, were dirty and smelly and damp and hot and grungy, and we liked it.  We bonded with our campers more closely in one week than many caretakers do in a year.  It is the hardest job I’ve ever done, and it is without a doubt the most loved.

Many of our dearest friends are Camp Alumni, but others we have lost touch with through the years.  No doubt the most positive result of my entrance into the world of Facebook has been the ability to reconnect with some past Camp Wilton Alumni that we had lost touch with through the years.  We had dinner with some friends we hadn’t seen in several years, and enjoyed reminiscing about the fun times, hard times, loves and losses from our Camp days.  This prompted a walk through our old haunt later that weekend.

I share with you a photo tour of Camp Wilton.  The grounds are empty this time of year,  and yet the same old feelings come rushing back when I step on the grounds and the memories come floating back.  Everywhere I look is a vision from the past…some good, some bad, but all very powerful.  I can only hope Camp Wilton is still there when my children turn eighteen, because rather than forbidding them to go, I will be pushing them out the door, encouraging them to go and have the experience of a lifetime.

This is male Cabin 1A and 1B…this is the first cabin you see when you enter the grounds.

The dining hall…I can’t tell you how many pounds of pink potato salad I ate in this building.   Why was it pink?  No one knows!  My best advice to new counselors is to make friends with the kitchen staff—it’s the only way you’ll get Freihoffer’s cupcakes smuggled to your cabin after lights out.

Zan’s Cabin 2B (The Booty Bandits) in the foreground, and my Cabin 3B (The 3B Babes, AKA Chocoholics Anonymous) in the background….I started out as a female floater in male Cabin 2A, but then finished out my years as Head Counselor in female 3B.  I left a little piece of my heart behind in that cabin when I left.  Although Zan became an Activity Head, worked in my cabin one year, and later became an Assistant Director, he left a piece of his heart (and a LOT of graffiti) in 2B…  🙂

And a couple more of my dear old home…so many nights spent on this porch…

See that rail waaaaaayyy down there?  I vaulted that rail in my nightshirt and underwear late one night when one of my campers took off running out the door and down the path when she should’ve been sleeping.  Ahhh, good times, good times.

And some interior graffiti in 3B—most graffiti was done in Sharpie marker, but every now and then we were able to get a bit more creative and elaborate.

A little early art from the infamous Mr. Mokturtle…

Believe it or not, I had written my name in chalk on the wall inside my cubby and it is still there 19 years later….at Camp, the graffiti is revered as a written history and it is a testament to the respect given to the memory of the past counselors experiences that even a name signed in chalk is still there all these years later.

And lastly, a photo of the fall residents of Camp Wilton.  This is the former site of an old building we called The Coop.  A few Activity Heads or Assistant Directors would live in here if they chose.  (Only the strong at heart would attempt it…you guessed it–Zan loved it in there!)  It was mice ridden, and stinky, and you got an electrical tingle in the shower, but there was privacy…no small gift back in those days.  It is gone now, as it should have been back then.

I leave you with excerpts from a poem written by our then-Director R.M.  It is much longer, but I don’t feel right printing it in it’s entirety here.  It was a tremendous gift…she put into words what we all felt at that time, and I don’t think you’d find a single counselor who doesn’t still have this poem in their possession:

“Willingly and With Love”

by R.M.

“I stepped off the bus today in a strange place.

You reached out your hand and made me feel at home;

willingly and with love,

And I didn’t know how to thank you….

You ran with me. You swam with me. You sang with me.

You helped me make things to be proud of.

You freed me from braces and wheelchairs and let me be me.

You talked with me, ate with me. You held me.

You shared yourself with me and it meant so very much.

You became my friend; willingly and with love,

And I didn’t know how to thank you…..

…So I leave with you , my friend, the most precious gift I can,

to thank you for all you’ve done.

I give to you a piece of my soul to carry with you a lifetime.

Willingly and With Love…..Your Camper.”



8 responses

  1. Beautiful post! How large this place is in your life. Thank you for sharing.

    September 17, 2009 at 3:38 pm

  2. Thank you for sharing your beautiful story. We all need experiences of giving like this to shape our lives. Think how much better this world would be if we had them.

    September 20, 2009 at 12:10 pm

  3. Nye

    I learn so much about you and your blog just reading this story. You’re not as weird as you think, this is a beautiful story. 🙂

    October 23, 2009 at 6:42 am

  4. Pingback: Square Pegs « A Half Hour a Day

  5. Laura Empie

    Wow! I haven’t seen or read that poem in a very long time. I remember the summer the director (R.M.) had written it as her end of the season tribute to the staff. I happen to be one of them. As you know, that has brought back many fond memories for me. It was over 20 years ago, and then I was Laura Miklic. I’m now Laura Empie. It was a terrific group of people then!! Take care.
    Always, Willingly and with Love

    July 24, 2010 at 5:19 pm

    • So glad you found this Laura and left a comment!! Will drop you an e-mail…..

      July 25, 2010 at 7:57 am

  6. WillinglyandWithLove

    The words ‘willingly and with love’ mean so much to me that they will soon be tattooed on my back, but I never knew it was a quote from a poem until now! So glad I came across your post, thanks for sharing!

    Also, you might be happy to know that your chocoholics graffiti is still up, and as beautiful as ever! However, I have never eaten pink potato salad in my three years there 😦 Sounds like I’m missing out on a lot!

    August 19, 2015 at 9:02 pm

    • Thank you so much for commenting!! I dropped you an email. 😉 Memories flood back whenever I speak to “one of us.”

      August 19, 2015 at 9:34 pm

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