Nathan sits mostly. He has a history of epilepsy, “un-testable intelligence” and no movement from the waist down. He doesn’t lift his head to give eye contact or move unless commanded to do so. His vision is limited. He is incapable of speaking and is totally deaf. The world inside Nathan is a mystery. That is until camp happened.
Nathan was twelve the first year he came to camp. We had no idea where to begin building a relationship with him. All we knew is that mom and dad and his two siblings were off on their very first vacation without having to worry if the bathrooms were accessible. There was a photo album of those family members in his backpack with his diapers and extra pair of pants. He loved to look at the photo book, pointing to each person and signing his or her name.
Nathan silently did crafts and painted any time he was given a loaded paintbrush. At the end of any art project he would indicate a family member the project was to be given to. One year we decided it would be fun to save some projects and wrap them as Christmas presents for his family. It was the first time Nathan actively participated in gift giving. Wrapping and tagging Nathan’s projects have since become an annual camp tradition.
At camp, Nathan rolled out of his wheelchair (on purpose) in the grass. He played with the Golden Retriever, carried the trash out with the counselors and brought in the mail with the Director. Counselors learned Nathan loved taking walks on the trails around camp. The more it required all terrain ingenuity, the better he liked it.
He would throw the ball if it was put in his one good hand. He seriously engaged in water fights and took pride in catching a fish. We knew that because his head would be up and the trout (no matter what size it was) would be pressed up to his nose with a big smile.
At camp, Nathan first learned to take his sweatshirt on and off, learned to bowl and shoot a bow and arrow with an assistive device. He had a lot of firsts. We remember the first time Nathan crushed his soda can and made a perfect basket tossing it to the trash can. Everyone cheered. Nathan sensed his victory and forever after went for the free shots.
A memorable first for Nathan was the summer he met his girlfriend while playing UNO. We knew they had a special attraction for each other as they held hands during the entire dance. Nate’s mom was a bit surprised when he received his first “love letter”. She was also surprised when he came home from camp with a mustache that he refused to let us shave. She decided he should get to keep the mustache, but Nate changed girlfriends without mom’s input. He had learned he had the right and freedom to choose things important to him. He had input into his life.
Following his eighteenth birthday, Nathan received new wheels, a deluxe high speed wheelchair. Like any teenager in a sports car, he drove it as if to find out what it would really do. One day while “hot rodding” in the shower house, he cruised full speed through a toilet, shattering the porcelain bowl and causing a river to flood out. We didn’t say anything to the parents, just cleaned up the mess, made sure Nathan was physically okay. Then staff tried to calm his hysterical laughter. About a week after camp, we received a phone call from Nathan’s parents giving us the opportunity to explain what happened. While Dad was bathing Nathan, Nathan burst again into laughter, and signed to his father “Up Camp, broke toilet”. Dad was weeping as he told us on the phone that this was the very first time in Nathan’s life that Nathan had communicated to them about an event that occurred away from home. A large donation followed. Donations have followed ever since. Dad joined the camp board of directors. Brother came to serve as a counselor. Mom and Grandma came to help with staff training. Grandpa used his barber skills to treat other campers.
We will never be privy to all of Nathan’s thoughts about camp or girlfriends or life, but he has been our teacher. He has taught us that sometimes it is not what we do together that is important, but being together, where you know you belong and can be yourself; just being in a place that is your community and your “family”. Nathan teaches us to celebrate life with purpose, accepting challenges and rejoicing over each victory.
In 2016, Nathan received an award from Upward Bound Camp for having attended camp thirty years consecutively, never missing an opportunity. His dad was Nathan’s voice as the award was presented. Dad told a story similar to the one told here. When handed his award, Nathan put the plague down on his tray, he lifted his head to the audience and smiled. He signed “thank you” to his dad. Then turned to his counselor and the camp director and signed “friend”, “friend”, “friend”!
John Muir is quoted as saying, “Everyone needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” I believe if Nathan could talk, he would say, “Amen, that is camp”.
Laura Pierce is the founder of Upward Bound Camp for Persons with Special Needs, 1978; an accredited, faith based Christian camp community celebrating life with a purpose. Check out more about Upward Bound Camp on through our Resource Guide.