Life at Hand in Hand has given Vinnie and I countless treasured stories. It began for us in the spring of 2000 dreaming together with Joanie and Dave Steil about programs for children like our own children, Tessa and Peter. One memorable meeting our excited ideas started to take form over tacos and margaritas into a special summer program, Camp Hand in Hand. That first year of camp many of the volunteers were family members and friends we enthusiastically convinced to help us with this crazy idea of camp for children with disabilities. The opening day of camp we were so nervous. Could we really make this program happen? Those early days were exhausting and better than we ever hoped. By the time camp had finished, this week-long adventure had changed our lives. We had to do more! That small beginning was the first step in Hand in Hand’s twenty-year journey to what it has become today. A few memories that come to mind include:
KWQC’s Sharon Derycke covering camp for a story on Channel 6 and losing her official ID badge. A young camper who goes by the nickname of Ma’am found that badge and wore it the rest of the day. It looked quite impressive and she did not mind the extra attention that fancy ID directed her way either.
One young participant named Kyle would not ride a horse. That horse was just too scary. Nevertheless, staff and volunteers encouraged him to pet, groom and feed the horse every day. Although the answer to “Do you want to ride the horse?” was always no, he came to enjoy the time interacting with his big new friend.The last day of camp Kyle was the last person in line to ride. People had seen Kyle working up his courage to ride his horse all week, and they had gathered around to see if what would happen. Kyle stood on the mounting ramp, closed his eyes, and hopped on the horse. A true leap of faith. Everyone cheered and high-fived as Kyle, his horse, and his equestrian support team took their slow victory lap around our camp site. Kyle had a smile so big a satellite could have seen it from space. It was one of those special moments of success everyone shared together. I clearly recall telling Vinnie to “Quick, stop crying and get a picture!” As I watched that event unfold on that very hot summer day at camp, I knew I would never forget that moment. I can see it still.
A few years later a huge storm visited our camp site during the night knocking out power to Camp Abe Lincoln and scattering our tent and art supplies all over Scott County. Camp could not continue at that location. What would we do? Within a day we had salvaged and bought new supplies and had arranged for Camp to take place at a local park. Lots of hard work, but the magic of camp still took place. The s'mores never tasted better!
Camp banquet nights are also memorable experiences during our camp week. The frantic scramble to run a program and set up this cook-out is a busy but rewarding day. Each family sees their child “in action” doing activities through our camp video. When each camper appears, people cheer their name as they swim, fish or do archery. The night concludes with campers racing forward to receive their camp t-shirt through a gauntlet of cheering staff. While I enjoy watching the parent and staff faces during this evening, I now watch the faces of our families. Seeing the celebration of their child’s success and the joy they have experienced is a special moment for any parent. To me that is one of the best moments of camp.
I also love the stories from Camp Hand in Hand parents:
Of their child waking them up at 5 AM, ready to go to camp
Their child talking non-stop all the way to camp and then falling asleep during the drive home after a busy day
The child who brought dirt, rocks, crafts and little bits of graham cracker from camp, but was so frustrated that the staff would not let him bring the fish he caught back home in his backpack.
The parents of high school volunteers who tell you each year. “My daughter decided her major is now going to be Special Education or Speech Therapy because of her time at Camp Hand in Hand.” That is a powerful and impactful moment, that I never envisioned when we started Hand in Hand, but that I now treasure as much as any other outcome we have achieved.