A few years ago, I was working as a camp counsellor with a group of tweens with autism. It was four counsellors to five tweens; living, eating, and doing camp life together. We got to know each other quite well over this week as we were spending virtually all our time together. So like family, we had lots of laughs, some stress and some tough moments. This camp I worked at was fortunate enough to be located on a private lake which gave the kids lots of opportunity to try pretty much any water activity they wanted. On this day, one of the campers in my group, who had taken a particular liking to me, asked if I would go canoeing with him. Even though, I am probably the worst canoer in history, it was my job to say yes. So canoeing we went. Just the two of us. One camper who had never sat in a such a boat. And a counsellor who had never quite mastered how to steer such a boat. Just the two of us.
As nervous as I was – I knew this would be a learning and bonding experience for us. So off we went, and it started off quite smoothly. We were going straight across the (small) lake so there wasn’t much steering required- much to my delight. The camper was doing a great job staying focused and looking ahead. What could go wrong? I thought we would just head to one side of the lake and then (somehow) turn ourselves around and head back to our home base, the beach. It was a peaceful canoeing experience, just like canoeing is supposed to be. This was of course, until the camper, with no warning – turned around, looked me in the eye, and threw his paddle right out of the canoe. And threw it surprisingly far. I should have seen this coming as he was a resident camp jokester. Oops. Anyways, this should have been no problem, I should have just paddled the canoe over to go retrieve the paddle. But the camper could not stop laughing – he kept looking at me and giggling, splashing, and rocking the boat. How could I not laugh along with him? Sure – not a great decision, but he did not hurt anyone or anything. We were laughing and splashing each other so hard – we drifted away from the lost paddle. Once we caught our breath we went searching for the paddle, we couldn’t find it and we were pretty far from shore. We tried to find the paddle on our own. We tried to make it back to shore by ourselves. But we were soaking wet and tired. We were just ready to go back to land. So then we flagged down the boating lifeguard and she came to bring us to shore and rescue the paddle. To which my camper thought was even more funny. So did the lifeguard. We made it back to shore and we joked about this time spent stranded and soaking on the lake together for the rest of our camp session. Did we canoe successfully? No. Did we manage to save ourselves? No.
But, I still smile when I think about this day. It reminds me that the best learning sometimes happens outside of the rules. It reminds me that oftentimes there really isn’t sense in getting upset over silly situations like this. It’s better to laugh, learn and let go. We need to ask for help sometime and be proud of it. My camper loved being towed to shore by the lifeguard. Because he knew there was no freakin’ way we were saving ourselves. Sometimes we drift from our original plan (much like all our plans for 2020) and that’s totally okay, we just might need a little extra support to get us back to shore.
Another time at another camp, I was bound and determined to get a group of campers to canoe a river with me. I was with a group of teens with autism who didn’t really find much joy in many camp activities, so I thought a nice canoe trip down the small river connected to camp property would be a fun way to spend the afternoon. Not to worry – we brought much more experienced canoers with us on this little excursion. So I was in one canoe with two campers, one sitting on the floor in the middle no paddle, and one sitting in the front paddling, me in the back, again, inevitably in charge of steering. We were accompanied by a few other canoes with lots of campers and counsellors. So we took off – even though many of the campers weren’t super enthused. But my philosophy as a camp counsellor tends to be that you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do – but you have to try everything. You’ve got to give it a go before we compromise. So to honour this – we were off on our little canoe adventure to give a try. The other canoes, campers and counsellors – seemed to be doing really well. They were swift and smooth. My canoe on the other hand was a different story. I couldn’t quite figure out why we were moving so much slower than all the other boats – the path was clear and straight so it wasn’t my steering and the camper paddling in the front was focused, serious and seemingly excited to be here – but he was paddling backwards. We weren’t moving because him and I were working against each other. This was our first obstacle. As a camper who needed visual instruction, it wasn’t really effective for me to try to yell commands at him from behind him. So I asked him to turn around carefully and look at Liza – which he did – but the canoe still rocked a little. As to be expected. But then the camper in the middle of the canoe started to panic. He kept turning his whole body to talk to me and asking to go back to camp – he was a fully grown man, nervous about the canoe tipping but just tipping it more himself. The front camper then, unable to see me, just kept paddling backwards. I was trying to paddle and steer and try to calm our middle passenger – as a result all my focus was going to him and we kind of just kept bouncing off either side of the the river. Like a ping pong ball. Back and forth. So we didn’t make it far, we stopped, we sang the Sesame Street theme song probably thirty times, we regrouped, we chatted, we attached ourselves to another canoe on their way back and we travelled back to camp together.
As we welcome this new year, I hope you will keep on paddling just like my campers and I did, but also know when to set your paddle down (or perhaps chuck it out of the boat completely) and ask for help. January in a lockdown is a not so ideal way to begin a year, it’s kind of like being stuck in a paddle-less canoe in the middle of a lonely lake. I hope you can keep on paddling and know that these tough situations are where we do our best learning. We don’t need to ride the whole river, sometimes just getting in the canoe is a win. We don’t need to ‘do it all’ in the new year – sometimes just getting dressed is a win. And sometimes our boat gets stranded, sometimes we lose hope – so let’s not be afraid to reach out to our fellow people on the sea and ask for a tow, an anchor or a word of wisdom – because like my canoe experiences have taught me: sometimes there is just not a freakin’ chance we can make it to shore without the help from people around us. 2021 is not going to make all our stress and worry instantly disappear – we are going to get splashed, we might be afraid of sinking, we might bounce back and forth like a ping pong ball full of uncertainty, we might need to redirect our ships and plans – but we need to keep on keepin’ on because we will always make it back home, back to ourselves, back to a ‘normal.’ As we travel through the first pandemic of our lifetimes, you may feel like a ship lost at sea. But you aren’t. There are always people around to help.
Follow along to hear all about the ups and downs in direct support work, young adult life, and allyship – it sure has given me lots to write about! Enjoy some casual, light-hearted tales about all my adventures along the way.