We were encouraged early on to promote a high level of independence for Catherine as this builds self-confidence and will help her transition into adulthood. This started early on where her teachers and therapists always recommended new and different activities. This is especially important now that she is a teenager. She longs for more and we have to give her the opportunity to spread her wings and grow in different ways. We know we’re not alone as special needs parents; we sometimes hold on because we fear our children will be overlooked or mistreated, especially when we are not present.
It all started at the spring talent show at Catherine’s school. I embraced one of the parents and we chatted about our daughters and talked about summer plans. She asked me if Catherine was attending the SEEK Camp. I leaned in as I am always interested in new opportunities to help Catherine grow. She mentioned it was a four day camp right outside of the city where there was a 1-1 ratio of campers to counselors. They had crafts, horseback riding, swimming, games, and so much more. She went on to explain that a dozen or so students from school would attend and it would be a great time. The deadline for applications passed about 45 days or so but the camp director would certainly try to make room. It was a fun intimate setting for sleep away camp. I was all in until she said, “sleep-away camp.” I smiled and thanked her for the information and walked away thinking “I can’t send Catherine away from family…or could I…she’s never been away from us.”
My heart started to script another story as I recalled all the conversations with teachers and therapists. They all emphasized growth and independence through new experiences. I finally convinced myself to at least look into this a bit further (even though my mind was made up it would never happen.) I spoke with three additional parents and found they had similar and positive experiences. The camp director was detailed and patient to explain all of the activities and their commitment to the well-being of all campers and promised a great time.
After a long family discussion and a few days of pondering, we made the collective decision to move forward with the application. I filled out the application and waited for acceptance. After a few weeks, I did not hear anything. I started to grow comfortable with her not getting into camp and put it out of my mind. After all her application was submitted a bit late and maybe she was at the bottom of the waiting list. Finally, the acceptance email arrived with more details and insight on next steps. I starred at it long and hard and casually broke the news to Catherine. “You’re going to sleep away camp and will be there with your friends”. She asked if I would also stay with her. When I told her no, she said, “I am not sleeping at camp; I am coming home with you.” I told her she was a big girl and would have so much fun! When the truth of it all was that mommy needed to be a big girl.
As the time grew near, so did Catherine’s excitement. We packed her bag with clothing labeled for each day, sheets for the bed, flashlight, sunscreen, towels etc. Each item brought on questions about this new experience of sleeping away from home. Finally the day of departure was here and we packed the car and headed to the campsite. The travel down was no different than any other commute we took right outside of town, but this time the two of us would commute down and only one of us was coming back.
After a ninety minute ride in traffic, we arrived and signed into to camp. She was beside herself with excitement as she watched other children and asked me to hurry up so she could get to her cabin. We got her cabin assignment – Cabin 3A. We drove down and unloaded the car. Three camp counselors greeted us at the door and I scurried in to make up her bed. As I attempted to unpack her items, they graciously told me to leave it there and they would help get her situated. It suddenly dawned on me that I was simply trying to extend my good-byes. In the meantime, Catherine was lounging across the bed taking in the scenery and not giving me the time of day. I finally stood up and kissed her goodbye and made my way towards the door. As I reached the threshold, I heard Catherine say, “Mommy, now you be a big girl.” As I paused at the main door, I heard her ask the counselors “Are you ready?” I smiled behind my tears as I ran to my car.
Come back for Part Two to hear more about Catherine’s first experience at sleep-away camp!