I just signed my kiddo up for his fifth year of camps this summer. Yes, I said, “camps.” Multiple ones. Before you assume that I just want an entire summer without my children, hear me out. His first camp is Space Camp. He’s been a few times before, so we know the drill. A 6-hour drive to drop him off, a tearful 6-hour drive home, and a week of me patiently waiting for him to call me every night to let me know he had survived the day before I turned around and drove back to Alabama to get him. This next camp, he will be much closer to home. Only thirty minutes away, but no technology is allowed. This is great (for him); he needs a break and detox from the screens that he’s attached to 24/7. But for mama? This will be so much harder. I suppose no news is good news, and I’m sure he will have a ball so I will survive and be patient and keep staring at the clock and counting the days until I can pick him up. Gosh, I sound pathetic. So why do I send him packing twice a year, besides to completely torture myself and everyone that has to listen to me whine about it? I’ll tell you. Let me start at the beginning.
Cooper is 13. About seven years ago, he was 6. I know, math! Anyway, I had always had summer camp at the back of my mind, but after his autism diagnosis, those kinds of things went to the back burner as I wasn’t sure that he would ever be independent enough even to go there. So he was six and struggling socially. Having a rough time at school, not wanting to work, and just generally uncomfortable in his own skin. He wasn’t a super happy kid at this point, and if I’m honest, we were all having a rough time. I stayed up nights thinking of ways that I could help him gain some self-confidence and feel more comfortable and be more independent. Then an idea popped into my mind. What if…..just WHAT IF we TRIED summer camp? What could be the worst that happened? They could call me, and I would have to get him and bring him home because he was failing to comply or being a danger to himself or others. That was the worst-case scenario, and I was pretty sure that would be the outcome. But what if it wasn’t? I had to try.
I searched for the perfect camp. It was late in the registration period, so all of the special needs camps were booked, and I wanted something close because I was sure I would have to pick him up the first night. Someone mentioned Flat Rock YMCA Camp and told me that they had a three day camp for kids that had never summer camped before. I messaged to see if they could accommodate his needs, and they assured me that they could. I signed him up. I just did it. The money was paid, there was no turning back.
Drop off came, and I was tearful. It was so hard dropping him off to be on his own. While Flat Rock is very helpful, they are not a special needs camp by any means, so he had no extra support or direction. He had to do this and be independent. Day one came and went, no call. Day two, nothing. Day three, phone rings. I knew it! I picked up the phone, and it was the camp director. “Mrs. Russell, this is the camp director, and I just wanted to speak with you…” Oh my goodness, here it comes.
I was already grabbing my keys to go out the door to get him because I knew it was bad. He continued..”I wanted to speak with you because Cooper is having such a great time he would like to stay and finish out a full week here at camp!” Holy crap! Tears filled my eyes as I agreed that he could stay, and I hung up the phone. He was doing it, and he continued to do it. And when I picked him up after that long week, he was calm and smiling and proud of himself. He changed that week and continues to evolve with each summer camp experience. He has since been to Flat Rock 4 more times and has traveled to Space Camp in Alabama three times. I have realized that it is this time on his own when he finds little pieces of himself, and each time he becomes more comfortable with who he is. It is essential to the development of his independence and will be key in his transformation into an independent, productive adult someday.
I am so happy that I was able to find it in myself to let him go. I am proud of MYSELF for not being afraid to let him fail if he needed to. (Even though he didn’t) I am also grateful that I had the support of his teachers and therapists reassuring me that he could make it. They never doubted him, and that was huge.
If any of you are struggling to let your kids have these moments or if you are scared that they can’t make it through a week of summer camp, remember, it is harder on you than it is on them and also, they are so much braver, tougher, and more capable than we could ever imagine!! Be strong for them. It WILL pay off.