Special needs

This is the latest in a series of posts in which I talk about Mountain T.O.P.’s Adults In Ministry program. Starting with this one, I’ll include the links to the previous posts at the bottom instead of trying to put them all here.

Kaleidoscope is an arts program for special needs children from Grundy County. Grundy County has six primary schools sharing one art teacher and one music teacher. “Special needs” covers a lot of ground; it can mean anything from severe disabilities to ADD, ADHD or just a bad home situation. Most of the Kaleidoscope kids are referred by the school system, although (as with Day Camp, Summer Plus and Quest) it’s not uncommon for Mountain T.O.P. to be lining up a home repair project, notice that there are kids at the house, and ask if they’re interested in participating. I think the age range for the program is 6-11, although that’s off the top of my head and may be off. I remember 12 being the dividing line between Kaleidoscope and Summer Plus but I’m not 100 percent sure whether it’s the top age for one or the bottom age for the other.

Volunteers lead arts workshops for the kids, or simply help out as caregivers in workshops being led by someone else. Workshops can be things like drawing, arts and crafts, music, drama, and so on. As with the other AIM ministries, the volunteer base for any given camp event tends to be a mix of age and experience levels. We’ve had professional teachers and child care workers, as well as clueless amateurs like, well, Yours Truly.

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I’d love to live on a Mountain T.O.P.

I have been thinking a lot about Mountain T.O.P. in the past few days. I laid awake in bed last night thinking about it.

I’m not sure why.

I e-mailed the chair of my church’s outreach committee earlier today to tell her that I want to get serious about taking a group from First UMC to a Mountain T.O.P. Adults In Ministry (AIM) week next summer. I’ve been back from AIM less than a month, and I’m already looking forward to next summer.

The cynic in me might think that it’s escapism; I’m frustrated with my current situation, facing some challenges, and waiting patiently to hear about an opportunity for me to improve things. The cynic in me might think that I’m just trying to escape from everyday life by thinking back to an environment where I’m happy, well-socialized, relaxed, with relatively little to worry about. I get neck rubs and affirmations from people who love me. I get to play UNO and tie-dye T-shirts. The cynic in me might accuse myself of not being interested in ministry so much as in self-esteem.

This was the second of two weeks I attended this summer, in late June lapping over into the first couple days of July.

 

There may be some extent to which that cynical interpretation is true. But I don’t think it’s all that is going on. I really think this idea of putting together a team for next summer is something serious, something I’m being called to do.

Mountain T.O.P. does have AIM weekends in the fall, and I might end up going to one of those. I enjoy them, and they’re a great opportunity to catch up with some of my Mountain T.O.P. friends. But they’re home repair-only; I don’t get to do Kaleidoscope or Summer Plus, the two programs I enjoy so much during the summer AIM weeks. And the community that forms during a long weekend isn’t quite the same as the one that forms during a week-long summer AIM event. I’m looking forward to going back and doing next June what I did this June.

Does that mean I’m not going on a foreign trip next year either? I don’t know yet. I don’t even know what LEAMIS’s schedule is going to be yet, or Mountain T.O.P.’s for that matter, and if I end up making a career change I don’t know what my own vacation situation will be. I don’t think I’m done with foreign mission trips, by any stretch of the imagination. But right now, Mountain T.O.P. is stuck in my imagination.

A great, great week

Fun in camp

I returned this morning from a completely satisfactory week at Mountain T.O.P. Adults In Ministry. As I’ve explained recently, I was on the Mountain T.O.P. board for 12 years over a 14-year period starting in 1994. I love the AIM program and used to regularly attend two different week-long AIM events each summer, just as I’m doing this summer. I would do a week of Kaleidoscope – an arts program for special-needs kids, ages 6-11, from the remote and poverty-stricken hills of Grundy County. I would also do a week of Summer Plus, an enrichment program for teens 12 and up.

However, all but one of the mission trips I’ve taken since 2003 have fallen in mid-summer, making it difficult or impossible for me to go to AIM as well. I made one week in 2006, somehow. I’ve also been to a few of the fall AIM weekends (at which only home repair is offered), and while those are fun they aren’t the same kind of camp community you get at a week-long event.

I’m taking a break from the foreign trips this year, and that opened the door for me to head back to AIM. I was a caregiver at Kaleidoscope this week; a week from tomorrow, I will return to camp for a week of Summer Plus, teaching creative writing.

Monday morning was, in some ways, a little shaky. It started well – I led a morning devotional which was well-received. But then, as Reenie Fulton and I prepared to leave on our morning transportation route, I made a pit stop and managed to dunk my smartphone in the toilet bowl. (It dried out and is fine.)

Then, when we got back to camp, the second thing happened. We had a severely-autistic boy in camp, and we’d been briefed by the Kaleidoscope staff that he was a runner. Sure enough, during our opening circle, he made a break for it and I set out in pursuit over the bumpy ground of Camp Cumberland Pines.

Before I could catch up, however, I made a three-point landing, badly skinning my right knee and elbow and stretching my left ankle. (I was wearing shorts, as I did for most of the week.)

I spent much of Monday following the autistic boy. Once he was inside the dining hall, running away wasn’t as much of a problem, but he wasn’t able to focus on or relate to the workshop content, and someone needed to keep him out of harm’s way. I did the best I could. It was an exhausting day, and I don’t think I’d have been able to keep it up for a week, but yet it was strangely satisfying.

However, the staff and my teammates – seeing me hobbling around on my ankle, with big dramatic gauze bandages on my knee and elbow – decided that the next day, we needed to start rotating the caregivers from workshop to workshop, something we hadn’t originally planned to do. The next day, still in hobble mode, I felt … lost. There wasn’t much for me to do in the workshop I was assisting. The group of kids in that group were fairly focused and well-behaved. On the occasions when I did need to deal with one of our more troublesome kids – those with behavior problems, arising from a variety of factors – it seemed as if I would struggle and someone else – one of our two Kaleidoscope staff members, or one of my teammates with child care or education experience – would step in and handle the situation much better than I’d been handling it. By the end of Tuesday, I was starting to think I preferred Monday.

Let me back up a bit and explain a little bit about my involvement. I have long been an evangelist for the fact that we need more male participation in Kaleidoscope. Some (not all) of these kids come from poor home situations, and many of them are desperately in lack of loving, Christian male role models. “Uncle” Ben Neal, a great friend of Mountain T.O.P., was a staple of Kaleidoscope for many years, and the kids just adore him, for his grandfatherly personality and because he does a magic show when he’s at Kaleidoscope. But he’s been sidelined the past two summers. Marty Robbins signed up for AIM as a home repair volunteer one year but a shoulder injury the week before camp resulted in him being sent to Kaleidoscope. The kids worshipped the ground he walked on, fought over the chance to try on  his cowboy hat, and Marty was an instant convert. He signed up for Kaleidoscope himself the next year.

This year, however, we had two female Kaleidoscope staff members, six female AIM campers working in Kaleidoscope, a female professional artist from nearby Altamont, and … me.

I flattered myself in advance by telling myself how badly the kids needed a male presence. But I don’t have the bag of tricks that a professional speech therapist, or even an experienced mother and grandmother, professes. Even a father – and happy Father’s Day to all of you – would have more experience than I do. And Tuesday, I just felt like a fifth wheel, like amateur George Plimpton trying to play professional football in order to write a magazine article about it.

Fortunately, our sharing session Tuesday night was broken down by ministry, and so the Kaleidoscope staff and volunteers ended up having an emotional and cathartic session. The home repair folks had long since finished their sharing and were waiting on us so that the camp community could start our nightly worship, but we needed every second of the time we took. I wasn’t the only one who felt the way I did, either. The woman who’d taken over care of the autistic boy was insecure over his own abilities – which was absolutely absurd, because she was doing a tremendous job. She has a quiet, sweet spirit and a patience that just made her perfect to deal with him.

After our sharing on Tuesday, everything just dropped into place on Wednesday. I felt more confident in dealing with the kids and less threatened when I needed someone else’s help in doing so.

Kaleidoscope tends toward a close-knit team of volunteers, and this was no exception. I had a blast. Katie Phillips, a former Mountain T.O.P. summer staff member, taught her workshop group to make rag dolls with a sort of therapeutic value to them – a stand-in to deal with negative emotions. But the dolls themselves were just fun to make, and – grumbling all the while about losing my guy license – I joined the ladies of Kaleidoscope, and a couple of others, late one night as Katie taught us how to make the dolls for fun.

In a summer AIM camp, there are usually something like three-quarters of the campers (representing men and women of all ages) doing major home repair, with the remaining quarter doing Summer Plus, Kaleidoscope or Quest, whichever happens to be offered that week. (Quest is a high-adventure program for teens from Grundy County.) Our AIM community as a whole was a great one. It included a majority of Mountain T.O.P. first-timers, which is always fun and which gives the camp a special crackle and enthusiasm. My Summer Plus week will have far more returning AIM veterans, which is nice in its own way.

The summer AIM staff this year – camp director Betsy, Kaleidoscope coordinators Dani and Rebecca, major home repair coordinator Amelia and program coordinator Mark, who was responsible for our life in camp – were outstanding, and one of many reasons I’m looking forward to getting back to the mountain a week from tomorrow.

It’s going to be a busy week. I’ll have to catch up at work, of course, and I still have to do some preparation for my Summer Plus workshop, and I have to write a sermon this week so that I can deliver it at First UMC on July 3, after I return from Summer Plus.