I still remember when 14 year-old Carly* looked up at the high ropes course and said, “I’m not scared, I just don’t want to.”
I’m no expert, but I think “I just don’t want to” is 14 year-old code for “I’m scared.”
Carly was born with hypoplastic right heart syndrome, her heart is missing its right ventricle. She has endured numerous open-heart surgeries, and spent a big chunk of her life in a hospital.
By no choice of her own, she’s one of the bravest people I know.
Actually, she’s one of about 100 of the bravest people I know. I’ve met these people, these kids, at Camp Oki – Canada’s first and only camp for kids with congenital heart disease (CHD) – a camp I have volunteered with for the past four years.
Kids come to Oki with a variety of heart conditions. Some have a pacemaker, some have an internal defibrillator, others have had heart transplants. Sometimes the kids are a bit smaller, most of them have scars on their chests, but all of them are just kids wanting to do kid things. Camp Oki lets them do that.
But back to Carly and the high ropes.
Through some coaxing from instructors and encouragement from her friends (seriously, not all teen girls are mean girls. Some are crazy supportive and encouraging), Carly reluctantly put on the harness.
Then she walked across the first bridge. Everyone cheered.
Then she crossed the log beam with shaky legs. “GO CARLY!” echoed through the trees.
Taking it one element at a time, Carly conquered two of four levels on one of Canada’s tallest high ropes courses. When back on the ground, she was greeted with hugs by 11 other teen girls. Girls who had made it to the top of the course, some of them blindfolded, were so proud of Carly’s achievement. And made sure she knew that.
In a quiet moment as we walked to lunch, Carly smiled and told me, “I never thought I’d do that. I’m proud of myself.” This is the magic of summer camp.
Like Carly, all kids at Camp Oki choose butterflies. But the butterflies are different for each of them. And each time someone chooses butterflies, we celebrate.
We celebrated when Amanda swam in deep water for the first time. We celebrated when Nick sang on stage in front of the whole dining hall. We celebrated when Laura, for the first time ever, shared how scared she was when she went in for her first open heart surgery.
Without a hint of exaggeration, Camp Oki changed my life. These kids taught me what it looked like to be brave. They taught me that with the power of encouragement and genuine friendship, you can always choose butterflies.
*All names have been changed to protect the privacy of campers