I have been caring for people since 1994 – the first time I changed an adult diaper.
It was the summer after my freshman year of college. I was 18 years old. I had signed up as a camp counselor for individuals with disabilities. I’d always thought I was empathetic and compassionate, and I wanted to spend my summer in nature and experience a new adventure, so when I saw an advertisement to be a camp counselor in New York state for individuals with disabilities, I applied. I thought it would be summer spent on a lake, hiking, fishing, and supporting people with disabilities who enjoyed the same. I had no idea that summer would be so life-changing.
The camp counselors got there a week earlier than the campers for training, and I was surprised to say the least. Learning the realities of the disabilities and their care needs was overwhelming. These were campers with severe disabilities, both physically and mentally. To my surprise, many of them were survivors of horrific living conditions and abuse. They were former residents of Willowbrook, an institution exposed by Geraldo Rivera in 1972, which left severe psychological and emotional problems. So, as that training week progressed, I became more and more nervous about the summer ahead. Many of my co-counselors had never done this type of work either, so it was a crash course for all of us.
I’ll never forget the first camper I was assigned to. I was waiting, terrified, about who was going to be my camper and if I could really handle this. And then there he was – running off the bus, waving his arms with urine all down the front of his pants. From that moment on, we were off and running. I discovered very quickly that this camper was more than just his disabilities. That camper had a name, a personality, quirks and preferences, and he had his own story to tell—just like the rest of us.
I adjusted very quickly, and as soon as I got to know the people, I had no problem caring for them. That first training week spent focusing on disabilities, toileting, feeding, showering, and behavioral intervention had scared me, but when faced with an actual person, all of that was secondary. All of my campers were People First.
This is something that has stuck with me throughout my career. Now that I care for seniors, it’s no different. I want to get the know the people in our care, because they are People First.