Free Hug Theory

Wendy - Quincy, Illinois
Entered on December 8, 2008
Age Group: 18 - 30

It’s a sweltering day in mid-July; the brilliant sun is shining down on the shimmering camp lake, while the slight breeze ruffles the blooming lily pads. But the frogs that rest on these lily pads are not alone. A row boat is slicing through the water, while fishers energetically cast out their colorful lures. There are several swimmers actively splashing around, shouting and laughing, while others just float along. More yet are building fairy-tale sand castles, while others are looking for shells.

At Camp Callahan, campers get to benefit from a full, outdoor camping experience, which includes sleeping in tents. The campers that snooze in these tents, however, are what make Camp Callahan so extraordinary; they are what people like to call mentally and/or physically “handicapped.” The job title of “counselor” comes with plenty of dirty jobs- literally. Changing diapers, tube feeding, showering the masses, and cleaning up any other bodily fluids become a regular routine. All the while, the staff is encouraged to be as goofy and ridiculous as possible to entertain campers, like Kenny, and to provide ourselves with a little comic relief from the stress of so much responsibility.

Kenny is roughly 5’3’’ and just about as wide as he is tall, known for his loud laugh, quirky jokes, and adorable smile. It was a Tuesday, one of the most demanding days in the middle of the week, and Rachel, one of the counselors, had recently lost a close friend in a car accident. In the middle of an intense game of camper-counselor Uno, Rachel became overwhelmed with emotion. She then stood up, went to an empty picnic table and sat hunched there, tears silently streaming down her face. Within moments, he was half walking, half waddling his way over to Rachel. He proceeded to sit down and wrap his stubby little arms around her. He had no clue why she was so sad, but it didn’t matter. He didn’t ask questions, he didn’t talk at all. He just cried, right along with her.

That sticky afternoon, Kenny gave true empathy; this kind of regard for emotions is a slight miracle to observe. Because of Camp Callahan, and Kenny, I have learned a great deal, not just about handicapped persons, but about myself and my beliefs as well. I now believe in unconditional love; I believe, although it is a very rare occurrence, it does exist, especially in the “free hug” theory. A free hug is given without pretense- nonjudgmental and unselfish. And because of this, I will be going back to be a counselor at Camp Callahan every summer, or at least until I, myself, become a camper.

Walking down the gravel road, the tall trees are shading most of the heated sun on both sides. My shoes are shuffling, disturbing the little white rocks, but my eyes are taking in the green, lush beauty that surrounds me. The gravel soon trails off, and the wide expanse that is the lake appears. The warm breeze plays with my hair as I reminiscence about the last four weeks. The blooming lily pads are still there, floating peacefully along. Even the frogs are still out, sunbathing. What is missing, however, is the organized chaos. The chaos that defined my life for the last four weeks is gone- missing in action until next summer. However, I am not crying because it’s over, instead, I am smiling because it happened.