This past summer, I got to spend a week in one of the most magical places on Earth. It may sound impossible, but in this place, miracles are common. They happen everyday, not that their abundance makes them any less astounding to witness.
And no, I’m not talking about Disney World.
The place I’m talking about is East Bay Camp in Hudson, Illinois, a camp where, every year, lives are changed in just one week’s time. The site plays host to a variety of organizations throughout the summer, all of which have a great impact, but there is something special about the particular camp I attended there. It’s called the Baby Fold, and the story of its influence spans back more than a century.
It started with one woman, Nancy Mason, and her desire to care for others. In 1902, Mason opened her home to retired and active Methodist deaconesses alike and allowed them to use the house as Deaconess Hospital. These women saw a need in the community: children were being orphaned and abandoned every day and those who were not old enough to help with farm work were left homeless.
The deaconesses brought these children, usually infants and toddlers, into the Mason home, and the Baby Fold was born. Since then, their initial compassion has had a snowball effect. In 1966, Reverend William Hammitt put a residential program for children with behavioral and emotional challenges into place, and by 1971, the home offered special education services though what would one day become Hammitt School.
Now, not only does the school continue to provide a safe learning environment for children with a range of behavioral, emotional, learning and developmental disabilities, but the kids also get the opportunity to come out to East Bay Camp for one week during the summer and participate in a day camp where teens from across the state of Illinois act as their counselors and friends.
I had the amazing experience of being one of those teens, hanging out and playing with the kids everyday, and I can honestly say it was one of the best weeks of my life. Getting to spend time with so many incredible children and watch them grow throughout the week is truly a gift I can never repay.
Although there were some rough times, these kids have an amazing ability to adapt and remain positive, a skill that even adults haven’t mastered. Many of the children have suffered from abuse, neglect and trauma throughout their lives, but despite that, they proved to be some of the most loving, compassionate and patient people I’ve ever encountered.
As if the time with the children wasn’t enough, the time spent with the other teenagers after the kids left for the day was just as special. I was admittedly nervous before arriving to camp; I didn’t know anyone, not even the teens from my own church, and meeting new people has never been my forte. But those fears seem so unwarranted in hindsight. The atmosphere there is so welcoming and positive, and that made it easy to feel at home. By the end of the week we were undoubtedly a family. Of course, that only made it harder to leave. The girls who rode home with me can attest to my tears.
In light of everything I witnessed, you would think I’d find it hard to pick a favorite part. But I don’t. My favorite part is this: There’s an unknown impact, a whispering in the hearts of the kids that they’ll take with them. I don’t get to see them grow up and become the people they were born to be, but I know that they’ll be holding that week at The Baby Fold Camp in their minds. I can only hope that it continues to touch their lives as much as it has touched mine.
(Reprinted with permission from the Oct. 9 edition of Voice, the student section of the Springfield State Journal-Register, www.sj-r.com. Grace Ford is a junior at Rochester High School).