This camper trusted me too much. It was my first summer as a cabin counselor at a therapy camp for children with physical disabilities. I felt out of place since I had little medical training other than a first-aid certification course taken in middle school that had expired about five years prior. The camper was having difficulty with her bowel program that day and was in need of my assistance to change her. This should not have been too difficult, but I had never so much as changed a dirty diaper before, much less cleaned up a teenage girl. Her counselor was at the other side of camp with another camper and I was the only counselor at the all-girls’ unit whom she felt comfortable asking for help. It was not as if I could say no to her, especially since she was in such a state of discomfort, but also because of her total confidence in my ability to help her.
After I asked another counselor to keep an eye on my kiddos, the camper and I went into her cabin’s bathroom. I helped transfer her onto the toilet and take off her clothes. Immediately, my stomach rolled at the odor – filth was everywhere. But the camper was already so embarrassed about her accident. She was apologizing to me and sheepishly trying to explain her situation, so I tried my best to keep my discomfort to myself, especially not to let it show on my face. Seeing that there were not any garbage bags or paper towels around the bathroom, I excused myself to grab some from the supply closet after I made sure the camper was secure where she was sitting.
As I was walking, interiorly I turned to the Lord Jesus and asked for help. The camper was in a particularly vulnerable situation and I did not want to make it worse by causing her to feel bad, but I did not know how I get over my disgust of bodily fluids so I could give her the help that she needed. The Lord reminded me in that moment of a story in the life of St. Francis. Not long after Francis had his conversion, he was riding his horse on a plain beneath the city of Assisi and there came to face to face with a man who had leprosy. When Francis saw him, he was initially repulsed by the man’s open, oozing sores and the hand that reached out for alms with missing fingers. Instead of running away, Francis, inspired by Jesus to whom he had given his life, jumped off of his horse and embraced the leprous man, kissing his hand before placing into it a few coins. After he mounted again, he looked about and could no longer see the man with leprosy. He believed that it was not a human being whom he had kissed, but the Lord Jesus himself.
As I gathered up my supplies, I realized that I needed to do as St. Francis had done – to get off my high horse and love this person in the way they needed to be loved. I went back then to the camper with a new frame of mind. With the situation being no longer about me and about the camper, I was able to serve wholeheartedly. I asked her how she was feeling, and as I cleaned her body and her wheelchair, I reassured her that it was no bother at all – because it truly was not anymore. The camper became more at ease and was even comfortable enough to laugh and make jokes about it! The situation went from one that was negative for the camper to one that was positive. She left that encounter built up and self-confident, not torn down.
Francis’ story jolted me into a greater realization of what exactly it was that I was doing at this camp, because of the similarity between my struggles and that of the saint. I was there to love Jesus in the campers. In his Testament, Francis writes, “When I was in sin, the sight of lepers nauseated me beyond measure; but then God himself led me into their company, and I had pity on them. When I became acquainted with them, what had previously nauseated me became the source of spiritual and physical consolation for me.” Francis had good reason to want to get away from the leper since it was thought in that time that leprosy was highly contagious. I, on the other hand, had no such excuse, other than not wanting to get dirty! When I was able to get past my reservations due to the lack of confidence in my abilities, being able to serve the camper was transformative for both of us. Because I was able to look outside of my love for myself and love the Lord Jesus in this camper, the insecurities both of us had melted away.
I found in this experience that healing and growth, whether that be physical, emotional, or spiritual, happens within the context of community. As human beings, we are made for relationships and it is through our relationships that those parts of ourselves which are wounded become whole. Working with children and adults with disabilities has made this apparent to me. Many people with disabilities are partially or totally reliant on others for their activities of daily living. For those of us who are able-bodied, the idea of living that way can be repulsive, because of how much as a society we value independence and self-sufficiency. Physical disability requires the assistance of others, but this dependence is not something to turn away from, but something in which to rejoice. My relationship with the camper deepened because of the struggle we went through together, and it taught me that relationships are the place where the Lord Jesus chooses to heal us all.
Shannon DeGrave is a senior at Holy Family College in Manitowoc, WI, studying Theology & English. Shannon enjoys hiking, singing in their college’s chorale, and listening to opera. Shannon has been published with Engage the Culture, The Novice, and America Magazine.