Home / Stories / Were You There: Presence at Camp

Were You There: Presence at Camp

Lenten_featured image

Editor’s note: missioner Maggie Van Roekel shares how a conversation and friendship with a young camper challenged her to find time to be present even amidst the busyness of her work.

For the past three summers, I worked as a summer camp counselor at a camp for individuals of all ages who have special needs. It was such a life-giving experience for me; I loved working with and getting to know the campers and getting to be my goofy self.

While a lot of fun happens at camp, there is always something that needs to be done: Counselors must keep track of medical information, work on moving each cabin group to scheduled activities, and encourage campers to experience new activities.With so much to do, it can be easier to settle into a routine of getting things done rather than being present to each individual.

One week, I had a camper named Jason* who taught me a lot about the importance of presence and the effect it can have on those around us.

Jason is a very sweet-natured guy who experiences difficulty with speech. He speaks slowly and quietly, making it easy for him to blend into the background.Overwhelmed with everything that needed to get done that week,I found myself giving much of my attention to the individuals with loud and outgoing personalities. One day, however, I noticed Jason sitting off to the side alone during an activity. I realized that I hadn’t really gotten to know Jason and decided to go talk to him.

I learned so much about Jason in that conversation. I learned he had felt that people weren’t making an effort to hear him at camp that week. He shared stories with me about how many times in his life people had spoken for him without bothering to listen to what he really wanted. I learned that he has a great deal of patience, repeating himself when necessary so that others can understand, if only they are willing to take the time.

I realized how quick I am to acknowledge my own busyness and frustrations before thinking of other people’s. I opened my heart to consider how I hadn’t really gotten to know Jason because of how superficially frustrating it was to try and take the time to understand, when really, it was Jason who had the right to be frustrated.

I was truly blessed by Jason’s presence at camp that week, and by our friendship that continued through the weeks he returned. He taught me a valuable lesson about what it takes to be present to others, set a wonderful example of patience that I still refer to today, and showed me that to build true relationships, you have to slow down and take the time to truly listen, even when the busyness of life seems to continuously beg for your attention.

Working at camp gave me a wonderful glimpse at what it means to be present before I had ever even really contemplated the importance of presence. When I look back on my time at camp and ask myself “Were you there?,” I can remember many times where  the answer is a big, fat “NO.” However, instead of letting that “no” be overpoweringly discouraging, I’m trying to use those memories to help me contemplate my presence here and now.

Being present is difficult when life is busy and it seems like the “to do” list never ends. But perhaps it is in these moments that we are most living in the footsteps of Christ.

Reflection question: How can you practice awareness today, so that busyness or your to-do list do not stop you from being present to those around you?

*Name changed for privacy

Through listening the stories of our marginalized brothers and sisters, Maggie seeks to gain new perspectives on joy and hope across different backgrounds. Her passion for disability social justice grew out of numerous experiences working with individuals with disabilities, including three summers at an Easter Seals camp. Maggie grew up in Iowa and studied health science at the University of Iowa.