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Just Love Them
Generally, mice aren't welcome as summer camp residents. If a random mouse does happen to find its way into a cabin, shrieking and pleas to get rid of it will ensue. My rodent problem was different though; there, on a shelf in my cabin, was Timmy, a sixteen-year-old girl's pet mouse. Apparently, this camper thought Timmy needed a church camp experience and had packed him along with his plastic cage, complete with an exercise wheel. Now, I liked this girl very much. We had formed a friendship over the spring months leading up to camp. She had confided in me, and I had done the best I could to mentor her. I felt badly that I had to tell the dean about the situation, but Timmy the Mouse was not a welcome member of our cabin, or so the camp rulebook said. I had to rat out both Timmy and the camper who had packed him.
Of course, she got angry with me for being a "hard-nosed counselor" instead of her friend. Timmy had to go home. This was the ultimate betrayal. She suddenly got an attitude with me, and I guess I couldn't blame her. I had banished Timmy. Frustrated, I went to the dean and asked for her advice. "Just love her," Dean Carrie Lou told me. I did, less than twenty-four hours later, my disloyalty was forgotten, and we were back to being buddies.
Carrie Lou Thomas, dean of senior high camp at Camp Michigamme, came to the difficult decision to give up deaning this year after twenty-seven summers. She gave my husband and me the privilege of counseling for her camp for the last four of her deaning years. As counselors for Carrie Lou, we learned almost as much as the campers. Many of her campfire talks centered around the meaning of true, unconditional love, both that of God and of the love a married couple can give each other while in a faithful, Christ-centered relationship. She amused us all with her Bible playacting in chapel in which she would read stories while campers who volunteered at the last minute acted them out impromptu. She had everyone in stitches whenever she'd pull out and wear those awful Billy Bob teeth during skit night. Every time I'd see one of her acts, I'd think, I am never going to forget this as long as I live. Of course, I have forgotten most of what happened during those silly skits over the years, but the most important thing that Carrie Lou instilled in my life as a counselor, the one thing I will never lose sight of, is a piece of advice for dealing with campers that I heard her say hundreds of times: "Just love them."
Sometimes that is all you can do — just love them. When your elementary campers are bouncing off the walls after eating three candy bars at canteen . . . just love them. When your camper trips and skins her knees after being told repeatedly not to run . . . just love her. When two of your campers sneak out of the cabin after lights out on a secret mission to toilet paper the girls' cabins . . . just love them. When you get word from the dean in the middle of the night that your camper's parents have been in a motorcycle accident . . . just love him. When your campers grow up and you cease to be the big hero, when you feel cast aside by the college-bound teenagers who at one time asked your advice on everything from what color lanyard to use to how to deal with a life-changing personal problem but who now see you as an old fogy . . . just love them.
There have been countless times in my life both as a camp counselor and in the "real world" when I have been at a loss as to what to do. Some problems don't have an easy-to-fix, four-step solution set out for you in the counselor handbook. It is in these times that I am grateful for Carrie Lou's motto.
Overcoming the Breaking Point
One year my cabin co-counselor and I had the hardest to love camper on the face of the planet. This girl was loud and rude, and she got on people's nerves. Everything about her screamed for attention. She lied, broke camp rules, and stormed off in an amazing tizzy in the middle of every activity. She ignored each request her counselors made. We knew she had a hard home life, so my co-counselor and I tried to be patient and understanding. However, in some cases, patience and understanding can only hold out until Wednesday, especially when the camper in question has a habit of (every time you are attempting to talk to somebody that is not her) poking you in the back and repeating your name, with steadily increasing decibels, until you are forced to stop your conversation and find out what her latest crisis is. I almost lost it with her one Friday when, at 1:00 a.m., she returned to the cabin from a bathroom break and announced her presence to her sleeping bunkmates by slamming the door and yelling, "It's freaky out there!" thus managing to wake up and tick off every other camper in the cabin. Each time I was near breaking point, Carrie Lou's words echoed in my head: "Just love her."
Picking up the Pieces
Sitting in the car on the way to the funeral for a camper's father, I couldn't stop the tears from streaming down my face. As a counselor, you are not supposed to have favorite campers, but I was guilty of this. The teenage girl whose father was to be put to rest that morning was one of my favorites and had been for years — ever since I had met the shy, smiling ten-year-old my first week of counseling. I had supported and prayed for her and her family from the day she told me about his diagnosis to that day, more than four years later, as I sat in the car on the way to the funeral. I frantically racked my brain, searching for the right thing to say, the right thing to do, the best way to help her though this. Being a writer, and having an hour-and-a-half ride, I came up with the most beautiful and eloquent spiel in my head about how her father was in Heaven watching over her and how God would always love her through every valley of her life. As soon as I saw her, this wonderful soliloquy flew out of my head, and I fell to pieces. I could barely say, "Hi," without falling apart. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know what to say. I didn't even know what to pray for anymore. All I could think of that would make a bit of difference were Carrie Lou's words: "Just love her." I wanted to save her world, but "just love her" was the only thing I could do that day.
Another rough day was the time my husband and I downloaded the kind of e-mail you dread getting: news from friends that their teenage son, one of our campers, had been hospitalized for a serious but common operation that ended up escalating to a scary and possibly life-threatening infectious condition. At first, we weren't overly worried, as he was young and tough, but each update from his parents got more and more alarming. He was losing weight, missing weeks of school, and feeling miserable. I could read fear between the lines of those e-mail updates. What can you do when a camper you care about deeply is fighting for his life hundreds of miles away? "Just love him," and pray for him as if your life depends on it, because his does.
Moving Beyond Disappointment
I have never been more disappointed than when I found out that some of my pride-and-joy campers (You know, the ones who grow up to be some of the best people you know, the ones you proudly tell everyone, "Yeah, he/she was my camper in junior high and high school camp.") had participated in very inappropriate activities while counseling during a week of camp that I didn't attend. The dagger in my heart twisted mercilessly on that one. I wanted to "disown" them. I questioned my own counseling abilities. I thought about quitting. I obviously hadn't instilled in them a feeling of reverence for camp or God's will. I was so angry with them. But in the back of my mind, I heard Carrie Lou's voice: "Just love them." I did, and I still do, and I have gotten beyond their mistake.
A Mentor's Legacy
This summer will be the first in over a quarter of a century of summers that Dean Carrie Lou isn't telling her counselors to "just love them." She will probably be at work that week instead of camp. Her kind heart, warm spirit, and infectious laugh will be missed by all. But this dean has instilled in all who have counseled for her, a legacy that will continue to influence campers until Camp Michigamme's last days. I, for one, will always remember, whether sitting in a circle sharing words of advice with a perfect group of senior high-aged campers or trying to keep my sanity in the midst of a cabin full of the most hyperactive and needy ten-year-olds ever, that the most important thing is to "just love them."
Jenifer Brady has been a counselor at Camp Michigamme in Michigan's Upper Peninsula for ten years and a weekend retreat dean for four years. She has counseled kids of all ages. She is a writer and has published two young adult Christian fictional novels set at summer camp, Buddy Check and Super Counselors, both of which are available at www.authorhouse.com.
Originally published in the 2004 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.