Editor’s note: Opportunities to participate in civic engagement activities are a core part of student life at Illinois State. Alternative Spring Break has been one way outreach is accomplished, with groups of students traveling to volunteer in various parts of the country during the March break from classes. This year teams left prior to travel restrictions enforced as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19). Itineraries were changed and trips cut short in order to get students back to campus safely. These stories are shared as an uplifting reminder of how Redbirds collaborate and care for each other.
Thirty students and two staff advisors completed during spring break an amazing 2,304 hours of service at Camp Summit, which serves individuals with disabilities.
“Each day from the trip will live with me,” said Emily Mueller, a graduate student in speech pathology. “I have gained so much insight from this week, and I know I will be able to take those experiences with me in my future endeavors as a speech pathologist.”
Mueller was a student leader on the recent Alternative Spring Break (ASB) trip to Paradise, Texas. Participants assisted campers of all ages who had a variety of disabilities.
“We were camp counselors for the week, but not in a typical way,” said Janae Brown, a College Student Personnel Administration Program graduate student and staff advisor on the trip. “We were able to bring joy and fun, but we also supported the campers in some medically necessary ways like helping them eat and perform daily tasks.”
Junior elementary education major Hannah Kessinger was the trip’s main student leader. She pointed out the important educational aspect of the adventure. “A disability should not define a person, and Camp Summit showed us how to encourage this,” she said. “Camp Summit is a barrier-free camp, therefore our campers had at least one place in this world where they weren’t treated as unworthy, unwanted, or unvalued. They were treated as equals, as they should be.”
She added that Redbirds were “there to not only educate ourselves about their way of life, but to work with these individuals and have the opportunity to change our perspective on this issue.”
Mueller shares that sentiment.
“This trip took me by surprise,” she said. “It gave me a ton of experience on how different people can be, and it really helped me to understand that there are such a wide range of behaviors and skills for people who have disabilities.”
The impact of the camp experience was also felt by the campers, one of whom was nonverbal and did not know sign language.
“At the beginning of the week he was very reserved, wasn’t smiling, and just sat on the edge of the group not wanting to do much. However, we slowly saw him blossom into such a playful, fun kid that was laughing so much by Friday that his smile was contagious,” Brown said. “Seeing him feel more and more comfortable to be himself was exactly what our goal was for the week: make these campers feel like they were in Disneyland. For him, I feel like we did just that.”
The Redbirds were in the middle of their week of service when concern spread about coronavirus (COVID-19). They helped the camp take extra precautions such as cleaning at the camp and making sure campers washed their hands.
Midway through the week, another group that was volunteering at the camp was forced to leave early because of the virus, but the Redbirds stepped up to make sure all of the campers continued to have a safe and fun experience at Camp Summit.
“This made a huge impact on our last 24 hours with the campers because some of our participants had to switch cabins and take on more responsibilities,” Brown said. “I could tell that this was not an easy task, but it was an important one to ensure all of the campers’ needs were still being met.”
The extra work didn’t dampen the Redbirds’ spirits.
“This is my second time going to camp, and both of my experiences have been life-changing for me,” Kessinger said. “Getting to see our campers’ smiles every day is so special to me. Getting to make even a small positive impact in the life of a camper is such a beautiful thing. Camp Summit will always have a special place in my heart, and I can’t wait to go back.”