I work as a summer camp counselor at a wonderful organization called Artists’ Exchange, and I also volunteer there regularly during the school year. In addition to summer camp and community art classes, Artists’ Exchange offers a day program for adults with disabilities that provides all sorts of art therapy and work experience to enhance their lives. During the summer, several of the day program’s members will volunteer in some of the camps and help by entertaining the kids, passing out materials, and joining in on activities.
One week this past summer, I was working the theatre camp, and we were doing warm-up when suddenly one of my campers was pulled out. She was immediately escorted out of camp by her mother, permanently. I later found out this was because the mother hadn’t known of the day program, or that some of its participants will help out with camp routinely. Though this exposure to various types of people is typically what draws families to Artists’ Exchange, this mother could not see the benefits of it. She was so uncomfortable with the fact that people with developmental disabilities were around the facility and helping out in camp that she decided to deprive her daughter of an authentic, exciting, memorable camp experience.
I realized then that my responsibility in being a camp counselor at Artists’ Exchange is not only to teach improv games and the color wheel but also to educate our campers about the importance of respecting all people no matter who they are, what they look like, or how they act.
I understood that I am the adult in these children’s lives, and the messages I preach are the ones they will believe. So when a six year old asks me why so and so’s face looks like that, I answer with conviction and a response that will open their mind, suppress the differences they see, and encourage the similarities.
I have learned that wherever I am; work, school, or even just a social situation, living by these principles of impartiality is imperative. Despite what prejudices other people may have, I know what is right, and I know how to behave with sensitivity.
Artists’ Exchange as a whole has taught me about what true community means and how important it is to have unending empathy and patience with every person you meet. The members of the day program at Artists’ Exchange are some of the most genuine, caring, steadfast people I have ever met. My lack of disability gives me no authority or prestige over these people, and I am humbled to know each and every one of them. This episode of ignorance specifically forced me to gather everything I have learned about equality and tolerance and be the role model that I needed to be.