You Won't Believe What Happens At Camp...

It was a hard decision for my parents but due to a congenital deformity I had my leg amputated at the age of five. I distinctly remember, even after this number of years, the amputation, the bandage, and the lack of friends coming to the house.  We went to Denver to have my first leg made.  I remember the smell of wood, glue and leather as they measured and fit the first leg. I learned to walk on the steps and go over a bridge they said a troll lived under.  It was good to walk and I learned quickly.  Some people couldn’t tell I had an artificial leg!  So much so that, when I had surgery in the 3rd grade and had to go back to school without a leg, many of the students asked what had happened to me. I refused to go to school until I could get the leg back on.

The prosthetic leg became less of a mobility issue and more of a  social issue.  It was important to me to be “normal”.  Almost every fight I had was over being called “crippled” or some variation of that term.  It was hard when you were chosen last for baseball or stared at at the pool. I was determined and tried hard to do everything others did. Most of them I did.   s

When the man in the yellow Lions Club vest came to visit my father and told him I had an opportunity to attend Texas Lions Camp for Crippled Children, my father was grateful and asked me if I wanted to go to camp.  I pitched a fit and said “No way”.  I did not consider myself “crippled” and did not want to associate with those who were.  My father talked to the Lion and informed me I would be going.  My mother packed me up and drove me the 500 miles to go to a two week camp. 

When I arrived there were many things strange to me but the counselors were nice.  They showed me to a bed, then instructed me on how to make it.  Hospital corners!  They had a chore list and on it was CLEANING TOILETS!  Oh NO!  Get me out of here!  Then the other boys in the cabin started arriving.  One in wheelchair, one on crutches, one with no arms and one with  funny speech and a strange contraption around his neck and cords running to his ears.  I was pretty uncomfortable!  We began to talk.  I soon found that they were just as I was, normal… with a twist.  The boy in the wheelchair was funny and I enjoyed telling jokes with him.  The deaf boy taught me some signs and I learned the pledge of allegiance.  I became great friends with the boy on crutches and was amazed at the ability of the boy with no arms to swim.  Soon, it was just fun being there. 

I entered a swimming relay contest.  We all had to swim clothed to the deep end and undress, and swim back.  Every one else had to remove two shoes, two socks, two pant legs.  Me… just one.  I won.  It was the first time being an amputee became an advantage!  It was great.  At camp I had my first dance, first individual victory, first time to be elected a captain.  The games were great, the people were greater, the feeling of accomplishment… wonderful. I won an award at the end of camp and found that a microphone and joke telling was a real skill!   I would have stayed at camp.

I made it to Lions Camp twice as a camper.  I thought that was it.  It lead me to working as a counselor at a Muscular Dystrophy camp as a Jr in high school.  I found much the same enjoyment as a counselor there as I had as a camper.  So, after my first year of college I applied to Lions Camp as a counselor.

It was fairly intense training.  We learned the correct way to lift a person from a wheelchair and how to push one through a door without spilling the occupant.  We learned games that everyone could play and did not concentrate on traditional sports. I found out that I knew more than many of the other counselors due to  being an amputee and dealing with it all my life.  I started making friends that I would later find out would last a lifetime.  People treated me like a leader. 

One incident stands out in my mind from my counselor days. A screen door changed my life. 

I was a counselor in Unit 3, the Comanches!  I lived in C Wing at the far back of the cabin.  I was introduced to a camper who had lost his arm in a farming accident.  It was missing just below the elbow.  He was in the bed next to mine. He had been through therapy and had a prosthetic arm which he brought in his suitcase.  He did not like wearing it and refused to use it.  He knew how, but did not think it was part of him. 

Every morning I woke up and put my leg on.  He watched me and would ask questions. I tried to encourage him in everything from swimming to arts and crafts.  Eventually he wore his arm, but not every day.  It still was not a part of him, but he continued to watch me.

On the last day of camp, Texas Lions Camp always has an awards program.  It’s a big deal. Hundreds of campers and hundreds of parents and Lions Club members attend each program.  Each camper gets a new t-shirt, we sing our cabin song and hope our cabin gets the REALLY BIG reward as best cabin! 

We both got ready that evening but I was busy and not watching my friend now, as we had become buds.  As we lined up to go out the screen door I gave the order to go!  Without thinking my young friend reached out with his artificial arm and opened the door.  I saw it. I saw a young man with one arm became a young man with two arms.  He forgot he was an amputee and was a boy again, a whole boy.

I had to sit for a minute.  It has been well over 40 years now.  I still can’t tell the story without tearing up.  It was at that moment that I realized that my experiences, my trials, might help another to deal with their trials.  I finished that summer as a counselor and spent one more as a counselor at TLC. I knew then that in some way I needed to make a way in the world of camping with children who were struggling with issues similar to mine.  The experience at TLC led me to a lifetime of work and today, some 40+years later.   I still find that camp is the best place to learn, to grow, and to experience the best of life.

After six years teaching in a variety of special education situations, and 26 years in various other camps and special situations I am now, for the last twelve years at Charis Hills Camp with my wife Colleen of 42 yers

We are blessed to be able to bring the grace of Jesus Christ into a camp where He is desperately needed. We are able to explain the gospel to children in a way they understand. We offer a program where they can learn social skills, find friends, form relationships and be rewarded for being the truly remarkable young people they are.

You will never believe what happens at camp! Not until you experience it. What a blessing it is to know that one young man, and one screen door could change a life so drastically. God used a young man with a missing arm and a screen door to direct me in a way that I might never have gone. He used that young man and that door to help me find a path. God will use this camp, too, to change and challenge the young people that attend. He said so…

Ephesians 2:10

“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Rand Southard M.Ed. CCD
Charis Hills Camp