“Blessed are the pure at heart, for they shall see God.” This phrase spoke out to me as I reflected on the camp. It has been such great honour to volunteer at this camp and witness the beauty of these special people, who seized every moment to love, bring laughter and challenge themselves. I joined the camp at the last minute, as I saw an advertisement in Catholic News seeking volunteers. I thought that it was a good way to reach out to this specific group of youths, who may find it difficult to participate in other youth camps as activities may not be catered to their needs or may not have trained professionals around. I decided to sign up as I was intrigued and curious to find out how a camp for youths with disabilities would be like. I also sought to enhance my understanding of the special needs community in Singapore as I was exploring work in that sector.
I have realised that here in Singapore we seldom see children or youths with special needs out in the streets, like how we would see able-bodied individuals. However, it might be just that I simply do not notice them when I am outside, just because individuals with special needs, particularly those with mental disabilities, look very much like any able-bodied person. In Singapore, it seems like either the society is not inclusive or understanding enough for families to bring members with special needs out, or that there are many constraints such as unsuitable physical environments in shopping malls and playgrounds. Referring to an article published by The Straits Times (3 April 2017), two supermarkets and a major toy store have taken the initiative to introduce a quiet hour for parents with children with autism to shop at ease. They caringly opened their stores an hour early, turning off all music and advertisement, dimmed the lights and basically adjusted all systems to help children with autism, who are often hypersensitive to light and sound, to shop comfortably. This is fitting for Singapore as research has shown that 1 in 150 children have autism, slightly higher than the global figures of 1 in 160 children. Such initiatives are indeed commendable and a demonstration of the baby steps that we are taking to embrace the differences in each one of us living here. There was definitely this desire in me to see how this summer camp made alterations or included activities to reach out to those with disabilities, without compromising on the fun! I also wanted to see whether it is possible to even do so – bringing people with different disabilities, yet having a way to meet all their different needs. It sounded really cool to me.
I would not deny that it was a physically tiring five days of camp – from the first day prior to camp where we met to pack the camp bags and orientate our overseas guests. However, I always looked around and saw that every staff carried smiles on their faces, glad to offer whatever they can for the comfort of our guests, and that inspired me to always do the same. Every morning, when I woke up and encountered these inspiring people – guests and staff alike, I became filled with such energy to join in, encourage them and even dance with them all night. The love and joy they possessed in their hearts rubbed onto me too.
It was a pity that I did not manage to get to know many of the guests, but I grew close to a few of them through the four days. I found myself becoming attached to them as they grew fond of me too. But more importantly, I realised that I also needed to learn to take new perspectives and to see their needs from their point of view.
There were many memorable incidents during the camp that I would love to share. I recall one where we had just came back from an offsite activity and were having dinner. Mealtimes were more or less time for us to rest and get to know everyone better.
However, one of the staff came up to another volunteer and I, requesting that we check on two of our guests who had not arrived at dinner. We finished up our meal promptly and headed to the dormitories to find these two sisters. They were still in the midst of getting ready for dinner, even though dinner had begun more than an hour ago! We noticed that one of them had trouble combing her hair as it became quite tangled due to the iFly activity. We took turns to comb one of the girl’s hair and it was tough work tackling those knots without pulling too hard and hurting her. We spent a good half an hour there and they were finally ready to leave. Thereafter, we spent another hour coaxing them to finish their food during dinner. It was a very humbling experience for me but I enjoyed it so much as we made them laugh and forget about their own difficulties. We also managed to get to know them on a deeper level as we asked them more about their lives, what they were doing now, etc. We humoured them with jokes and singing and we eventually made it to the night programme in the faraway (according to them) auditorium, fashionably late for the night activities!
The sisters showed me that along the way, I grew to believe that they do not share the same struggles as all youths do. For instance, finding a job or being concerned about appearances. We sometimes conveniently treat them like children, helpless and vulnerable, forgetting that they want to be like regular youths who are trying to find their place in society and facing up to challenges. Upon reflection, I realised that we never did ask them about their condition or their disabilities and how it impacted them.
Throughout the camp, I have not asked our guests about their disabilities, but just saw them as youths or adults who love having a good time. It was a camp where our guests were not concerned about disabilities. If it was an activity that they wanted to do – to fly or to run or to dance, they just had to believe they can and say the word, trusting us volunteers to try our best to make it happen. For most with physical disabilities, they very much yearn to be independent and our first instinct to offer assistance may be demeaning to them. We would instead always encourage them to try to overcome their present obstacle or merely walk at the same pace as they push themselves up a difficult slope. I noticed that often only after trying and struggling for a while, one of our guests asked for help to push him up the slope.
Indeed, there is so much more that we can do to build a more inclusive and caring society for these beautiful individuals. It is our duty to reciprocate the love that they so freely give when we spend time with them and I pray that God may grant all of us the grace to be as pure and humble at heart as they are. Thank you, Jesus, for teaching me how to love Your people and see You in them.