By Laura Whitaker
Remember the yo-yo? Honestly, I was never great at it. There was something about the exact amount of string I had to let out mixed with the right amount of force to pull the yo-yo back. It was a fun challenge, and I remember that the more I practiced, the better I got. I am sure the yo-yo has lost its popularity to screens, but it was a classic American childhood pastime.
My son turned 10 in June. One month later, I was on an airplane flying him to Texas to attend a three-week camp more than 1,000 miles away. My palms were sweaty and my heart pounded faster with each mile we traveled farther from home. There was absolutely nothing in my body that told me being away for three weeks from my still-so-young boy was right. My heart ached at the thought of him being sick, lonely, hurt, or misunderstood without me there.
And then we landed. His eyes beamed with wonder and excitement, and mine were misty with heart-wrenching protection and skepticism.
This is right. This is good for him, my mind kept repeating.
Let Him Go
We arrived at camp and a counselor approached the car, opened the door for my son, and took the luggage from the trunk. Two other staff members carried his things while the others introduced themselves. And then that 18-year-old staff member grinned at me—part “it is going to be okay” and part a “oh no, this lady may blow” kind of grin. And then the counselor said, “Bye, Mom, we will take it from here.” And my heart exploded.
There I stood, a camp director for individuals with special needs. I have asked hundreds of parents who have children with difficult behaviors, g-tubes, tracheostomies, and intense medications to send their children to our overnight camp. To trust us. And now I was “that mom,” standing in a field heartbroken, tears flowing, and me ready to run back and retrieve that little human whom I had brought into the world.
Parenthood can be like a yo-yo. There really is no good use or fun to a yo-yo unless you let it out. But it also comes back into the hand that released it.
That was a major yo-yo moment. One that was life-taking and life-giving all at the same time. While it felt heartbreaking to me, it was a moment that gave my son inconceivable gifts. The kind of gifts that make him teary thinking about—gifts of independence, recreation, friendship, and memory. Gifts that I could not give him if I didn’t let him go.
No Yo-Yo Experience
Parents of children with special needs have not had practice yo-yo’ing. In fact, many of them have never had the opportunity. And many of their children have never been given the chance to receive the gifts that only camp can provide.
This summer was a perfect example. Kyla is a beautiful 18-year-old girl who loves boys, dresses fashionably, and has her mother, Cathy, as her best friend. She is also non-verbal, uses a wheelchair, and is 100-percent dependent. Her mother has never left her side overnight. Ever. When Kyla began our programs five years ago, Cathy stood at the window in tears as she begged me to let her come in and be her caretaker. The string on the yo-yo came out slightly over the years with our after-school and weekend programs.
However, the yo-yo wasn’t in full effect as Cathy “could not imagine letting Kyla go to sleep-away camp.” It had nothing to do with the trust she had in our staff and organization. She simply had not exercised the yo-yo muscle, so she could not fathom letting Kyla be away from her. Year after year, we worked to convince Cathy to let her go. And this was the summer. She signed Kyla up for overnight camp months before on a gutsy whim. She regretted that moment for weeks afterward. On drop-off day, she showed up with Kyla, luggage, and a documented manifesto on how to care for her beloved daughter. She has, after all, been the one who, for 18 years, knew how to keep her daughter alive—a phenomenon I will never understand and forever deeply respect. Tears were rolling down her cheeks, her face puffy and red. But Kyla was all smiles. She had waited years for this moment.
As Kyla went through the week, her mom began to practice the parenthood yo-yo. And Kyla received gifts that she had never been given—new friends, laughter in a cabin with girls her age, a party on a pier, a dance with a boy, a feature in the talent show. The chance to just be Kyla, an 18-year-old at camp with friends, fun, adventure, and love.
So, how do we prepare parents and train staff members to give parents the peace of mind they need when dropping off their child with special needs at overnight camp, learning how to work their yo-yo muscles? First and foremost, we train staff members to be question askers. This is not only a helpful context for them, but it offers parents peace of mind when they can articulate all of the concerns and to-do’s they are relinquishing. We ask them at least 10 questions during drop-off.
Photos, photos, photos! We systematically post pictures on Facebook, making sure that there is at least one picture of each child daily. Seeing a smile on their child’s face settles the nervous heart and allows the yo-yo to stay stretched out and spinning.
Go on a date! One of my favorite things to do as parents walk out the door is to encourage the father to take his wife on a date night. I still get a kick out of the moms who come up to me during pick-up beaming as they tell me about their time with their husband! Of course, a night out with girlfriends or colleagues can be just as refreshing for a parent with a child with special needs who doesn’t allow herself that luxury.
Reassurance. Many camps often do not call parents for small incidents, but we have learned to gain parents’ trust by calling. We start with “(Child’s name) is just fantastic!” so they know not to panic.
I couldn’t sleep the night before I picked my son up from camp. I somehow felt his little arms wrapped around me at the waist. When I arrived, I was almost running, looking for his face as images of the camp blurred by, reminding me of the time I lost him in a department store and frantically searched for his sweet three-year-old face. And then, there he was—tanned, with a big smile, running towards me. He wrapped his arms around me and cried, “I had the BEST time, Mom. I missed you SO much.”
And on the day Cathy picked up Kyla, she was one of the first in line to get to the closing ceremonies. Cathy was beaming, and so was her daughter. Joyfully reunited.
The yo-yo—with practice—does go out, but it comes back again.
Laura Whitaker began as a volunteer at Extra Special People in 2003. With her passion for enhancing the lives of children with developmental disabilities and her specialized education in this field, she was selected as the Executive Director in 2006. She uses her leadership and strengths to manage staff, oversee year-round programs and summer camps, and raise millions of dollars for the organization. Her favorite part of the job is getting to hug the many children who walk through the ESP doors. For more information, visit Extra Special People and Camp Hooray.