Camp Awakening
 
Active Living Magazine

Back in the early 1990s, five incredible teenage girls were in the same boat. Coerced into attending summer camp by their parents, each stepped onto the Camp Awakening van-nervous, unsure, and stuck sharing the next two weeks with virtual strangers.

Lisa Butler recalls the first time she entered the van. She readily admits her parents had to convince her to go to Camp Awakening. With her Raggedy Ann doll secretly packed away in her bag for extra security, a nervous Lisa took her seat and joined the other six campers for the long drive from Toronto up to the campsite. Mary Abra and Amanda (“Mandy”) Miller also first time campers were on the van. Lisa looked around, spotted Mandy’s stuffed animal, and instantly felt at ease. “Immediately, I felt I was among like-minded people and I wasn’t the only one who was nervous,” Lisa says. “When I stepped into the van, right away, I was in close proximity to six other campers and the counselors. Immediately, I felt this was going to be my family for the next two weeks.”

“I didn’t want to go,” remembers Mary. “It was completely my parents who pushed. I had never been away from my parents for more than three days. I’m very shy and my confidence wasn’t very good. I was very nervous, but once I got there, the people were very friendly and welcoming. I got used to it very quickly and I loved it.”

Lisa, Mary and Mandy quickly bonded, and returned to camp for the next several years. Two summers later, they met Tanya Hendry and Kristin Plue. The five girls became so inseparable that they were dubbed “The Fabulous Five.”

NOT JUST ANOTHER CAMP

Camp Awakening is much more than a summer camp. Groups of seven children from ages 10 to 18 with physical disabilities attend camp for two weeks. While the seven campers live together, they are also integrated with able-bodied children from other camps for activities and social events. “To me, the most important aspect of Camp Awakening is that the children are living with others who have similar issues and they can discuss those issues,” says Camp Awakening director Melinda Evans. “Kids learn social skills, group co-operation, conflict resolution—all those things from living with other people.” Although there is a fee to attend the camp, Camp Awakening has never turned away a camper due to financial reasons. Fundraisers, such as the annual pub night, help to raise money for the camp, and provide financial assistance to those who need it.

A LIFE-CHANGING EXPERIENCE

Though each member of the “Fab Five” possessed different degrees of social ease and self-esteem, they all admit camp boosted their confidence, and independence. Tanya, who has cerebral palsy, says Camp Awakening and the “Fab Five” gave her a place where she belonged. “We had a lot in common—problems at school and making friends. No-one understood. But then, we would get together, and we could read each others’ minds.”

Kristin, who, along with Mary, has spina bifida, agrees. “You felt your camp friends knew you and understood you. There was an acceptance there that came about right away.”

“We were able to be ourselves,” says Mandy, who has Sturge Weber Syndrome. “At camp, I got to forget about my disability and just have fun.”

From doing each other’s hair, to helping with other needs, the “Fab Five” were always there for each other. “The staff was almost in shock that they had to do so little for these girls, because they fulfilled each other’s needs,” recalls Melinda. “They are quite miraculous. These girls wanted to do it all.”

“We were just so happy to help each other,” Lisa, who is an amputee, remembers. “We all have different abilities and disabilities, and we managed to play off that. It became second nature to us.”

CAMP DAYS

Camp Awakening provided the perfect backdrop to create lasting and special memories. The girls remember the activities, such as canoeing, kayaking, swimming, archery, sports and crafts fondly. Canoeing with the boys’ camp was always an adventure. First crushes, wondering if any of the boys liked them, and the fun of being out on the water, the co-ed canoe trips sometimes resulted in a dance or a scavenger hunt created by the camp counselors.

After camp each year, they kept in touch via letters and telephone, and got together throughout the year for birthdays, Christmas, and other occasions.

They describe their last year of camp as being very emotional. “Those last days were tough,” remembers Kristin. “We would always tease Lisa saying she was the one who got us crying at the end. She was the first one to cry, and then the rest of us would start. There were a lot of emotions at camp. You never wanted to leave when it was over.”

Mary recalls their last year at camp. Since her birthday was later in the year, and Kristin was a year younger than the others, they could have returned to camp for one more summer; however, since the others had already reached the age limit, the “Fab 5” made a pact. “We said ‘no, it’s either the five of us or none,’” Mary remembers.

LIFELONG FRIENDS

From those first uneasy days of camp, the “Fab Five” have managed to remain close. Now in their mid-20s, though it has been a long time since they have all been together at the same time, they know they will be lifelong friends. “We all want to stick together, and over the years, we’ve become more involved in each other’s lives. We’ve found a closeness with each other, and we want to keep that,” Mandy says.

Mary agrees. “For me, it doesn’t matter how long we’ve gone without seeing each other. It’s like we saw each other yesterday. They’re four girls that I can call at anytime and they’ll be there. Because we have to work at our friendship, we appreciate it even more.”

Lisa adds: “For some reason, I have no hesitation that I will be friends with these girls from here on in no matter where we end up.”

Since their camp days, the “Fab Five” have gone on to create successful lives and careers. Tanya, who married husband Steve almost two years ago, works at her family’s M&M Meat Shops where she is the associate manager. Kristin teaches grade 5. Mary currently works at a law firm. Mandy, who is busy planning her upcoming wedding to fiancé Andrew, works as a medical secretary at Toronto General Hospital for a liver doctor. Lisa is a business analyst.

The “Fab Five” are no longer the shy, nervous teenagers who stepped onto the Camp Awakening van many years ago. Camp Awakening helped them to blossom into the confident, successful women they are today. “I think I would be a very different person if I had won that fight with my parents when I was 12—if they hadn’t pushed me go to camp,” Mary says.

“You learn a lot about yourself,” agrees Mandy. “I realized that wherever you feel you can go, as long as you are determined, and have support, you can go anywhere within reason.”

 
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