I am not a runner. And yet, last month, on February 19, I ran my second half marathon with Team HASC in Ft. Lauderdale. Not only did I run, but I pushed a jogging stroller for a portion of the 13.1 miles. You might be asking: why does she run?
The answer is quite simple. I don’t run to run, and I don’t run for me; I run for the beauty, power and gift that is Camp HASC. Camp HASC is an overnight summer camp for children and adults with special needs. Camp HASC is a place of tangible happiness and love, a place that focuses on ability and opportunity as opposed to disability and deficit. For seven weeks, nearly 350 campers, ranging in age from 4 to over 60, are able to enjoy a camp experience with no limits. Campers, including many with physical disabilities, attend concerts, ride bikes, go swimming, horseback ride, perform on stage, bungee jump, dance and laugh to no end.
For the past five years I’ve been privileged and honored to spend my summers at Camp HASC as a counselor, and this past summer as a psychology intern on the behavior team. During my four years as a counselor I had countless ups and downs, and cried tears related to every emotion imaginable. My second summer as a counselor was the first summer I had the tremendous opportunity of being Gial’s counselor. To say that our first summer together was challenging would be an understatement.
By the first week of camp, it was already very clear that Gial loved the pool. Though we asked nicely and tried a few techniques, Gial refused to get out of the pool at the end of our allotted swim time. Everyone else had already gotten out of the pool, and I felt like all of the new counselors were watching me to see how a second-year counselor handles a strong-willed camper who won’t listen. I wanted so badly to show them how strong and mighty I was, how I could do it myself, how I could maintain my control, and I was becoming frustrated that I couldn’t do any of that. Gial picked up on my frustration, and became even more stubborn as a result, which of course made me even more frustrated with myself. Why was I not able to control my emotions? Why was I not able to manage the situation? Why was she able to read my emotions so well? Why was she taking advantage of my frustration?
After weeks of a lot of tears, a lot of laughing and whole lot of learning, we made it to the last week of camp. I had come to love naptime with Gial. Typically, after she was lying down, I’d ask her, “Do you want me to sit on your bed, yes or no?” and often she’d say, “Yes, come,” and motion me toward the foot of her bed. On this specific day, I climbed onto her bed and sat down. She was looking at me curiously and said, “Sawah?” And I said, “Yes, Gial?”
“Are you OK?”
“Yeah, I’m OK.”
“Are you sad?”
I hadn’t told her, or anyone for that matter, that I was sad. But I was sad that camp was ending, and I was sad thinking about daily life full of deadlines and exams, void of concerts and night activities.
“Yeah, I am; I’m sad that camp is almost over.”
She reached out to me, grabbed my hand, and said, “It’s OK, Sawah… I luz you.”
Of course, I immediately had tears in my eyes; I was in awe that what was once a major source of frustration was now a source of tremendous comfort. She could read me better than anyone. I was once so angry about her sensitivity to my emotion, and it had become the greatest gift. How was it that I ended up so blessed to have someone in my life who could read me so well?
Camp HASC—my campers, my co-counselors, the environment—has taught me about teamwork, behavioral techniques, patience, empathy and the meaning and impact of unconditional love. Camp HASC has challenged me, supported me and pushed me.
Just as Camp HASC has pushed me to be better, I have now dedicated two half marathons to pushing Gial in a jogging stroller, to pushing for more opportunities for our campers, to pushing for the world to know about Camp HASC.
The entire weekend was full of a similar happiness and excitement that runs through every inch of camp. We were greeted by the talented and dedicated marathon committee, who arranged the entire weekend in impeccable detail. No matter the time of day, we proudly wore our swag, from our heads to our toes—Team HASC hats to Team HASC socks—and sang our Camp HASC songs throughout the hotel. We soaked up the sun by visiting the beach, lounging and swimming in the pool, and catching up with friends and mentors in the marvelous weather. The food was delicious and plated with expertise, and the hotel was both comfortable and tremendously accommodating; we felt like we were royalty! After a relaxing Friday, a meaningful Shabbos, a moving Havdalah, and an energized pre-marathon pasta party on Motzei Shabbos, it was clear that Team HASC 2017 had become a family.
In both of the half marathons that I’ve completed, my teammates and I have individually dedicated each of the miles during the run. We dedicated our miles to family members who give to us endlessly, to friends who support us and make us laugh, to campers who inspire us and teach us. We thanked our donors, who helped us raise over $250,000 on behalf of Camp HASC, and for constantly encouraging us, motivating us and believing in us. None of this could have happened without you and your generosity. At each mile marker we shared our dedications aloud, and it provided us with the spiritual and emotional fuel we needed to endure the next mile. Our intentional dedications transformed the run from being about us and our finish time to being about what we were running for.
Despite our early start time of 6 a.m., Gial was her typical social self, waving and screaming “hi!” and “good morning!” at our fellow runners, and “thank you” to all of the police officers along the way. Gial, my camper of three summers and teacher for life, continues to remind me how to greet everyone b’sever panim yafot, with a pleasant demeanor and countenance. In return, people cheered us on, encouraged us to “keep it up” and praised us for choosing to run the marathon with our campers. We could tell from their smiles that the HASC energy was contagious. I felt simultaneously humbled and proud to be part of the tremendously strong and ambitious family that is Team HASC.
During my first summer at HASC, I found it challenging to connect with Rivka, a teenager who could hardly communicate with those around her. After finally opening myself to recognize her tremendously sweet essence, I was in awe. I have a very vivid memory of putting her to sleep once I had started to see her for the light she brought to the world as opposed to her disabilities. It hit me that the rest of the world would never have the chance to see her and to experience her purity, her beauty and her sweetness in the same way that we did at camp.
What Team HASC accomplished by participating in the A1A Publix Half Marathon on a hot Sunday morning is precisely the tikkun, the rectification for that. By running, we are filling in the gap and showing the world how much we love our campers, how much we are willing to give both for and to them, and how this is the way to live life in the most meaningful and fulfilling way. By fundraising, by raising awareness, by wearing our Team HASC jerseys, by pushing our campers in strollers, we are showing the world how powerful, rewarding and transformative it is to commit to a life of recognizing that there is more to each and every individual than meets the eye.
So, no, I’m not a runner, but when I run with Team HASC, I run so there will always be a place for our campers to be discovered, celebrated and loved. I run for a world that commits to devoting energy and time to seeing beyond the surface. I run with my heart, my soul, my mind and my feet toward a better tomorrow—for our community, for our campers, for all of us.
By Sarah Immerman