A teenager asked if he could talk to me privately. I of course said yes, and sent the other kids away to play on the football pitch so I could have a chat with him. He told me his father had died a few years ago in an accident and that the kids in his class were bullying him because he didn’t have a dad. Shocking I know, but kids can be so cruel. He went on to say that he tried to kill himself so that he could be with his dad as he missed him so much. The teenager had tears rolling down his cheeks. It completely broke me, although I didn’t let it show as I’m meant to be the Councillor. It took every ounce of strength I had not to break down in front of the child. I wanted to hug him and tell him everything would be okay, but I couldn’t. There are strict rules at Camp Buckskin for my safety as well as the childs, but I knew right then what I had to do. I would guide him to the right path. I knew then I had made the right decision last year to come and work with special needs children.
It was a cold December day in Japan 2016 where the Para Ice Hockey World Championships were taking part. Great Britain had got themselves in to the bronze medal game against Slovakia. Whoever won this game and got the bronze medal would advance to the Winter Paralympic Qualifiers in Italy the following year and then had a chance to play in Korea at the Winter Olympics. The loser would be going home to lick their wounds and try again in another four years time.
By the end of the 1st Period we were 2-0 down, but not out of it yet. Into the 2nd Period we went with our heads held high. I was chasing the puck down in my own defensive zone when the boards started to rush towards me at a freighting pace, almost like a parachutist getting ground rush. I lost my blade on the ice as I turned to pick up the puck and crashed into the boards with an echoing thump. I knew instantly I had broken my back… again!
After the accident, I needed to take a year out of sport to recover, but I also knew I needed to fill it with something meaningful, like a dream job. I did some research and I landed on becoming a Councillor at a summer camp in the States. By early 2017 I was applying for jobs all over America when I received an email from a place called Camp Buckskin in Northern Minnesota. It was a small family run camp that helped special needs and vulnerable children find their place in life with lots of structure and sports while also helping them learn how to cope with their conditions, whatever they were. Before I knew it I was scheduling the first of three skype interviews with the Program Director Umaga (nickname).
After three very long interviews Umaga told me I had been offered the job as a cabin councillor. I knew with my life experiences I had plenty to offer Camp Buckskin and couldn’t wait to get started helping children realise their potential. This time last year I was packing my bags and making sure I had my passport and a sense of adventure and was ready to get to work doing what would probably be one of the hardest jobs I would do post Army
I landed in Minnesota and cleared customs, but only after reassuring the man behind the desk with, no sense of humour that I was not coming to marry an American girl. I met up with some other Camp Councillors and headed straight to the bus depot for a three hour bus ride to Duluth where we would be picked up by Camp Staff. Some of us had been travelling all day so it was fast food and then a further two hour drive till we got to camp. It was already late in the evening and darkness had descended upon us as we drove through thick woodland that made it seem that much darker and quite eerie as the mist rolled in on some low lying roads. Out of the gloom we saw a sign that read, “Camp Buckskin” and an arrow directed us down a smaller dirt track.
This Camp was literally in the middle of nowhere and at night it was scary. To make matters worse we were told not to walk beyond the perimeter into the woods as there were three local wolf packs roaming around the area, not to mention a bear attack a few years back.
A few minutes later I was dropped off at my cabin, shown where the ablutions were and given a timing for breakfast if I wanted it. Being in the military I got my sleeping bag out and dived straight in it before realising I needed the toilet. There was no way I was going to venture out into the darkness so I held on till the morning.
I woke up at about 07:00 on a bed the army would have been proud to call their own. The sun was already above the horizon giving it an orange tint that actually made it look like a fiery ball in the sky. I was in a cabin with another bed opposite me and a door that led into the main part of the cabin where there were four bunk beds just about suitable for the kids to sleep on. The cabin was pretty basic, a bed and an open cubby hole next to it for some clothing. I loved it, it was my kind of wilderness. There was no signal on the phone and I couldn't hear any vehicles. All I could hear was the singing of birds and of course the bugs dive bombing me at every opportunity. They were everywhere. I mean we were in the land of 10,000 lakes and that attracted swarms of blood sucking bugs that needed to feed… well, we were the only real source of food for them, but luckily I had my 100% Deet Mosquito Repellent to bathe in. The kids kept telling me I would get cancer if I sprayed myself with 100% Deet, but I told them at least I would be a bug free cancer patient.
Over the next 10 days the Supervisors put a lot of time and dedication in to making sure we were ready for the arrival of all the kids. We went over scenarios where supervisors played the child and we acted as the councillor, reacting to whatever we found in front of us. The scenarios ranged from children running off into the woods or fights breaking out or even fraternisation between children. Most of it was common sense, however these days common sense can be quite hard to find. As soon as you say, “This is a test” people seem to panic and figuratively throw common sense out the window. By the end of the 10 days all of us were as ready as we were ever going to be. The supervisors paired us off with another staff member for the in-cabin councillors as there was always two to a cabin. I couldn’t have been happier with my co-councillor Pac-Man (nickname). He was from Northern Ireland and really looking forward to helping with the kids, but the most important thing was… he didn’t snore. I could get a decent night sleeps without having to throw all my shoes at him.
On arrival the kids had to hand over all their electrical items like cell phones, mp3 players and any game systems. They were completely technology free and the only way for them to communicate with the outside world was through writing a letter. We encouraged them to write at least one letter a week to their parents, but they could write more if they wanted to. One of the younger kids wrote to his parents saying Camp Buckskin was like a prison and he hated it there. Then he went on to say that he hated his parents for sending him there and they couldn’t possibly love him because they sent him to a prison. Add in a few ‘F’ bombs and you have yourself a very interesting letter. I think we sent it anyway, but rang his parents just to let them know a sternly worded letter was on its way.
Finally, the kids arrived and Pac-man and I were quite nervous, but luck would have it that most of the kids in our cabin had attended before. The first night was a night I would never forget. By 21:30 the kids were all in bed and the lights were out. Both of us looked at each other and breathed a sigh of relief as we collapsed on to our beds in a heap. I looked in the mirror and saw a face that looked like it had been held captive for a few months, and it was only day one. I washed, showered and got back to the cabin and went straight into my sleeping bag. With day one under my belt I said to myself how hard could this actually be.
“Arrrgh! Arrrgh! Arrrgh!” I sat bolt upright dazed and confused for a second or two. My co-councillor had done the same and we looked at each other trying to figure out what was happening in the kids cabin. I rushed out of bed and stood by the inner door bracing myself for a scene of carnage. I thought, had a bear or a wolf entered without us seeing it? Or was one of the other kids trying to hurt another child. I picked up one of my walking poles and looked at Pac-Man in a way that said, “You ready?” without actually saying it. He nodded, so I kicked open the door like I was doing room clearance drills back in Iraq. I cautiously made my way into the cabin with the walking pole in a baseball stance ready to fight off the wild animal that was attacking my kids. On entering the room, I saw no wild animal attacking anybody nor did I see a child out of bed. In fact, they were all asleep. I could see nothing out of place other than us standing in the middle of the cabin with puzzled looks on our faces. I couldn’t hear any sniggers or kids pretending to sleep. I was perplexed. We both withdrew from the cabin and back to our beds. I sat on my bed just to calm myself down a little and then laid my head on the pillow and I was asleep again. I woke up in the morning and had a confab with Pac-Man just to make sure last night’s antics weren’t a dream. He confirmed it wasn’t. When it was time to wake the kids up we spoke to them about the incident. It transpired that one of the kids screams in his sleep quite regularly throughout the night. It was a relief; however, he could have said something the day before.
Camp Buckskin is not a chain nor is it a franchise. It is a family business run by a lovely couple called Higgins and Hathaway and the love and attention that goes into making the camp what it is comes straight form the heart. This is proven by the fact that Camp Buckskin had so many returners each year, some in fact have been going to the summer camp since they were eight years old. I wish the United Kingdom did summer camps like the US does. We would find a lot more kids learning how to handle life a little better and getting involved in outdoor activities instead of playing on their games consoles. I don’t say this often, but, America has got it right here and we need to follow suit.
I would recommend to anybody and everybody who may be interested in working at a summer camp to take the plunge and sign up no matter what age you are. It will probably be the hardest you have ever worked in your life, but it will be the most rewarding as well. For me, the highlight of the summer was teaching that child to grieve for his father and knowing it was okay to enjoy life again. I watched him grow over the four weeks as he came out of his shell and interacted with the other kids and engaged in the sporting activities. I watched him try new things he had never even thought of trying and when it came to leaving, I knew he was leaving a better person all round. I can’t wait to return the following summer 2019 to help more special needs children find their place in the world. I think I may have found mine.
Thank You Camp Buckskin for an epic summer I will never forget and welcoming me into the Buckskin family.
Till next time folks…