How it all started…small steps, big shoes.
Over the summer of 2011 I was fortunate enough to experience being a volunteer at Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Connecticut. This camp offered me a whole new level of experience. Built for kids who have a life threatening illness, camp was by far the happiest place I’ve ever been. Many of the campers have/had cancer while others struggle with HIV/AIDS, Sickle Cell Anemia, and other uncommon illnesses. A memory I dwell on often is from a specific morning when I woke up my campers. I went around the room and when I got to one of them, she asked me to bring her leg to her. You really don’t think about everything you have until you are carrying a thirteen year olds leg across the cabin to her bunk so she can attach it, in order to get out of her bed and start her day.
Another fond memory was watching campers be liberated from their disease. On talent night I held back tears as I watched a beautiful bald teenage girl (currently going through chemo, at camp) play the piano like a healthy rock star. To see children with backpacks holding the food that feeds them twenty hours a day, sing and dance like they were on top
of the world, was amazing. Standing ovations were not uncommon on talent night. These kids instantly became my heroes.
While I was at camp, I met two volunteers who were the weekly “clowns”. They were not your stereotypical birthday party clowns but rather “Caring Clowns”. These clowns are a part of Big Apple Circus’s clown care program. It involves professional clowns who visit hospitals to heal kids through laughter and play. Inspired by this concept when I returned to Chicago I investigated the idea to see if we had a Caring Clown program. It was hard to find but after searching for a program, I was able to learn alongside a local Caring Clown. Embarrassed to meet her at a local pancake shop because she was in costume, I soon embraced it. I was quickly briefed over breakfast and an hour later, found myself walking into the hospital dressed in wacky mismatched clothes and YES a big red nose.
I proceeded to hand out stickers, sing songs, and tell jokes to some who couldn’t even talk. As I walked around the rehab floor, I recall a woman around my age that was curled up in the fetal position. She was drooling on her pillow while a friend held her hand at her bedside. I remember walking in and having tears stream down my face as I couldn’t hold them back anymore. I didn’t know if I could actually do this without breaking down. I quickly switched my thinking and my only thought was that I needed to make her feel some sort of joy. I asked her if she wanted a sticker. She nodded and I put a sticker on her. I wasn’t sure if she could smile but I could tell by looking at her eyes that she was happy. As I was about to leave, I noticed she had a teddy bear sitting next to her in the bed. I looked at her and said “I think your bear needs a sticker too”. I leaned over to put a sticker on her bear and as I looked up a huge smile started to appear on her face. Sounds came out of her mouth but no words were clear. She began to flap her arms with excitement and Dr. Clown, who I was with, told me that was one of the first time she had ever witnessed this particular woman smile.
Up until that day I had no idea that a simple smile would mean so much to someone in a great deal of pain. I can’t wait to begin my journey in Peru as I make my way to the bedsides of children who will be recovering from painful surgeries.