From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

The Real Treasure

Gratitude is the memory of the heart; therefore forget not to say often, I have all I ever enjoyed.

Lydia Child

Beaches, ideal for discovering great treasures, are miraculous places for unearthing natural gems. For me, volunteering is like a beach. It offers precious nuggets of life that beg to be examined, cradled in my hands and then tucked away to cherish.

One such nugget came into my life in the mid-1980s, when I volunteered at a summer camp for children with cancer aptly called “Camp Goodtimes.” It was July, and the children had gathered at Camp Byng on the Sunshine Coast near Sechelt, British Columbia. Taking a week off work to be there, I imagined sessions of creative craft making, leading adventures with imagination packed in our back pockets and singing around a blazing campfire. When I learned I had been sanctioned to the kitchen as assistant camp cook, I was disappointed.

We made enough sandwiches to feed small villages and washed tons of dishes. I gained a new appreciation for people who served their tour of duty in the army peeling potatoes. I anxiously waited for mealtime to arrive so I could connect with the kids. Based on the noise level alone, they seemed to be having a wonderful time.

I looked forward to seeing their happy faces as they peeked curiously around the kitchen corner, begging for snacks. When they asked if they could do some baking, I thought, Finally, an opportunity to interact with the children.

The head cook, a robust woman who seemed more suited to institutional security work, roared in protest, “They are not coming into my kitchen.” She placed her hands on her ample hips for emphasis. Feeling as if we were in prison instead of camp, we gave her the nickname “warden.”

I welcomed any opportunity to escape from the “warden” and help with the kids. During breaks, I would cheer on the sidelines of their baseball games or paint with a group of aspiring artists. One glorious, sunny afternoon, I relinquished my kitchen duties and packed us off to the beach, where I assisted as a lifeguard.

One small girl in my group, Nicole, clung to the shore, staring at each gentle wave as it rolled in. Like a barnacle that attaches itself to the rocks, she seemed interested in joining us in the water, and yet hesitated each time I asked her to enter.

I splashed around in the water to show her what fun we were having. Still Nicole hung back and watched with curious, wanting eyes. She took a small step toward us, hesitated and then planted herself on a new patch of sand.

I continued to play with the others, showing them how to make handstands under the water. Each time I resurfaced, Nicole stood motionless, watching from the shore.

Again I invited her to enter the ocean. Thinking that she was afraid of the water, I yelled, “Come on in, Nicole. I’ll help you swim.” Finally, my instinct told me to ease up and wait. She needed to battle whatever was holding her back, just like the illness that had invaded her body. The decision had to be her own.

Nicole’s next move took courage, determination and trust. She pulled off her wig and revealed little remnants of hair. She threw the wig to the sand with defiance and ran full force into the water with a gallop. The other children welcomed her. Her eyes sparkled with happiness. Gone was the look of fear that had held her hostage on the shore.

Together, we played and laughed like boisterous, happy children. In the water, the children were set free from hospitals, needles, pain and uncertainty. There were no adults hovering over them with grim consternation. We splashed and rejoiced in the waves. While the sun’s rays warmed us on the outside, I felt a radiant warmth deep inside my heart.

We played in the waves until we looked like limp seaweed that had been washed ashore. Bundled in towels, everyone shivered as we gathered clothes, caps and wigs and scurried to escape the cooling breeze. Back on land, they had no choice but to face whatever fate awaited them.

That summer, those children taught me to see beneath their fears and beyond my own. I gained a better understanding of the challenges they faced. They offered their small, courageous hands to hold during evening sharing circles and energetic voices at singsongs. Together we convinced the “warden” to permit them into the kitchen where dreams, in the shape of monster-sized cookies, were created and consumed.

When it came time for them to leave, the children reluctantly boarded the bus, clutching their painted handiwork and dressed in hand-crafted T-shirts decorated with pride. Tearfully, I waved good-bye, reflecting on the world that I had seen through their eyes. Like the beautiful soap bubbles we blew, we knew it would all be gone in a moment.

Holly Frederickson

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