By Pengrui Cai
It was July. The apex of a day in a week full of camp activities. Every day had been a tremendous climb to stay sane. So far, the day was going perfectly well. Our group had just hiked up the massive hill separating Chorley Park and the Brickworks. It had been a long and exhausting day in the 30-degree heat, the sweat pouring down our faces. The kids had been a blessing, really; you would expect them to complain the entire day, but in reality, they were angels, we were blessed, and everything had been going well. Or so we thought.
Sitting at home during the March Break, in a slightly dusty, old smelling basement in my parents’ house, it felt as though something was missing. I hadn’t done enough good in the world, so I had the feeling of not accomplishing much in my 17 years of existence on this planet. You could say a massive feeling of inadequacy was there. What usually follows the feeling of inadequacy is the sudden, inexplicable urge to do something, anything. And so I planned. I thought about the long term, what I was going to do during the summer, and as you may have guessed: nothing. I had nothing planned. At all. Save for the moments of hanging out with friends or just walking around enjoying the city, I had nothing interesting or, dare I say, productive planned. And then it hit me. Why not start with some baby steps? Find something to do right now.
So I started working out with a friend Ben in the gym and decided to show up to Speakers’ Union more often. Being able to work out with people who are extremely knowledgeable in the subject area was considerably beneficial. It helped me avoid beginner’s mistakes, fix my form, and tailor my exercises to my liking. Of course, this wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. There was this exhausted, depleted feeling in my core arriving home after a long day. Believe me, working out was helpful, but it wasn’t fulfilling. It just wasn’t what I was looking for.
One day, out of the blue, I was talking to Robert. Most of that conversation wasn’t too memorable; however, what was interesting was this volunteer opportunity Rob brought up. Last year, he had volunteered for the Rosedale United Church, helping as a camp counselor. Every summer, this church planned an entire week of various summer camp- style activities such as tennis, swimming, arts and crafts, but invited underprivileged kids from a homeless shelter downtown on Queen St East. The Red Door Shelter was where the kids lived; it is a safe space created by the city in order to relocate families or individuals in need, such as abuse victims or homeless families. Personally, I didn’t realize it at the time, but I would soon come to enjoy this experience. Hearing this idea instilled puzzlement, but also encouraged curiosity to grow. I put off emailing Kristen, the minister at Rosedale United Church, but a few days later, after some convincing from Rob, I was in. I think I may have been nervous. The next part was super easy. All I had to do was wait.
We milled around nervously in the surprisingly well-lit, wooden-floored basement of the church waiting for the kids to arrive. The day was planned carefully. They would introduce themselves, we would introduce ourselves, and begin to play fun, energetic group games. At 10:30, the sound of a bus arriving filled our ears. When the kids entered the church, they seemed really excited to be there, and most of the counselors were as well, to be honest. We were tasked with providing the children a “normal summer camp experience” to distract them from whatever may be bothering their families–sort of a vacation to ease their minds. On the first day, we took the kids to nearby Rosedale Park, where we played a bunch of games such as Freeze Tag, Manhunt, Red Rover, and Octopus. Playing these games with the kids, making sure they were having fun, fulfilled the yearning to be a leader inside of me, as well as the emptiness of not having helped others enough. Having the youngest child from the shelter in my group proved especially eye opening. He was the most innocent there and needed the most help. I was happy to keep an eye on him.
His name was Kevin, and he was only seven years old. Kevin was not like the others. And to this day, even I am not sure if he knew exactly what was going on. He seemed spaced out all the time and didn’t really speak much. However, it seemed that he enjoyed almost every activity. Since he was the youngest, we recognized the need to keep a close eye on him.
One of the most interesting moments happened on the second last day. Earlier through the sweaty, hot day, we had visited the Brickworks. Kevin was with me. We were all exhausted. Water dripped from everyone’s skin. It was the fourth day of a week of fun activities, and we had dedicated that entire day to visiting the Brickworks, learning about the environment, the flora and fauna of the area. It was time to return to Chorley Park. At first, many of the kids had thought it would be a simple path, but what many did not realize was that the Brickworks is essentially a giant pit. Not only that, but the quickest way to get to Chorley Park was climbing this giant hill. It was a hard sell, but the kids got up the hill. A few even stumbled. We settled around a group of park benches, a friend and I passing out slices of watermelon.
Kevin was bitten by a wasp. I saw it immediately. Saying that I casually kept my eyes on him is a massive understatement. I practically stressed myself out to an exam-like state, making sure he was okay. I wanted nothing to go wrong because he was my responsibility. The idea of being helpful was always on my mind. Kevin ran to me directly. Looking back, I realized that, instead of running to any of the other adults, people he would’ve known for a much longer time, Kevin ran to me. It was at that moment that a sense of profound fulfillment hit me. I had done enough to warrant such a response. I finally felt good. Instead of sitting there, not knowing what to do, I sprang to action. Having learned first aid previously and in one of the training sessions, I calmed Kevin down, comforted him, and addressed the sting. He relaxed beside me for the rest of the afternoon, and we talked while the rest of the kids played.
I never saw Kevin again. He had a visitation from his father, therefore he did not show up. When I volunteered the following year, Kevin was not there. This meant that he had moved out and his parents had found housing and a job. It was good news.
What surprised me the most after volunteering at this summer camp over the summer was the fact that I would remember bits and pieces of it randomly, out of the blue, months after it happened. This experience was very fulfilling. It taught me about leadership and responsibility, organization, and best of all, it satisfied an urge to do something good in this world.