Monday, May 09, 2005

Working for Smiles - From Kalamazoo Across the Nation, an AmeriCorps Volunteer Makes a Difference

by Zinta Aistars

This is no ordinary camp. These are no ordinary camp counselors. And when the door of the bus finally opens, and a hydraulic lift begins to rise to meet the wheels of a wheelchair, it is clear: these are no ordinary campers.

A week on assignment with Lorena Audra Rutens, AmeriCorps volunteer... and my daughter. Published in the November 2003 issue of Encore magazine in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Photo of Lorena Audra with camper Ruth.

The first small bus pulls into Camp Courageous at about 2 p.m. It is a bit earlier than expected, so the camp staff members, all of them wearing lime green shirts that have STAFF spelled across both front and back, are still gathering around the picnic tables not far from the parking lot. Clipboards in hand, they are getting their assignments for the coming week of summer camp.

This is no ordinary camp. These are no ordinary camp counselors. And when the door of the bus finally opens, and a hydraulic lift begins to rise to meet the wheels of a wheelchair, it is clear: these are no ordinary campers.

Camp Courageous is a year-round camp for people of all ages with special needs. Located in eastern Iowa, five miles from the town of Monticello, it is run completely on donations, without any government support or formal sponsorships. While there is a core staff of about 70 paid employees, the camp, which takes in about 4,500 campers over a year, relies heavily on the work of volunteers. Eleven of the lime-shirted staff members, most of them between the ages of 18 and 24, are volunteers from AmeriCorps. They are here for four weeks, as part of a 10 month fulltime residential program that will send them all across the United States to complete 1,700 hours of volunteer service in various projects in public safety, public health, and disaster relief. Camp Courageous is not the first project these eleven volunteers have been on, nor will it be the last.

One of the eleven, her blonde ponytail bouncing as she dodges around the gathering staff members now helping campers unload from more buses, more vans, more cars, is from Kalamazoo. She is Lorena Audra Rutens, 23 years old and paying her own way through college. Working on a social work degree that is two semesters shy of complete at Florida State University in Tallahassee, she has taken a break from the classroom to test her new skills in the real world (see sidebar for Lorena’s own story). When she completes the 10 months of service on AmeriCorps projects like this one, Lorena will have earned a stipend of $4,725 to be used for tuition or educational purposes only. That, she will tell you with a quick smile, amounts to approximately 70 cents pay per hour.

“I’m obviously not here for the money,” Lorena laughs, “although that stipend will help me finish up my degree back at FSU. And after that, I hope to go on for a Master’s. Most of my tuition has been paid from money I make waitressing and working at a daycare center in Tallahassee. No, I’m not here for the money. I’m here for other reasons.”

But there’s no time now to talk reasons. Campers are arriving, and they all need assistance of one kind or another as they tentatively gather in the center of the Camp Courageous campus. There are 62 of them, all of them adults, 13 of them in wheelchairs, and their physical and mental disabilities range from autism, multiple sclerosis, visual and hearing impairments, Down’s syndrome, epilepsy, muscular dystrophy, paraplegics, attention deficit disorder, to a long list of other, lesser known disabilities and disorders. Most campers have been diagnosed with more than one disability. All are welcome here.

Staff members, including all of the AmeriCorps volunteers, mix easily and quickly with the new campers and assist wherever a hand is needed. Luggage is taken off the buses and out of the trunks of various vehicles and arranged in piles that will be sorted into the rooms where campers will sleep along with staff members, at least one per room. Some weeks the camp is expressly for disabled children, but this week is for adults only. Even so, the diaper bags and boxes of adult-sized diapers accumulate into large stacks beside rolls of sleeping bags and duffel bags.

A short blind woman, not much over four feet tall, holding her white cane with one hand, hangs onto the handle of a wheelchair with another. Although her face has the innocence of childhood, her hair is showing first streaks of gray. Her head rolling from side to side, she repeats the same few indecipherable words again and again and again. A young woman in a lime green shirt approaches her and takes one of the blind woman’s hands in hers. The blind woman repeats her three words faster, as if in greeting.

Another gray haired man in a baseball cap shuffles slowly across the campus, feet turned sharply outward, and peers into a glass door of one of the campus buildings. A young man in a lime green shirt stands beside him and leans into the window too. They strike up a quiet conversation.

A middle-aged man in billowing blue trousers walks a determined straight line down the center of the campus. When he is just about dead center between the grouping of buildings, his blue trousers drop around his ankles. He sits down on the ground to contemplate the situation. Several lime green shirted staffers form a circle around him, one or two sitting down beside him, to contemplate and collaborate on a solution to the suddenly drafty situation with the new camper.

Lorena has found one of the group assigned to her care for the week. This is Gwen. Lorena checks an index card in her back pants pocket and quickly finds out that Gwen is 49 years old and suffers from schizophrenia. Lorena chatters happily with Gwen, asking her questions, telling her about the camp and where they will find their room and beds. Gwen listens with utmost seriousness, unsmiling, her eyes never leaving Lorena’s face as she studies her. The rest of the group soon gathers around the two of them. Two other AmeriCorps volunteers, Fedora and Kirsten, have found the campers assigned to them – Marie, Carol, who is the only one in their group who is in a wheelchair, Brenda, and Nancy – and they head for their room, lugging sleeping bags and luggage. Gwen is the youngest in the group; the other women are in their 50s and 60s. Brenda and Nancy have their teddy bears along for the week, and they place the stuffed animals carefully on their beds when they are shown where they will sleep.

Fedora, one of the other AmeriCorps volunteers, is from the Virgin Islands. As she helps camper Carol, who is in the wheelchair, arrange her belongings in a cubicle at the end of the room, she talks about her experience: “I just finished college prior to joining AmeriCorps. My degree is in international affairs, but I would like to work for a non-profit, human and women’s rights type of group. I joined AmeriCorps because I hadn’t ever volunteered before. I wanted to try a new experience and to travel around the United States. It is not quite what I expected, not what I would choose first for myself, but just as it is important in life to know what you want to do, it can be just as important to know what you don’t want to do.”

Kirsten, the third AmeriCorps volunteer with this group, is a pre-med student from Albany, New York. She has found exactly what she expected to find in volunteering. Studying to be a pediatrician, already with four years of experience working with children dealing with cancer, she is an eager participant, sleeves always pushed up past her elbows. “I’ve done volunteer work before,” she says, “and I love it. There is so much to choose from, and AmeriCorps gives us extensive experience with all kinds of projects that help great people.”

Once the campers have settled in, activities begin. There is a long list of things to do that fill the week from one end to the other. With 16 buildings on 80 acres, the camp provides space for indoor and outdoor activities: swimming, archery, canoeing, fishing, rock climbing, tree climbing, arts and crafts, dancing, games, various sports, and more. While some of the activities seem challenging to even the most able camper, all are encouraged to participate at their own comfort level, perhaps even pushing it a little, to build self esteem in new found skills.

Every camper gets personal attention. A few wander aimlessly, not participating in activities, but nevertheless included in the group, and for each of these “wanderers,” a staff member wanders right along beside them, everywhere they go. Down hiking trails, through various buildings, across the campus, in and out of rooms, these campers are never out of sight of a staff member, even when the wandering continues long through the hours of the night. If turns need to be taken, staff members switch night watches, but vigilance is constant.

“It’s amazing to see the dedication of the volunteers,” Lorena says as she walks with her group down a trail into the woods at dusk. “Keep in mind, we are not professionals in the field. Most of us have never done this sort of work before. We are given a few days of training, and then we are on our own. We watch over the campers, we help them dress and undress, we help feed them, wash them, care for them. When necessary, we change diapers. We do things we never imagined doing before, but it doesn’t take long to get past the discomfort of dealing with this kind of work. This could be you. This could be me. This could be my brother, my mother. Someone has to care. Why not me?”

Dedication is paramount; the time the AmeriCorps volunteers put in a day at a project such as this one can mean as much as 17-hour long workdays, sometimes even more. It can mean lost sleep. It can mean aching muscles from lifting a paraplegic from his wheelchair to his bed. It can mean six day work weeks, with little energy left over for anything but an intoxicating sleep on the single day off.

A camper from another group spots Lorena just as she walks by, ponytail bobbing, and decides she likes her smile. The camper, a middle-aged woman with a slightly lopsided gait, makes her way over to give Lorena a big, warm hug. No explanation given, no explanation needed. Lorena coos and giggles and returns the hug. The two of them hook arms for a moment, do a little jig, give each other a high-five, do another jig, then follow the rest of the campers into the woods, where they all finally meet in a circle to sing favorite songs.

“My training was a little shorter than the others received,” Lorena says as the campers burst into a cacophony of song. “A few of us were called away for emergency disaster relief. AmeriCorps headquarters for our group is in Denver, Colorado. There, we go through seminars and training before being sent across the country on various assignments. This is my second project. The first was in Texas, near the Mexican border clearing a preserve. But just as we were going to head out for this project in Iowa, there was a lot of flooding in the south, and I was sent to assist Red Cross in Alabama in helping flood victims. So I missed part of the training at Camp Courageous. But volunteering teaches you to adapt quickly, to fly by the seat of your pants. If you have heart, you roll up your sleeves and get to work, and you learn as you go. You do what you need to do.”

A frequent presence throughout the camp is the camp’s director, Jeanne Muellerleile. She not only works long hours at the camp, she lives here. Her house is directly on camp grounds, just inside the main gate, and with her live her husband and daughter.

“This is the kind of job you don’t put away at the end of the day,” she says. “It becomes a part of who you are. I started volunteering when I was a teenager in St. Louis, Missouri. I helped in a swimming class for handicapped children. I enjoyed that, but when I started college, I wasn’t sure what kind of career I wanted to pursue. I was still volunteering during my summers, and I began to realize this was something I really enjoyed doing. Oh, the first summer I had doubts, sure. I felt overwhelmed. But by the end of the summer, I knew. This kind of work pushes your comfort zone. It’s stressful. You question yourself, if you are doing things the right way, whether you will know how to reach people different than yourself. But then something happens, you stop worrying, and you begin to realize how wonderful these people are and how much they are teaching you, and not the other way around!”

Her biggest challenge, Jeanne says, is not with the campers, but with staff. Problems with an inability to deal with stress, not showing up to work on time, or simply not being able to cope with all the requirements of a job such as this one. She is grateful for the AmeriCorps and other volunteers, whose dedication and willingness to work without pay make the camp possible.

“Since we exist solely because of donations of time, goods, and dollars,” she says, “organizations such as AmeriCorps make places like Camp Courageous possible.”

The message Jeanne wants people to understand most is the importance of being open to all kinds of people. “About three percent of the population in the United States has some kind of disability. The rest of us need to reach out to these people and not make assumptions about them based on their appearance or behavior. Get past that initial discomfort. Talk to them when you meet them on the street. Say hello. You might make a new friend.”

The week goes by quickly. The campers have played games, organized a carnival, danced to a live country band, attended a circus, gone bowling, bottle-fed baby farm animals, tie-dyed shirts, played basketball, canoed down a river, climbed trees, and had a cook-out. And more. Memories are not in short supply.

Lorena walks beside camper Gwen to the awaiting bus, helping her carry her luggage.

“I’ll remember you,” Gwen says. She stops for a moment to gaze at Lorena, as if memorizing her smiling face for all time. Her own face, so serious throughout the week, slowly blossoms into a bright smile.

“I’ll remember you,” Lorena says. Her eyes appear suspiciously wet for a moment, as the two women hug, rocking back and forth for a long moment.

“I work for smiles,” Lorena says, as she watches Gwen climb slowly and carefully onto the bus.

Note: After completing this assignment, Lorena traveled to New Mexico, where her next project was building houses with Habitat for Humanity for families in need of homes.

If interested in learning more about Camp Courageous in Monticello, Iowa, see:


AmeriCorps Volunteer Gives to Receive

by Lorena Audra Rutens

Only halfway through my AmeriCorps stint and I’ve found that I’ve changed much.

In a public restroom in a store I look at the handicap stall and recall lifting and assisting a handicapped woman back into her wheelchair. I step out of the bathroom and leave the store. My hand trails the outside wall and the coarse gravel of mortar between the rocks recalls for me the distant sound of a chainsaw, and in my mind's eye I watch tree branches careen to the ground. It begins to rain and I recall a flood: torrents of water splashing and hissing, the flow unending. In my mind I walk into an old trailer and the wind is knocked out of me by the smell of mold. I trip over the ripples in a once flat living room floor. "We lost everything, everything," the owner sighs holding his tanned, weathered hands in his lap.

By the end of this simple walk through a store and a tiny parking lot, I find I have traveled through many lives.

I wrench back the door of the oversized van to see 11 faces staring at me: my team... my family for 10 months. What we’ve seen in this short time is more than many people will see in a decade. We’ve ridden in this 15-passenger van across the country and lived in five states, spent 10-hour days in the hot sun, backs throbbing and arms aching, clearing new trails into a mountainside, and stood on ladders precariously balanced on cliff edges to stain cabins in which Girl Scouts would soon be laughing. My team became a composite of stonemasons to renovate a new porch for generations of these women to walk on. I spoon fed the most beautiful 17 year old man because he lacked the dexterity and coordination to feed himself. With a pure yet developmentally three year old mentality, he repaid me with glowing smiles and blown kisses.

These stories, only a few of many, have left their marks on my heart.

At a remarkable camp we helped the most severely disabled people feel alive and brave enough to explore caves and scale rock walls. We issued hope to the victims of floods by providing beds, clothing, and food through American Red Cross funds.

Today I sit in New Mexico, in the office of Habitat for Humanity. My team is attempting to get the help and structure needed to build six houses in seven weeks for families that now live in substandard houses, dirty, cold, and leaking.

Living and working with these 11 people, all strong willed and between the ages of 18-24, is no easy task. I have felt the joy and frustration, the ups and downs associated with all of the projects I’ve worked with these people. Although I’ve made friends who may one day sit with me on my porch reminiscing about the "good old days," the best friend I’ve met is me. I’ve learned how strong and powerful I truly am.

I will be a leader in whatever I choose to do. I will lead by love—of myself and of humanity—and by my will to use my talents to help others to bring about true success. AmeriCorps has taught me this. I offer a taste, a glimpse, of the self-realizations and experiences one will face while working for a community service organization such as AmeriCorps. This 10-month endeavor is the domestic equivalent of Peace Corps. Volunteers devote their time and efforts, after rigorous training, to serving their communities in return for an educational award of $4,725.

This is no easy journey, day in and day out, but it is well worth the greater social, political, and spiritual awareness to be gained. The empowerment I feel today, as my term draws to a close, is worth every minute of this rollercoaster ride.



AmeriCorps - Corporation for National and Community Service

Created in 1933 and sometimes referred to as the “domestic version of Peace Corps”, AmeriCorps is a network of national service programs that meet the critical needs of education, environment, public safety, and health. More than 50, 000 young Americans each year serve as volunteers through more than 2,100 nonprofits, public agencies, and faith-based organizations. AmeriCorps volunteers tutor and mentor youth, build affordable housing, clean parks, work in after-school programs mentoring children, and respond to the needs of disaster relief.

AmeriCorps is made up of three programs: AmeriCorps State and National; AmeriCorps VISTA; and AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps. NCCC, the residential program described in this article, is a 10-month, fulltime residential program for men and women between the ages of 18 and 24. NCCC combines civilian service with the best aspects of military service, including leadership and team building.

AmeriCorps is open to U.S. citizens, nationals, or lawful permanent residents aged 17 or older. Members serve full or part time over a 10- to 12-month period. Fulltime members receive an education award of $4,725 to pay for college, graduate school, or to pay back student loans. They also receive health insurance, training, and student loan deferment. Part time members (at least 90 hours over two years or less) are eligible for an educational award of $2,362.50. Up to two such awards may be earned per member. Education awards can be used at most institutions of higher education, including graduate and professional programs.

Are you up for the challenge? To learn more about AmeriCorps, see: or call 1.800.942.2677

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