Camp PALS was one of the best things I’ve ever done, and I can’t wait to share the details of my week at Georgetown University with you. For those of you who may not know me, I am passionate about the special needs and disability community. I spent the week of July 6-14th volunteering as a counselor with Camp PALS at their Georgetown camp. PALS changed my life and was one of the most rewarding, magical, and downright fun things I’ve ever experienced.
In this blog post, I’ll be going over all of the things that you might want to know if you’re interested in volunteering with PALS. I’ll also be sharing all of the amazing details about my week because I loved it SO MUCH. There’ll be lots of photos throughout this post. Here’s the link to the PALS Youtube if you’re interested in seeing the videos from my time at Camp! Just click the Georgetown 2018 Playlist.
What is PALS?
PALS is an organization focused on building transformative relationships between young adults with down syndrome and their peers, fostering independence, and providing a safe and fun experience. It’s so much more than a normal summer camp. From the instant I arrived, I felt like I was home.
In addition to the weeklong summer camps, PALS as an organization is responsible for the Congratulations Project, in which individuals with Down Syndrome write letters to new parents of babies with Down Syndrome, and Adventures, which are shorter camps throughout the year designed to help keep the relationships between campers and counselors strong.
To get some more specifics on what Camp PALS is, let’s get into an overview of the week. I attended the Georgetown Camp as a counselor, and this was my first year doing camp. I will be returning for years to come and hope to further increase my involvement with PALS in the future. Counselors arrive to campus two days before campers to get to know each other, experience training, and decorate/set up for camp—especially camper arrival. This means I arrived at Georgetown University on Friday, July 6th and camper arrival was on Sunday.
Friday night was mostly about the counselors getting to know each other, Saturday was training and starting to decorate our halls (trust me, that is a way bigger task than you’d think. We go pretty hard). Sunday was a mad rush to make signs and decorate and get pumped, until campers started arriving at 1pm. Then, things were a magical and absurdly fun dance party with cheers and tears and SO MUCH SINGING and laughter for around 4 hours.
PALS is unique in that we celebrate and shout the worth and value of every single camper. There were counselors there with siblings who have Down Syndrome, counselors who are in graduate school to work in the disability community, and on the other end of the spectrum, counselors who have never interacted with a special needs person but want to be involved. My team, the Green Girls, had a range of all of these, and that’s part of what makes PALS great. You can come as you are and make this week magical, just by being you and being passionate. Throughout the week, we had a lot of on-campus activities like swimming, arts and crafts, yoga, Olympics, a formal dance, and more, plus off-campus trips to the zoo, Sandy Point State Park beach, and a mystery treasure hunt ending in a pirate ship ride around the Potomac River.
Volunteering with PALS
From a logistical standpoint, volunteers are unpaid but pay for nothing during the week except transportation to and from camp. That means all of your meals, trips, and accommodations are taken care of during the week.
To be a volunteer with PALS, you need to be open-minded, kind, patient, and ready to have the best week of your life. You’ll be making friends with so many new people—both with and without Down Syndrome, and trust me when I say those friendships are lasting. You also need to be prepared to sing, dance, and laugh more than you ever have before. I mean it—we had dance parties almost constantly, and I loved every minute of it. You also need to be prepared to have ENERGY. I have never seen or felt such energy from every person at an event, especially for such an extended time.
My Experience at Camp Pals
At PALS, counselors and campers become roommates in a 1-1 basis. My roommate, Jennifer, was experiencing her first week of Camp PALS right along with me, and she was so fun and kind. Jennifer showed me how to be brave—to stand up and do what you believe in, no matter how scary it may seem. Getting to know each and every camper was my favorite thing about the week, and those friendships are going to last forever. I have already been on Facetime, texting, Snapchat, Instagram, and every other way to connect with them.
The other campers on the green team were Carson, Miranda, Elaina, Cassie, Elizabeth and Tate. I am so grateful that I had the chance to meet such an amazing group of girls, and I miss them every day. Carson has the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever met and is so caring and empathetic. Miranda can bring a smile to your face no matter what the day has been like, and taught me to laugh more and love deeper. She also showed me just how much love a person can have for cookies.
Elaina taught me that there is no bad time of day to sing “Party in the USA” or “Shake It Off”, and taught me to slow down and enjoy what we’re doing. Cassie taught me to be confident, bold, and loyal. Elizabeth taught me to be proud of who I am and to not be afraid of making new friends (constantly). Tate taught me to embrace life and not to be afraid to show off good dance moves. That girl can breakdance! Every one of our campers (and the counselors from the green girls—JC, Izzy, Naomi, Kerry, Sam, Carissa, Liz, Astrid) taught me the meaning of acceptance, as well as what true friendship looks like.
I don’t even know where to start. Our days were so full of joy, and struggles, too. Amidst any struggles though, we created joy. Wherever we walked, our group sang the whole way. Some highlights of the week include the Congratulations Project, the dance, movie night, Olympics, and so much more. I also loved karaoke night, camper speeches–it’s so hard to choose favorites when everything was awesome.
The Congratulations Project was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It is emotional, so powerful, and amazing to watch. Campers write letters to new parents of babies with Down Syndrome. These letters explain the joys of a life with Down Syndrome as well as provide comfort, insight, and advice.
On the final night of camp, we had our formal dance. Everyone looked so beautiful (and handsome) and I had such a blast. I danced with so many awesome people, and I don’t think I stopped dancing for even one song.
Movie night was one of the more relaxed activities we did. Campers could choose between watching Shrek or playing board games. I watched Shrek with most my friends. It was the nicest time getting to relax and just hang out. I also loved getting time to relax in between things. We filled those moments with spontaneous games of UNO in the lounge.
Olympics was during the day on Friday, and it was SO MUCH FUN. Plus, Green Team won. To prep for Olympics, we had lots of fun with face paint and beads and focused on getting everyone excited. Aside from the actual games being hilarious and really fun, it was amazing to see how supportive everyone was. Every single camper and every single counselor had so much energy cheering for everyone else, and I learned a lot about who I want to be from those campers. Even when they were afraid of something, they did it. Even when they were ready to win, they supported the others. That’s how we all should be, isn’t it? Brave, supportive, and completely ourselves.
I also loved the in-between moments—the ones not necessarily captured on film, but that mean the world in building such powerful friendships. One night, Miranda came to hang out in my room while her roommate took a shower. We basically just lounged around in our pajamas and talked, and looked at pictures on my phone. It was maybe 10 minutes, but it was so nice. You learn a lot about a person in the in-between moments, and they were some of my favorites. One morning, Jennifer and I had a dance party in our room for no reason other than faith that the day would be awesome if we started it like that.
Camp PALS is more than camp; it is family, friendship, and magic. At camp, we celebrate individuality and the unique qualities that make each of us who we are. The relationships I built have helped me to become a better person, and to understand the power of acceptance in the world. If you have any interest in doing PALS in the future, or learning more about the organization, or hearing me gush about how much I loved it, please feel free to contact me! You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or DM me on Instagram. I would be happy to answer any questions you have! For more information, also visit the PALS website at https://www.palsprograms.org.