Yesterday I fell in love two times — with two different people: Gabby and Robbie.
I am in good company by feeling uplifted by the charisma, talent, resilience, and deep faith of Gabby Douglas, America’s “Flying Squirrel,” our remarkable gold medal gymnast. She makes me want to repeat the cartwheels and roundoffs I did in my suburban backyard as an eleven-year-old, emulating the great Nadia Comaneci.
While the circle of admiration around my second new love, Robbie, is much smaller, it is no less adoring. Robbie, a Dorchester 4th grader, is a participant in the university’ Camp Shiver, a month long program which culminates today.
Camp Shriver brings children with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities together so that they have the opportunity to improve their sports skills, social skills and self-esteem, while developing positive peer relationships and making new friends.
Most camps serve kids without disabilities, some serve kids with disabilities. But ours, sponsored by our Center for Social Development and Education, serves an equal number of both.
Therein lies its dynamism. Remarkably, the camping staff are not told who is who — with or without — but are trained expertly to provide the support and attention to insure that EVERYONE thrives and leaves camp a stronger person. And that everyone has the summer of their lives.
I’ll never forget the first time I heard Center for Social Development Director Gary Siperstein, one of the saints that has been hanging around Columbia Point for decades, explain in just one sentence the essence of his research and outreach programs.
Once a kid with a disability looked him straight in the eye and told him that he had never had a friend. Since then, Siperstein, with the help of a growing roster of funders, has devoted his life to creating programs to ensure that he never hears that sentiment again.
Robbie told me he is tremendously grateful for camp. He had an uncommon eloquence for a preteen saying that camp “gives kids with disabilities the opportunity to have an equal share of freedom as kids without disabilities.”
He continued to tell me that next fall when the campers go back to their normal lives, everyone will be more confident and that he, in particular, will have fewer tantrums because he now knows himself better. “Why does Camp Shriver make kids more confident,” I asked Robbie, as a whirl of soccer ball kicking campers flew by me.
“Because this camp teaches that everyone is created equal,” Robbie replied.
The pride in his eyes was familiar to me. I had seen it again and again in the U.S. women’s gymnastics team when they stuck landings, twisted higher than Nadia could have ever imagined in 1976, and bonded powerfully in spite of each young woman’s fierce determination to be the world’s best.
We will never have a full appreciation of the inner strength that Gabrielle Douglas relied upon to help her become one of the world’s greatest athletes. That strength came from loving family, coaches, and her religious faith. But Gabby had to cultivate the courage to access all that support, even when the challenges felt insurmountable.
Camp Shriver has been the same catalyst in Robbie’s life. For two summers it has provided a source of support and a community of people who have cultivated his courage to believe in himself. While his challenges do not encompass staying balanced on a 3.9 inch wide beam, I bet they feel equally overwhelming at times. But Camp Shriver has shown Robbie, and his 120 fellow campers, that they too, can be great.
UMass Boston is deeply grateful for our generous partners in making Camp Shriver a success:
The Bank of America Foundation
The Reebok Foundation
The Rite Aid Foundation
The Summer Fund
The MENTOR Network
The Boston Bruins Foundation
The Finish Line Youth Foundation
The Red Sox Foundation
Stop and Shop
Harvard Pilgrim Health Care
Nan Cormier is director fo advancement communications