After many hours of extensive training and planning, I arrived at camp and was assigned to two girls, aged 9, named India and Monica. I immediately fell head over heals and I completely committed myself to them 24/7. The first thing I noticed was that they arrived at camp with hardly a thing; they certainly weren’t packed for camp the way I packed my own children. It all went downhill, and uphill, from there, as I realized what they didn’t have – physically and emotionally – and I became more and more committed. I had exactly one week to try to fill up their souls with the things that can be the hardest to find - hope and resilience.
For one full week they had me as a counselor, and as a mother, and we made memories and we became stronger. What I was doing was the most important thing in the world, I was investing in their wellbeing.
Our first night together in our cabin was calm and quiet. 8 girls, 4 counselors, everyone went to sleep pretty easily. Except for me and one of my campers, India. With the help of my flashlight I was writing in my journal about day #1 and I knew she was watching me from her bunk 4 feet away. She flashed her light on me and whispered, “Susan, what are you doing?” “I’m writing in my journal,” I whispered back. “What’s that?” Her flashlight was shining right in my eyes. I tore some sheets of paper out of my journal, found an extra pen in my backpack, and snuck over. “Writing in your journal is a great way to end your day by reviewing what you liked and what worked out for you.” I gave India the paper and pen, gave her a hug, and then traveled back to my bunk. As I continued to write in my journal I watched my new friend out of the corner of my eye. She was writing away. Every once in a while she’d flash her light back on me, so that she could copy me exactly. When I closed my book, turned off my flashlight and went to sleep, so did she.
My most memorable experience was when we were trapped in our cabin during one of those famous 2017 Midwestern summer thunder storms. Knowing that after camp I could never see them or be with them again – I wasn’t sure if this had occurred to them by this point – I realized that we could forge a bond that would last forever. After a huge boom of thunder, I whispered to them, “For the rest of our lives, whenever we hear thunder, let’s whisper hello to each other. That way we’ll always remember each other and always remember what we learned together.” Since this has been the summer of thunder storms, I’ve many times been whispering, “Hello Monica,” and “Hello India.” What I hope they hear in their hearts is me reminding them to, “Be strong. Always do the right thing. You are never alone because God is always with you.”
On the bus ride home all three of us squished into one seat and I held each of their hands inside of mine. We talked a little bit about what we liked most about camp, as they both leaned on me and fell asleep. I wished the bus would take us to my house so that I could keep them safe forever. I worried about saying goodbye, but when the bus stopped the ending was fast, and as I watched them walk away, and as I watched the back of their heads, still full of the braids that I made, I started to cry.
When I got home that night, before I slept 11 hours straight, I wrote in my camp journal for the last time. I wrote pages and pages so that I could always remember the wonderful experience that had just happened. I haven’t shared my journal with anyone, but I have read it over and over again, as I’ve wondered about how my girls are doing. Many times, so far, I’ve found myself working in front of my computer during some of those famous 2017 Midwestern thunderstorms as I whispered, “Hello,” to my girls.
A close friend recently asked me if I would go through this again. I told her that while this was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, physically and emotionally, it was also one of the most important. So, how could I not?
The truth is, a fire in my heart had already been lit to help children in foster care. That’s why I founded Let It Be Us. But if this experience did one thing for me it did this – it turned that fire into a blaze.
Susan McConnell is the Founder and Executive Director of Let It Be Us, a nonprofit with the mission of adoption and education of children in Illinois foster care. McConnell is the mother of four children, three of whom came to her family through adoption. She carries an MBA from DePaul University and will soon graduate from Cornell University’s Women in Leadership Program. She may be reached at email@example.com.