Couple of days ago I had an opportunity to visit the Camp Knutson of Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota – or Camp-K, how they used to call it. Each year, the camp serves children with skin disease, autism, Down syndrome, heart diseases, families with a member(s) affected by, or infected with, HIV/AIDS. The camp was donated in 1953 by Minnesota Congressman Harold Knutson to be used as a summer retreat for “neglected, unfortunate, deprived and handicapped children.” It is located on a peninsula between two lakes, amidst of luscious greens of pine forest.

When I was in the Camp-K, it was full with children, their happy smiles and laughter. They were so happy and cheerful, all the time engaged in some activities: arts&crafts, sport games, horse riding, archery, kayaking, swimming, exploring and learning about nature, and other fun stuff.

This particular group of children, hosted at the camp when I was there, was supervised by the American Academy of Dermatology – children had various skin diseases. In spite of their happiness and laughter, I think I was able to catch a glimpse of loneliness in their eyes – loneliness and perhaps fear. Or maybe I was wrong. But my co-worker was affirmative – these children do have challenges of inclusion and acceptance from the society.

This experience of Camp-K reminded me of the camp that our non-profit – Full Life NGO – facilitates in my very own small town of Stepanavan, Armenia. Our camp – an annual week of outdoor inclusive activities and camp experience for kids – started 3 years ago. Even though we do not have great facilities (not yet!), the laughter and happy smiles of our kids are just the same!

However, there is a difference – our camp brings together children with and without disabilities. Our goal is not only to provide “camp experience” to unprivileged children, but also to break the stereotypes and patterns of social isolation existing for people with disabilities. For our society, that was used total isolation of people with special needs, the inclusion can be a very learning and at the same time shocking experience.

Most of the children without disabilities in our camp have never had a chance to meet their peers with special needs. Our counselors are aware of any psychological stress or challenge, our supervisor Suren (himself in a wheelchair as a result of quite severe cerebral palsy) is always at the camp – ready and open to talk. One of the teenagers without disabilities had a very difficult time in the first 2 days – a very sensitive soul, he has never thought of a disability before and now, seeing kids of his age experiencing life-long conditions and challenges was a real shock for him. They had a long chat with Suren. And it was helpful – he found peace for himself, and by the end of their camp term didn’t want to part with his new friends.

Perhaps, that was one of the most rewarding experiences of our camp – to see the hesitation in children at the beginning and then to observe gradual and brilliant change in their attitude towards their peers, to see emerging compassion, bonding and friendship – regardless of a challenge or a special need.

Social isolation and attitude of the society – I strongly believe that those two issues are as important to tackle as the accessibility of the infrastructure and environment – and maybe even more important. Trying to influence mentality and mindset, to break existing stereotypes is a very challenging, time and effort consuming task. However, children are the best audience to target – yet free of stereotypes and open. That is the age (the earlier, the better) when people need to learn compassion and empathy, learn how to feel for another human being.

I do believe in compassion and I think that life flows under the boomerang’s rule – all our deeds will come back to us, sooner or later. It might sound a bit hypocritical, such as practicing compassion because of the fear of a “returning boomerang” – well, why not? As long as it works for me and for others.

And of course, wrapping up a blog post on compassion in a nice way wouldn’t be possible without quotes on compassion. The treasures of internet revealed quite few that truly touched my heart. I hope they will appeal to other readers, too.

“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. ”
― Martin Luther King Jr.

“I would rather make mistakes in kindness and compassion than work miracles in unkindness and hardness.”
― Mother Teresa, A Gift for God: Prayers and Meditations

“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”
― Dalai Lama XIV

“تبسمك في وجه أخيك صدقة، وأمرك بالمعروف صدقة ونهيك عن المنكر صدقة، وإرشادك الرجل في أرض الضلال لك صدقة، ونصرك الرجل الرديء البصر لك صدقة، وإماطتك الحجر والشوك العظم عن الطريق لك صدقة
Smiling in your brother’s face is an act of charity. So is enjoining good and forbidding evil, giving directions to the lost traveller, aiding the blind and removing obstacles from the path.

(Graded authentic by Ibn Hajar and al-Albani: Hidaayat-ur-Ruwaah, 2/293)”
― Prophet Muhammad

“The simplest acts of kindness are by far more powerful then a thousand heads bowing in prayer.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

All quotes taken from http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/compassion

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