Mama Bear Goes to Camp!
I answered the phone. The chipper voice on the other end said:“Hi Sue, this is Nat are you coming to the 2017 Harvard-Westlake (H-W) graduation to see Lauren?” I paused hard. I then took a deep breath. I honestly told her that I was not sure at the time but I assured her that I would think about it. Justin was like Lauren’s big brother. She attended H-W because he strongly encouraged her. Justin attended H-W from the strong insistence of his big sister Taylor Vaughn Lasley and her mother Merle.
After I broached the subject with Darrell we totally agreed that we could do it. Besides, so many students who knew Justin were in that class, and many students from the school still support Justin’s “Dare to Dream” program and furthermore, we are still a part of the H-W community. The last time we were on that field was for Justin’s class graduation in 2014. It was unimaginable, to say the least, but he was celebrated posthumously in the highest regard. It will be a day I will never forget…
I entered from the track and was instantly spotted by my dear friend Nasreen. She was shocked to see me. She was speaking with a lady. She introduced me and I said my quick hello and goodbyes and wandered to find a seat. Darrell had already made a detour to sit in the shade near the bleachers.
As I waited for Merle, the same lady that I had just met with Nasreen walked over and sat behind me. Her name was Heather. We began chatting. I asked her did she have a child graduating and she said yes. Her son Collin. She then began telling me that her daughter Kassie — who was weeks away now from graduating from college—was on the swim team with Justin. She said she was hesitant to talk to me ( when she realized who I was) but something inside her was so strong that she had too. She recapped the indelible impact that Justin had on the whole school community and especially her daughter and his teammates. We could not really fight back the tears of remembrance.
I told her that my new mission in life was to help kids use their voice, seek their passion and for the world to change how we have been taught to deal with grief and loss. You see the reality about grief is that it is emotional and it shows up in many forms from the loss of a loved one, a relationship, a move, a divorce, an illness loss of safety, an election and lord knows what the aftermath of these hurricanes are going to do to those affected in so many ways.The hopes, dreams, and futures have been wiped away in a matter of seconds… That’s exactly happened to us. She mentioned that her husband was a pediatric cardiologist and that she too was a pediatrician. I said I sure wished we had met you guys before our unimaginable loss. She mentioned that in their medical field even though they save lives every day, many times people grieve their illness for many years.
She then said she wanted us to meet her husband Kevin and that we should come over to the camp her husband runs on Catalina Island. They run it for 3 weeks at the end of summer each year.
http://www.campdelcorazon.org. They are 23 years in the making now… Camp del Corazon is an organization that provides a medically supervised, residential summer camp for children ages 7-17 who are living with heart disease, as well as additional programs for these children and their families. I said Heather, don’t tell me is it at Catalina Island Camp? http://catalinaislandcamps.com
And she said: Yes it is. I almost gasped for a breath. I said are you’re kidding me? Then since I can’t make this stuff up, I told her that Justin and our family went to that camp every year for about 10 years because the owners of that camp– Tom and Maria Horner are our friends from Altadena and they are members of our church St. Marks.
Camp” during the Memorial Weekend. Justin loved that place!!We always shared the cabin with the Parr family and Justin’s surrogate brothers Miles and Sean. Lauren and her family went too. Justin learned to snorkel, kayak, rock climb, high ropes, archery etc. I, on the other hand, get seasick so I always wear my sea band and lay down on the trip over there. When I got there I enjoy the water and hiking and soaking in all of the beauty.
For the past 4.5 years, I have often thought to myself that I will NEVER go to Catalina Island again… A place where Justin went for years and loved. Like the graduation, I had to think about it. Her husband and his team started this camp for kids with heart disease. They provide this free opportunity for girls and boys age 7-17 to come and just be a kid for 5 days. Some are sicker than others, some don’t make it the next year because they may have died. But for the days that they are there, they LIVE to the fullest.
A few weeks after the graduation we had dinner with the Shannon’s. They are so loving and compassionate. Dr. Kevin Shannon was patient with my million questions about the “What ifs I had with Justin’s demise” He definitely had the BEST Bedside manners of ANY Dr. I have ever met. I asked him why he started the camp. He said over 20 years ago he took the risk and was able to save a 9-year-old boys life with a new heart surgery. Every time the kid came for his check up appointments he wore two t-shirts—he was hiding his scars from the surgery. He thought to himself, “ I just saved this kids life and he is embarrassed from his scars. This can’t happen… So that was how this camp was created. Kids from all walks of life could come experience camp and do all the activities where they can be successful. They meet their friends, they wear their scars proudly as they enjoy ALL things that this camp has to offer. THE BEST PARTS FOR THE KIDS THERE WERE NO HELICOPTER PARENTS ALLOWED.
The camp date was set for September 2, 2017. The night before I packed for the day trip. We had to be at San Pedro dock for 7 a.m. We left our house a little before 6 a.m. and as we got on the freeway the light went on in my car and the engine started smoking. OMG I thought, we can’t miss the boat. Darrell pulled over and started trying to figure out the problem. I already knew in my mind that we were going to ditch that car. I called Billy who lived just blocks away. He came we got on the road and we made it there by 7:05 am, Whoa!!
We were told that we would meet Gumpy and 10 others who were traveling over to the island with us. The group included Darrell and me, Gumpy and his daughter, Chris Waller (UCLA Gymnastics Coach and his wife) Laurel Travis and her son Jonathan (who started Safe Heart Testing http://www.safeheartscreening.com after seeing Justin’s story on television) and a couple with their son.
We arrived safely and I did not get sick. Before we got off the boat, Heather told the group that we could not use our real names at the camp and that we had to make up a camp name. Darrell was Rooney, Jonathon was Seagull, and Heather was Feather. I can’t remember the others names but for some reason, I decided upon “ Mama Bear.”
As I was getting off of the boat a familiar face sans a long beard greeted me. It was Wendel. He was Justin’s camp counselor at Justin went with the Youth Group when he was in the 6th grade. Wendel was in high school. He is now a handsome married man. He gave me that extra hug as if I knew that was for Justin.
I had some relief, no hesitation and I felt strong to go visit the camp and carry Justin with me every step of the way. Even though it was about 85 degrees that day, I did carry Justin’s Nike jacket with me for old times sake. He wore that Jacket on his last visit to Catalina in 2012.
We got our credentials on deck and we went on a guided tour with the “Big Kahuna” aka Dr. Shannon. It fit him well because he stands about 6’3″ tall. He is a gentle giant and he and Heather- oops I mean Feather have raised wonderful children. They were all there volunteering as counselors as they do every year.
I tried not to be too overbearing as if I was so familiar with the lay of the land because you know I had been there over 10 times before… I was patient. Darrell was happy about that. We looked at all the groups of kids donning specific scarfs around their neck or head with colors to suit each team. The littlest campers were the tugboats the oldest tsunamis. They were having so much fun. I noticed that some moved slower than others and I could see some of the vertical scars outside of their t-shirt line. I noticed a kid in a red wagon. Big Kahuna said that this kid had been a camper for 3 years and he had been in the hospital again just a day before he came to camp. His whole time in the hospital he said he wanted to go camping.
They told him he could come but it would be best for him to ride in the wagon between the activities so he would have all of the energy to participate in the various options. Gumpy who works with the kids in the water sports said that there was a camper who was on oxygen and they just strapped life jackets to the tanks and put them in the kayak so that he could go out into the water– just like the other kids.
As I watched the campers enjoying all of the adventures that camp had to offer, I could not help but place Justin’s image at the various activities because really he too was there from age 5 and his last trip to Catalina he was about 15…
We toured the cabins, they were just as we last left them. Big Kahuna pointed to the sign on the wall and he said on day one each cabin of campers have to come up with their own cabin rules. The rules on this sign caught everyone’s attention just to think that these boys were around 13 years old!!!!
He also said that each cabin gets rated every day for the cleanliness of their cabin. We went to the infirmary and commended the bay of Drs. and nurses who volunteer their vacation time to make a difference in these campers’ lives.
Lunchtime was next. The 130 boys and girls’ campers and over 80 plus volunteers and nurses who unassumingly administer hundreds of pills to the campers throughout the day sat on the benches under the roof. Since we were the VIP’s for the day they played some funky music and we danced our A__ off as we made our way on deck. They had us call out our name to the crowds. When it was my turn I roared:“ MY NAME IS MAMA BEAR!” and I know your special hand clap… I did it and to the surprise of the campers, they cheered in amazement. I then said: “ I HAVE BEEN HERE BEFORE” Let’s do it again. In sync, the sweet sound of our collective claps made some noise. They soon announced that we would each be seating with a table of campers. So the counselor then started to call out the various cabins for each VIP. Before she got to me, a long table of boys off in the distance started to pound on the tables and chant loudly: “WE WANT MAMA BEAR! WE WANT MAMA BEAR!… The head counselor then said: I guess that’s where you are going to sit Mama Bear!!! It was the Senior II table. I ran over and immediately asked each kid their name and where they were from. There was Billy from Visalia and Eddie from Escondido and Andrew from LA. Some of the campers had been coming from 3-9 years. This was their last year…
I then turned to my right and there was this movie star looking stud with a dark shadow of a beard “ Sorry Darrell” I said: What’s your name? With a deep voice he said his name was “Scruff” He was surely a stud muffin and I almost lost my train of thought… But I kept my composure and said: “How long have you been a counselor here?” He said: ” 3 years.” Then he proceeded to tell me that he had his first heart surgery when he was 2 years old. I guess that he was about 25 years old now. I was shocked. I told him that he was indeed blessed. About 30% of the counselors have heart disease and they were once campers at this camp too.
Then Mama Bear went to work asking a million questions to each camper. They were shocked that I remembered their names. One kid from Escondido told me that sometimes he looks bad on the outside when he is sick but he is still a good person. I told him to keep on enjoying your life and sharing your story and using your voice. Another camper Billy said he played the drums. I gave him some leads to drum core camps for the future. They asked me what I wanted to drink and they got water for me. I asked them why they wanted me to sit with them and they said: ” You are cool!”
Before we ate they announced: “We can’t eat until we say, Grace!” I thought to myself isn’t this a secular camp? Are they going to do really say a blessing? Not like that’s a bad thing at all…Before I could blink and eye Darrell and his table of the mightiest campers were lined up on the stage. This adorable boy who was about 8 years old was the leader. He had a head full of curly blond hair that was the size of the Jackson 5 afros. He went down the line asking each of his fellow cabin mates to say grace. The first one started off and said:
“ Jupe, jupe jupe jupe jupe! The leader said wrong!! The other campers got it wrong too. When he got to Darrell who was the second to the last Darrell said Jupe, jupeee jupeeee, jupe jupe with a little high improv pitch rhythm but to his chagrin, he was wrong too. The kids roared with laughter. The last kid finally belted out Jupe, jupe jupe jupe jupe… and the last thing he said was the name “ Grace’!! It was so funny and clever way of saying their version of ” Grace” too!!
My table of young men were gentlemen and polite. They let me go to the head of the line and I told them all to make sure that they filled their plates with colorful vegetables. By the way, the food at this camp is a 5 star for real!! So nothing had changed since the days when we came. A lot of other campers came up to me and said: “ Hi Mama Bear” I, in turn, said hello and asked them a question or two. It dawned on me that these campers were the same age as Justin was– the last time I saw him…
Boy, you don’t know what this camp did for me. I easily fell right back into being a Mom… I had not been called Mama in 4.5 years. Hearing this from these campers just did my mind and body good… As I was leaving the cafeteria a young man came up to me and said: “ Mama Bear are you coming to the talent show tonight?” I said:” What time, I think we are leaving in a few hours.” I told him maybe I can come back next year and see you.” He said: “ This is my last year. Can I at least have a hug? “ OMG I wanted to FALL OUT!!!!! I said: Of course you can!!! I gave this young camper the biggest bear hug ever. It was all too much. But greatly appreciated. I was beside myself. Before I could get emotional the counselors motioned us to come over to this cabin and pick out some costumes to quickly put on for the “ Parade of Lost and Found Items” We put on the crazy outfits, grabbed items from the Lost and Found Box and danced up and down the aisle searching for the campers to claim them. It worked all of the missing items were retrieved. Man, it had been a while since I danced and moved and smiled at the same time. It was so fun!!!
A few moments later at the corner of my eyes, I could see the UCLA coach walking on his hands towards the front of the room. After he landed on his feet he began to tell his story. He spoke about how he was little for his age, how he started doing gymnastics how he broke his hand and legs before and then how he responded when he was told he too had heart disease– diagnosed a few years before he was training for his biggest chance in his lifetime the Olympics. After his surgery, he was still able to compete… I could not believe that this muscular guy had his own personal story related to heart disease and he is a living testament that you can still have a viable life and do your own PERSONAL best despite the times when you think your world is coming to an end. It was powerful, and after I told him so…
We then said our goodbyes, I hugged Big Kahuna, Lisa Knight, the fabulous camp Director and the staff and said this is the best camp ever. He said actually these are the best 3 weeks of my year. You could see it on his face it was pure joy and satisfaction.
I can’t believe the army of volunteers that it takes to pull something off like this. You know you can never judge a book by its cover. Just like these fearless campers– who had the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors and run and play with other campers who are still living with hopes and dreams despite that they are also living with heart disease.
I can’t make this up. I went to the H-W graduation, I had a chance meeting of Heather aka Feather – someone who found the words to approach at the H-W graduation, the connection to the Catalina Island Camp and our neighbors Maria & Tom, seeing Wendel—Justin’s counselor when he was in 6th grade, and feeling at home and not sad being on the island that Justin loved so much…
Before we knew it was time to leave. Darrell and I ventured over to the last cabin we stayed in as a family. It was “ Clipper.” I still have the tags on my luggage at home… Then I put on Justin’s jacket and walked to the ocean. I looked out and said to Justin… “Your Mama Bear did it! I survived a day of camp. I was not my usual Over the Top Olivia” (OTTO) Justin. This Bear will always be your Mama and you will always be my little cub!! Happy Birthday, my sweet love, I will love you forever and miss you always.”
But I must say that the biggest gift was being called “Mama.” I guess as the saying goes “Once a Mother—Always a Mother!” And as we know there are many women who may not have birthed a child but in their own right, they can sure be a “Mother from the Heart.!”
I’ll take that!! Any day!! Mama Bear enjoyed her special day at camp. I will honor you, Justin, I carry you with me each and every day. You are my co-destiny. Heavenly Birthday Honey.
Love your Mom, OTTO and Now Mama Bear I can only imagine what you would be like at 21 years old. God Bless you, honey.