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5 Things the Camp Teachers of My Daughter With Down Syndrome Need to Know

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You know that feeling you get when you have been on vacation, when you are about 5 miles from your house and you know your home is just within reach? You’ve enjoyed your time away, but nothing seems quite like home.

That’s exactly how I feel when June comes around. I wish you could see the look of excitement on my daughter’s face.

Never mind the initiative she has taken to pick out her clothes and place them on her dresser (at 3 a.m., I might add). She is unable to verbally express many words, but her eyes always shine and open wide, as if to say, “Mom! It’s camp time again. Let’s go!”

For the past six years, every June my now 14-year-old daughter Tayler has had the opportunity to attend Camp Imaginarium, a two-week camp for children and young adults with Down syndrome. This camp offers her the opportunity to socialize, and at the close of camp, she gets the opportunity to perform on stage with country music stars at the “County Music Lends Down A Hand” concert.

As we walk towards the building where her camp is held, I watch as her pace increases, and she smiles and laughs with excitement.

I feel her joy. This is home.

As the years have gone by, I haven’t said much, but here are five things my daughter’s camp teachers need to know:

1. You probably didn’t think I noticed, but I appreciate the way you never have focused on the can’ts.

Every day when I arrived to pick Tayler up, you have never pointed out what she “didn’t” do or “couldn’t” do.  I remember you saying statements to me such as, “She participated and danced in music today.” I know Tayler’s verbal words aren’t there, and I know her version of dance is more of a rocking motion, but I notice and appreciate you telling me what she did do. And I especially love how even after a year, you still notice minor improvements, like how she’s much more settled this year and she makes an effort to join the group. It makes me proud.

2. You’ve shown me certain people are gifted with unconditional love.

When we first started attending camp, I was a single mom, African-American, and struggling with my own self-worth, as well as coping with the complexities of parenting a child with multiple disabilities. I honestly felt like we wouldn’t fit in. As the years have passed, it’s become my belief that some individuals truly don’t see color; they view the world in love.

I’ve watched. I’ve watched the way you include Tayler. Regardless of her color, our financial or social status, or even her presumed “mental capacity,” I’ve watched you speak after camp and express your love for my child and others like her, as tears roll down your face. I now believe certain people possess the ability to pour out their heart without expectation of return, and do it joyfully.

Tayler and Her Friends at the Country Music Lends Down a Hand Concert
Tayler and her friends

3. Thank you for giving me a little time for me.

Sometimes being a caretaker is hard. The tough days are tough. My family is awesome, but I sometimes find negative caretaker thoughts drifting through my brain, such as “I don’t want to bother/burden anyone,” so I often don’t ask for alone time. It’s not that my support circle won’t help, it’s that I don’t ask, so time apart doesn’t happen that often. One of my greatest worries is my daughter’s current lack of verbal expression. She can’t yell “help” or tell me about her day. She is left to rely on other people’s report. I hope you know how awesome it feels to watch her walk into camp and know she feels safe and happy, and that she will have fun.  I appreciate you giving me time for quietness and energization.

tayler with her camp teachers
Camp Teacher- Melissa Whitaker, Camp Teacher- Margaret Dougan, Tayler Johnson (14), Keli Gooch (mom)


4. You have given Tayler something I can’t: teenage fun time with others like her.

Sometimes I worry Tayler is lonely. She is 14 now, and the behavior and interest gap between her and other teens spreads every day as she grows older. You both create an environment of safety for her — a safe space for Tayler to feel comfortable and be with people like her. There are no “oddities” or “abnormalities” at camp, just acceptance and true freedom.

5.  I hope my 2-year-old grows to emulate you.

While I strive to teach my younger daughter Allison positive traits like empathy and friendship, I feel she can learn even more by watching others who differ from her show respect and love to those like her sister. I hope to teach my toddler when she is older how to give back to others.  I’ve watched as even the younger assistants hug my daughter and help her participate. These are the qualities that I want her to have.

Tayle and her sister Allison
Tayle and her sister Allison

I need my daughter’s camp teachers to know I’ve heard them say, “Your child holds a special place in my heart.”

I need each of you to know you hold a special place in our hearts. Thank you for giving us a second home.

You can read more about Keli & Tayler’s journey here.

Have you seen the first film with a national release to star a person with Down syndrome? Check out the film “Where Hope Grows” today!

Available for purchase on Amazon and iTunes.

Originally published: July 8, 2016
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