Wrap a rubber band around your fingers. Tighten it until you’re barely able to flex your hand. Then try to go about your everyday tasks with your hand like that: brushing your teeth, writing your name, dialing your phone. These actions, previously so simple and effortless, become difficult, almost unthinkable. Imagine your muscles jerking uncontrollably, striking out at random moments; imagine voluntary muscle movements being rigorous, or even impossible. This describes the daily struggles of a person afflicted with cerebral palsy, a disorder that can impair brain and nervous system functions, such as moving, learning, hearing, seeing, and thinking, a disorder that promises a grueling life from the day a person is born.
During the summer of 2012, I canceled my plans to take a summer statistics class in favor of a volunteer job at a local camp that assisted children and young adults suffering from cerebral palsy. It was a job that intrigued me, but also terrified me; the night before my first day, I lay awake, all the possible catastrophic scenarios bouncing around in my head: what if I injured someone, what if I was accidentally offensive, or, most worrisome of all, what if I was simply incompetent, a useless lump standing on the sidelines, unable to aid anyone? I mulled over these fear and worries until late at night when my exhaustion subsided and gave way to an uneasy sleep.
For the first couple of days, my fears were realized; I had no idea what I was doing. I was paired with a five year old girl named Katy with hypertonia and a penchant for incredibly high-pitched, frustrated screams. She was tiny and adorable, yet I was intimidated by her simply because I had no idea how to help her. Those first several days were confusing and painful, and usually ended with her sobbing and me feeling like a monster.
As time passed, though, Katy and I began to find a rhythm. I learned how to distract her while stretching, how the ignore her complaints and persevere through her exercises, how to keep her motivated when all she wanted to do was sit down and play. I learned what would make her smile, what would make her laugh, what would cheer her up after she had broken down in tears. She rarely talked in front of the other volunteers, yet one day she looked up at me, smiled, and said my name.
The camp lasted for three and a half weeks; on the first day of camp, Katy arrived firmly seated in a stroller that was pushed by her mom. By the last day, she was walking with only slight aid from a walker. It was then, on the last day, that I found the answer to the question that adults had been asking me all my life: what do you want to be when you grow up? I want to help people. It isn’t a very tangible answer, nor a very intelligent-sounding one, yet I feel that this is the greatest possible happiness I will be able to find. The feeling I got after watching all of Katy’s progress and knowing that—in some small way—I had contributed to it, was sublime and captivating.
I know that Katy, being as young as she is, isn’t likely to remember me when she gets older; my face will blur with all the others she’s sure to encounter. However, the impact she left on me is strong, and I doubt I will ever forget her. I began that camp clueless and frightened, second-guessing every decision I made; I ended it with a confidence that still resonates with me, a confidence that assures me: I know exactly what I’m doing.