I didn’t have to look long to find a familiar face. “Hi, Ben! Good to see you,” I said, thrusting out my hand before I thought too much about it. I still had on my black – to match my mood – polo shirt, but I was holding a spiffy red Bounce Out the Stigma T-shirt that I’d change into in a few moments.
Bounce Out the Stigma is a weeklong youth basketball camp held for three years now at Red Ventures by Mighty Mike, an enthusiastic guy not much taller than me but a lot younger and skinnier than I am. Mike tells the story often of how he got sent home as a kid from a youth camp because he had an epileptic seizure. He vowed he’d do something about it someday.
And he has. He holds these camps for kids who have epilepsy, autism, and an assortment of other challenges, including Down’s syndrome. Some are young, others are not so young. But what they have in common is a desire to play basketball for a week with people who get a thrill from what they can do and don’t worry so much about what they can’t.
This is the third year I’ve volunteered to help with the event, and it’s the third year I’ve encountered Ben. Something was different this year, though. I’m not really sure what Ben’s challenge is, and I don’t care. All I know is he’s a good kid who gives it his best.
As I looked around, I saw some other kids I knew: J.J., Kyle, Kevin, Gabby, and a few others – I knew more faces but not always the names. What I really remembered, though, was the smiles.
Some differences, too
But everything wasn’t familiar, even with Ben. As I said, I’d initiated a handshake without thinking when I saw Ben. Ben doesn’t – or didn’t – like touching. His first year at the camp, he’d told me he wore earplugs because he couldn’t stand noise – almost any noise. As a result, he missed a lot of Mighty Mike’s instructions, but I didn’t mind repeating them to him.
For some reason, he trusted me from the get-go – maybe because I’m a wee bit older than the average RV-er (other than Peter Smul – I’m really sorry for that, Peter).
Anyway, he shook my hand and beamed as I told him I noticed he’d slimmed down a bit. “I just graduated, too,” he said. “I got an Xbox for graduation.” We chatted a bit more – he was a lot more interested in communicating than in previous years – but he wound up in a different group than the one I was helping.
What I learned in my group
Mighty Mike tries to group the kids not so much by age as by skill. I know a lot of the volunteers really like to work with the younger kids, so I usually try to help the older ones who get overlooked somehow. My group included the relentlessly happy Mikayla – she had a terrific smile, braces be damned. Others in my group included J.J. and Kevin and a kid I didn’t know named Austin (which is the first name of my oldest son).
Austin didn’t seem happy – he scowled a lot, but you could tell he was glad to have someone who would listen to him. “My dad served during the Vietnam War,” he told me. “He was in the Army. He was a general. He’s still in the Army but he’s a sergeant now.” As unlikely as that sounded, I told him it was great and that my father had been in the Army, too, but a really long time ago. “Is he dead now?” Austin asked. “Yes,” I said, “but not because of a war.”
Then he asked me another question about my father: “Did you save your Dad’s patches and stuff from the Army?” “No,” I said, surprised by the question and, truthfully, by my answer. “No, I didn’t,” I said, for the first time wishing that I had.
Austin moved on, and he joined the other kids working on dribbling and passing that day. He never did smile too much, but nearly all the other kids did, responding to all the praise and encouragement we could give.
My black mood left – these kids fighting to enjoy a little basketball teach us volunteers much about courage and bravery and smiling through the tough times.
When I left the gym Monday morning, it was with a big old smile across my face. My next scheduled volunteer session is Thursday morning, but I’m not sure I can wait that long.
Thanks to Mighty Mike, Red Ventures, Ben and Austin, among others, for proving again what’s really important and why this Monday deserved to be celebrated – not dreaded.