This week my family will pitch a tent, blow up the air mattress, lather on the mosquito repellent and sunscreen for Camp Imua 2014! This is where we will spend Father’s Day this year. Camp Imua is a week-long overnight recreational camp for more than 50 children with Special Needs. It’s a 37 year old tradition here on Maui, and one of the five major programs of Imua Family Services. But just who benefits from camp most exactly?

Aside from the adorable, wonderful, happy, resilient campers who might happen to have Cerebral Palsy, Down Syndrome, Autism or any other different abilities than say a typically developing child. There are also an enormous amount of other individuals who also attend Camp Imua. They’re the lifeguards, nurses, kitchen staff, chef, grounds keepers, audio and visual technician, and over 200 volunteers assigned to each camper we affectionately call Care Givers and Camp Leaders. In a typical children’s camp these volunteers might be called Camp Counselors. Our volunteer Care Givers and Camp Leaders come from all over the island and various walks of life. Many are high school seniors, some returning college students, and lots of community members. Their “assignment” if you will, is to make their primary focus the camper, they commit a week of selfless service to these campers. Camp is not about therapy or rehabilitation. These campers get enough doctor visits, therapy visits and medical interventions the other 360 days of the year. This week of Camp Imua is for FUN and recreation, to enjoy a camp experience like any other typically developing camper. Campers can choose from a myriad of experiences including: surfing, paddle boarding, horseback riding, helicopter rides, zip lining, arts & crafts, costume parties, dances and so much more.

But let me get back to my earlier question, who benefits most from Camp Imua? The answer I wish to propose today is the community at large. Because the participants who benefit the most aren’t necessarily our awesome campers. Let me explain why, Camp Imua becomes about Inclusion. For one solid week our children are interacting with their peers who quite often the other 360 days of the year might not even notice them, might not sit with them in a school cafeteria or even interact with them throughout their school day. Why, because our own society has excluded them from participating in life. Many of our campers are in “special” classes receiving “special education.” Some of them might be going to a private center specifically designed for their development, like “Autism.” Or maybe are in a special ASL classroom with other hearing impaired children. Maybe these children ride a “special bus” to school. Many of these children are not invited to sports games or to participate in extracurricular activities because let’s face it, they are not designed to include everyone. While the beginnings of all these “specially created situations” for children with special needs all came from seemingly good intentions, the reality is that what they have caused division. Instead what our society needs to focus on is inclusion and integration.

We only need to look a few decades back into our own history to see this to be true. Martin Luther King fought hard and diligently to his own death to see his community integrated into society. Today we have our first African American President. The women’s liberation movement took strides to let women vote, work, be considered equal to their male counterparts. Tomorrow we could have the first Female President. The Latino community fought to be included in education and to become part of the professional workforce. Today the Mayor of San Antonio, TX is Julian Castro and his twin brother Joaquin Castro is in the U.S. House of Representatives. The next big hurdles of inclusion are happening today for the LGBT communities who simply want to be included in the everyday rights of human kind. People in the gay community now are being recognized for their contributions to society from theater to politics. Which leads us to this next hurdle, a group of people we now classify as “Individuals with Disabilities”? I am just not sure why we can’t address them as “Individuals”. I love the quote I heard recently that “Social exclusion is a human rights issue.” Haven’t we gotten to the point yet in our society where we have come to realize that we are all unique, different yet at the same time all face suffering, triumph and tribulation? That the experiences that are dealt to us from our time of birth will mold us, shape us and give us the opportunities to be a vital contributor to our communities. That this often give us a sense of belonging, self-respect, the desire to do more and do better, or just simply a feeling of being accepted exactly as we are.

The volunteer Care Givers gather one day prior to the camper’s arrival. On this day they are given the rundown of how camp operates, ground rules and most importantly background information on the camper they will be spending their week with. It’s important that the caregivers learn everything that comprises this young individual, their sleeping and eating needs, medication needs, allergies, likes and dislikes. In the past each camper’s biographical binder would include the child’s medical diagnosis on the front page. Jamie has Autism, Kai has Down syndrome, Amy has Cerebral Palsy, etc. For the first time this year Children will not be identified by a medical label. They will be identified by things like favorite colors, hobbies, trigger points etc. My son is two. He loves Buzz Light-year and Woody; they are his favorite toys to play with. Right now he is infatuated with Trucks especially excavators, bulldozers and forklifts. He can spend hours in the dirt playing with his trucks moving dirt from one place to the next.  His favorite drink is coconut water; he has been drinking it since birth. He loves to swim; we have been taking him swimming since he was three months old. He is a great dancer and can stand on his head. This is how I describe my son. This is how I would describe my son if he had a diagnosis that we had to attend to in addition. What I would want most for my son, is that people would embrace him, include him, and love him no matter what labels people might place upon him in life.

My father did not know that I would be gay, when I was a child, he did not learn that till I was in my late teens. Even though I knew from the time I was 7 years old. But when my father learned that I was gay, he did not treat me any differently, and his expectations for me to exceed and treat people with compassion and humanity only grew. And he only hoped that people would do the same for me.

My family is so excited for Camp Imua this year; there are so many great children and volunteers for my son to meet and our family to enjoy the company of. I wish every day and every place could be like Camp Imua for our campers, a place to feel included.