Fear Transformed

Andrea Bowyer


Copyright 2011 by  Andrea Bowyer



Photo of a camper climbing a rope ladder.

It was August 2006, my first year of college, and I had uncharacteristically agreed to join a new acquaintance in volunteering on Monday nights. Because she had been involved with Capernaum for the previous two years, Tina stayed to greet everyone, and I found myself helping Jenny – the leader of the group – fill water balloons in the women’s bathroom. I was eventually introduced to various teenage girls – all of which seemed to be named Ashley or Sarah – but the greetings were cut short when Jenny yelled, “Welcome to Capernaum!” and the words of Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” played loudly from the stereo. I watched awkwardly as 15 teenagers with special needs danced shamelessly and sang in various pitches, “Sha la la la.” I was intrigued, but by the end of the night, I was captivated.

The whole evening seemed unplanned – uncoordinated – but I eventually came to appreciate it as a delicate balance of “organized chaos.” The group sang Disney songs, played ridiculous games, laughed through simple yet funny skits, listened intently as Jenny talked about managing life’s circumstances, and participated in a water balloon toss that ended in a free-for-all – as most do.

After that night, I jumped headfirst into Capernaum – a group for young adults with special needs, and two years later, I was on my way to a week of camp with many of the same teenagers I met that same Monday night.

It had been a long trip: 904 miles, to be exact. We had taken two days to get from Springfield, Missouri to Goshen, Virginia, with an overnight stop in Kentucky to provide some semblance of sanity to the group leaders. We had packed an SUV pulling a U-Haul trailer and three 12-passenger vans to the brim: 24 teenagers with special needs, 8 twenty-something leaders, 32 pillows and their Disney-themed cases, 40 suitcases in various stages of disrepair, 32 travel bags for electronics and books, 2 wheelchairs, and 3 plastic storage containers to hold costumes, first-aid kits, and extra – easily-forgotten – toiletries. After realizing the scenic route through the mountains led nowhere but the top, we coaxed the cumbersome vehicles into making U-turns on the side of a cliff and headed back down toward camp, the place we would call home for the next five days.

Whether it was the three Pepsi’s I had downed in the past five hours or the prospect of something new, I was restless as we drove into camp. Throughout my two years in Capernaum, I had heard nothing but excitement when “kids” – a term of endearment leaders use to refer to the teenagers – talked about camp. I had been unable to go the previous two summers, but my time had finally come, and I accepted the experience as a rite of passage among the group. Survive a week of Capernaum camp, and I would have stories to tell and memories to reminisce about for years to come.

Dixie, a happy and outgoing fifteen-year-old, was one of the girls I met that first time. That same night, I was introduced to her brother, Travis, who was deaf and only used sign language when looking at pictures of animals in the National Geographic magazines he carried with him. I also met her oldest brother, Josh; he loved when we sang country songs, particularly those of Garth Brooks, because he knew all the lyrics and enjoyed playing along on his air guitar. The siblings were three of the first members of Capernaum and, as such, were seasoned veterans of the camp experience. They were part of a family in which disabilities seemed genetic and lived in a neighborhood where neglect spilled out onto the front porch in broken toys. Through scholarships and fundraisers, Dixie, Travis, and Josh were going to camp for the third time; they had spoken of nothing else since the beginning of the year.

My anxiety in the unfamiliar setting and organized chaos that permeates all Capernaum activities gradually decreased as we unpacked suitcases, doled out evening medications, and learned the routine for the following day. The week went according to plan: kids refusing to drink an adequate amount of water, leaders bribing kids to get them out of bed in the morning, and everyone dancing to the latest Hannah Montana song.

However, my anxiety regained its foothold on Wednesday morning as the day’s activities were outlined, and I discovered our group would be on the zip line later that afternoon. It lingered with me as kids were paired with leaders, but it morphed into fear and latched on when Dixie picked me to accompany her.

I did my best to hide from it as we waited at the platform for our turn, but every time I considered the 1,250 foot drop, it found me. For nearly twenty minutes, fear and I played the game of hide-and-seek, and I distracted myself by doing my best to look brave in front of Dixie, who was also tackling the zip line for the first time.

In the process of convincing the teenagers around me that careening down a mountain tethered only by a complex system of harnesses and wires and landing in the shimmering lake many feet below was going to be a good experience, I had managed to forget that I, too, would need to survive the zip line. I reassured myself that no one died on the camp’s zip line, injuries – if any – would be minor, and severe wedgies suffered by skidding to a stop in the water were easily remedied.  My rationalizations were ineffective.

Thankfully, we were not the first two; another pairing had eagerly claimed that spot. We formed a line of sorts, and Dixie and I ended up with a prime placement toward the middle. I encouraged kids, secretly hoping my words would loosen fear’s grip, and I watched as they flew down the mountain. Before I knew it, we were next in line. Dixie went to the left side of the platform; I went to the right. She looked as nervous as I felt, and I tried to reassure her, as much for her benefit as mine, that we would have fun. I made her promise she would scream louder than I, and we were ready. The camp staff had us sit down on the harness as if to prove it would hold us, although over the steps is not where I was concerned it would break. We dangled there for a few seconds until they reeled us back in to explain the process. Dixie and I agreed we would go together – on the count of three. I signaled to the staff we were ready, and I began our countdown.

One. Dixie looked excited, and I could feel fear tightening his grip.

Two. I inwardly began questioning my ability to let go; the concept was so simple, yet putting it into practice was going to be a challenge.

Three. Not wanting mine to be the only screams heard, I looked over to make sure Dixie was going to let go, but she was not there. In her excitement, she had forgotten our pact. Letting my adrenaline overtake my fear, I allowed my fingers to peel away from the rope and began my rapid descent from a height one foot taller than that of the Empire State Building.

Dixie was not far in front of me, and I was soon alongside her. There she sat in her harness, feet dangling above the trees, not making a sound but with a smile that made her eyes shine. My reaction to the fall was no longer based on fear; rather, it was in the awe of the scenery, the speed, and the experience.

I hit the water first, with Dixie right behind me. She was not a strong swimmer and panicked when she went under the cold water’s surface. She immediately reemerged, clenching the rope between both hands. I hurriedly unhooked myself and, as there was no one closer, swam to Dixie, reassuring her that I would not let go. We gradually made our way through the water until she could touch the rocky bottom. After we went through the complicated process of unhooking harnesses and looking for sandals and towels, I looked over at Dixie. I asked her what she had thought of the entire experience, and she just smiled, proud of her accomplishment.

I have been involved with Capernaum for five years now, and I am amazed at how much fear inhibits what we do. However, if I can overcome my fear it is transformed into a victory and I am a better person because of it. In defeating fear, I am no longer the outsider who awkwardly stood by the wall waiting to build up enough courage to jump in with a group of girls and dance. I no longer freeze when a teenager with Cerebral Palsy has a panic attack because she cannot see who is speaking. Rather, I have become the leader who pulls a kid to the front of the dance floor because I know he needs to feel accepted. I have become the leader who can avert panic attacks but who can also wipe away tears and repeatedly say, “I won’t let go.”

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