Editor’s note: The following story is true, but columnist Brenda Hopf has changed the names of those she writes about.
In 2006, Maria, a young lady friend of mine, shared with me a story of her experience during a week of that summer prior to entering her junior year of college. She was majoring in special education and had heard about a summer camp for special-needs children. Maria sent an application to the camp and was accepted for a volunteer position for one week.
After receiving training before the campers arrived, Maria awaited the arrival of the camper she would spend one-on-one time with that week, a boy named Benson. She went to meet Benson and his family at their vehicle. Benson, his mother, his cabin staff leader and Maria began to walk through the camp toward the cabin. She asked Benson’s mother questions about her son and learned that he was a nonverbal, autistic 13-year-old. Before his mother could tell Maria how much he loved the water, Benson spotted the camp pool, removed his socks and shoes and ran toward the pool. Maria and Benson’s mother ran after him, but Benson was unstoppable due to his size and strength. Needless to say, this stirred up a bit of commotion across the camp. After much persuasion, Benson finally made his way out of the pool.
And so started Maria’s week of camp with Benson, a 13-year-old, nonverbal autistic boy whose mother said had a mental age closer to four or five. Maria shared with me that autism is hard to define. There is no “typical” person with autism. She said most people with autism have difficulty with social interactions and relationships. Other characteristics may include, but are not limited to, verbal and nonverbal communication barriers; language development delay; repetitive behavior; unusual attachment to an object; and holding fast to routines and rituals.
With all of this in mind and using the information given to her by Benson’s mother, Maria tried as best she could to guide Benson into a routine for this week of camp. Although Benson could not talk to her, she knew he could hear her – and she would communicate to him what was coming next so he could be prepared. While she felt her efforts helped somewhat, Benson still had a rough time.
While Maria did find some things that seemed to comfort Benson, she wondered if she was doing all she could to help him; and so she, too, was struggling. There was a spot at the top of a hill in the camp that she went to each day when she had one hour of personal time. Maria said it was peaceful and relaxing. This time of prayer and reflection was just what she needed to give her both the physical and spiritual strength she needed to make it through the day.
As camp came to a close that week and Benson and Maria stood side-by-side at the closing ceremony, she reflected on the week and tears began to well up in her eyes. She realized that although Benson had never spoken to her, she had formed a relationship with him and she was going to miss him. Maria said at that moment, Benson looked over at her and grabbed her hand and held it. As the tears ran down her cheeks, Benson was now trying to comfort Maria as she had done for him all week — all without saying a word.
As I pictured Benson and Maria standing hand-in-hand I was reminded of the hymn, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” At times we all feel tired, weak and worn, as the song says. The song speaks of “when the darkness appears.” Another verse says, “Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light: Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.” We all have those times “When my way grows dreary.” We can relate. If we do not struggle at times, feel hopeless and tired, and face challenges that test us to our core, then I dare say we are not human. Despite our best efforts, just as Maria during her week of camp with Benson, we still struggle. While Benson and Maria stood side-by-side and hand-in-hand for a few moments on one day, God is at our side 24/7 ready to grab our hand and hold it every day — whenever we need Him. While we should be ever-mindful of God’s presence at our side in good times and in bad, it is in those moments when we feel ourselves succumbing to our struggles that we can and should confidently pray, “Hear my cry, hear my call, Hold my hand lest I fall: Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home” – because He will, all without saying a word.
Brenda Hopf is a member of Divine Mercy Parish in Dubois County and also contributes to the “Sharing the Load” column in The Message.