Mandy Adams is like a lot of people lingering in the years after college. A little confused about what's next, she laughs, "I don't know - I'm still figuring it out." She adds, " My boyfriend and I have thought about opening a homeless shelter where I could run the pre-school." Not exactly the answer you'd expect from a twentysomething trying to plan her future.
While studying for her Master's degree in Early Childhood Education and Creative Arts in Learning, Mandy continues to be a part of the project closest to her heart - Camp Looking Glass, a week long camp held every summer in the Mississippi delta town of Greenville for children with varying levels of mental and physical disabilities.
The camp aims to offer campers stimulating activities like photography, drama and arts and crafts - things that children with severe disabilities rarely get to do during the school year. But it's not just for the campers, as Mandy says. It's also about the parents. When she began fundraising for CLG, she spent a lot of time just explaining "what it would mean for the parents to have a respite."
Adams met the founder of Camp Looking Glass, Jennifer Boyce in 2004 while working at Jabberwocky, a month long sleep-over camp on Martha's Vineyard for adults and children with disabilities. Boyce was coming from Teach For America, where recent college graduates dedicated two years to teaching in urban and rural public schools. Both women were impressed with how much care and attention the Jabberwocky campers received. "We started to create a connection between the two of us - we talked a lot about the kids in Greenville who had nothing to do during the summer. She was planning on having a mini-camp, where she was going to invite people from Jabberwocky and people from the community in Mississippi."
During the trial session, Mandy knew she was hooked from the start, thanks to one particular camper named Katy. "Her smile is contagious. She was 10 at the time and was born with cerebral palsy -- basically paralyzing her from the neck down. She speaks with her eyes, looks up to say yes and down to say no. I started talking to her, really looking at her and asking questions. Katy's mom, who was standing behind Katy's wheelchair, told me that no one had ever talked to Katy like that before -- looking her in the eyes. I just thought, no one? Which made me realize that this camp was really needed.""
When the mini-camp was a success, Boyce and Adams began working to turn Looking Glass into an annual event. Mandy started fundraising vigorously, hosting a bbq for her parents' friends and raising awareness. While she found willing donors, the locals in Greenville seemed cautious, but eventually the families in the delta became the camp's backbone.
"Initially we thought all the money we raised would have to go towards food and lodging" says Adams, "but what happened was that a lot of people in the community would want to cook. So parents would cook hot breakfast, the gas station gave us cereal. The local movie theater paid for us all to go for a movie night. They really have reached out, because it's a small town. Many people in Greenville know or are connected with a parent of a camper or a volunteer, they'd seen the change in the parents' and the children's lives, and wanted to help."
"Campers don't pay to come, it's completely free," says Adams. "Everyone who's a councilor is a volunteer 24 hours a day, 7 days straight. I think they're really incredible. A lot of people from Teach For America, a lot of highschoolers come from the community, either people who volunteer in special needs classes, or brothers and sisters of campers. It's just amazing to hear these highschoolers, trying to figure out what they want to do, realizing after a week at camp, they want to study special education, speech pathology, or physical therapy."
It doesn't sound so different from her own path towards volunteerism. What got Adams interested in working with people with special needs was her own frustrations with learning disabilities. "I realized I'd been struggling with a learning disability, which had been undiagnosed. It was something I took action on my own in college. I wanted to work with people because I'd been struggling with this hidden problem -- and I realized, what would it be like to have something that wasn't hidden -- something that people stared at?"
Whatever comes next for Mandy, she knows that her work with Camp Looking Glass will continue, "I always want camp to come first before my other work." Campers look forward to their week with Mandy, Jennifer, and the other dedicated volunteers at Camp Looking Glass. With obvious affection Adams describes Anthony, a camper who returns year after year: "[he] put all his pictures from camp in a book, and brought it to school everyday with him. He feels like camp is his family - an extension of it. And all the campers ask their families throughout the year, 'When's camp? When's camp?'"