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  • This is a tough post to write, but I think today's the day for it, because the Invisible Children (a.k.a. #Kony2012) campaign is in full swing.

    It's not a good campaign, in my opinion. The reasons are explained pretty well in this post. It's good for people to know what's happening in Africa, and it's good to increase donations to that troubled part of the continent. Nonetheless, Invisible Children have demonstrated that they're the wrong people to lead a movement. That role should be reserved for established, four-star charities like Doctors Without Borders.

    Anyway, here's the story.


    When I was in high school, I volunteered at a summer camp for disabled children. It was the only camp of its kind near my hometown of Mendocino; that portion of Northern California is sparsely populated.

    Almost as soon as I arrived, I started to notice things that just weren't right. First of all, the camp accepted kids who had any sort of disability. There were kids with learning and developmental disabilities, who had trouble with behavior and comprehension. There were kids with physical disabilities who had trouble with mobility. The camp was small, and all these kids were mixed indiscriminately together. They hated this. The developmentally disabled kids would get bored when we did activities outside, because they had to wait on the physically disabled kids. The physically disabled kids would get bored whenever we were inside, because half the campers couldn't understand a pop record or play Connect Four.

    The volunteers received absolutely no training. Scenes like this would unfold: I'm standing on the basketball court, watching a kid with epilepsy and a wheelchair-bound child. For a while, the kid with epilepsy is running circles around the other child, making him feel helpless and laughable. Then the epileptic kid begins to have a seizure. His eyes grow wide and black, and although he doesn't lose his balance, he begins to convulse. By the time I'm able to get an adult over to the basketball game, his seizure is over, but he's still completely disoriented and dependent.

    I was assigned to the kid in the wheelchair. I loved him. He was incredibly bright and had a sharp wit. I can safely say he didn't love me. I had no idea how to help him through his daily tasks. Accordingly, he went without a shower for five days, by which time he'd begun to smell very sour. I changed into my swimming trunks and we set off for the bathroom. We got the water going, and he informed me that I'd need to hold him so he could get clean. I lifted him, but because much of his body was paralyzed, he was difficult, dead weight. Pretty quickly, my foot slipped on the wet tiles and we crashed down together in a painful heap. The water poured over us, covering us both in the stench of teenage anxiety.

    If he'd been unlucky, he would have cracked his skull. I cannot forget the look that came over his face. It was a look that said, "this kind of thing is going to happen to me for the rest of my life, and I won't be able to do a thing about it." My incompetence confirmed his worst fears about how the world was going to "accommodate" him.

    Most of the kids were returnees. They didn't return because they loved the camp; they returned because it was the one time, out of the entire year, when their parents could get a break from the immensely difficult task of raising a disabled child. Every single thing we did, they'd done before. Some of it, like the annual trip to the llama farm, wasn't even deserving of the title "activity." It was just all of us taking a long bus ride, then staring into the hostile faces of llamas.

    The counselors were there mainly out of a desire to help these children; secondarily, it was the sort of thing everyone would put on their college applications. All the profit went to the family running the camp. They weren't vicious people by nature. I think they started the camp out of a desire to run a socially beneficial business. Somewhere along the way, it turned into a torturous experience for campers and counselors alike. The parents continued to support it because they didn't have much choice. I'd guess that the camp directors justified not training the counselors as a way of passing on savings to parents...but who knows whether those savings really did get passed on, or even how much the parents knew about what daily life at the camp was like. Some of our charges wouldn't have been able to communicate what happened, and most of the rest simply wouldn't. I've been to camp myself, and I know that it's usually easier to just settle back into normal life, letting bygones be bygones. It's like asking "How was school today?" Ask "How was camp?" and the answer will probably be "It was fine."

    I never returned there, of course, but the memory of that fall in the shower lingers in my bones. I think of that child's eyes, of the fury and disappointment in them. The moment returns, and I weep to remember it, as I am weeping right now.


    I doubt that the people behind Invisible Children want to go down in history as hucksters. They don't want that legacy any more than the family running the camp did. The only way to honor their intentions is to wrestle this away from them, denying them the money and power they seek, without denying those things to the children they are speaking for.
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