“My life changing experience in America”

University student and Nucleus 6 recipient, Ben, had "the summer of his life"

“As I write my story, I have been back home for over a week now and I can’t tell you how much I miss Camp Friendship already. Part of the True Friends organisation, Camp Friendship in Minnesota caters for campers aged 7 and up who have a wide range of developmental or physical disabilities. They offer summer and winter camps, day activities and respite weekends.

I believe I found myself in America which feels rare nowadays, but I’m getting a bit too ahead of myself so let me go back to the start…

In September 2018, I had just started at Staffordshire University. My friend told me about a website called “gap year” which shows you jobs for students from around the world. One that caught my eye was Camp Counsellor, with the question “Do you want the best summer of your life?”. I immediately signed up and, fast forward 4 months, I was on my way to Leeds to meet a Camp Director from True Friends. I was very nervous and thought, “Am I going to get the job or is he going to laugh me away?” but I met with Jon and he explained the two types of role, Cabin or Activities Counsellor. He hired me for the Activities Counsellor role as a lifeguard at Camp Friendship in Minnesota!

You might be thinking, why am I going to be a lifeguard if I have a cochlear implant on my left ear? Well nothing has ever stopped me from achieving my goals before, so this wasn’t going to stop me now!

During the next 4 months I applied for the correct visas to work in America and, of course, applied for the holiday loaner service from Cochlear so that, should I run into any problems while I was away, I would not have to worry about being without my sound processor. Then came the day I would leave the UK and start my 12-hour journey with a layover in Amsterdam, finally landing in Minnesota. I had a day to settle in and adjust to the time difference since it was now 6 hours behind. I forgot this when trying to contact my mum. I called her at 9pm thinking it would be the same time, but it was 3am in the morning for her – whoops!

Then followed 3 days of intensive life-guarding training which was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, but I pushed myself with the help of the Aqua+ kit and I passed all the tests. I was now a certified lifeguard! I started to meet more people who were going to be working at the camp and the Activities Counsellors I would be working with and they quickly became my best friends, especially my lifeguard team. These people were not just from the USA or UK, but from around the world; Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Czech Republic, Poland and the list goes on. It was interesting to see what culture they brought along with them and learn some of their language too.

Then camp started and I don’t remember being so scared in my life. As the campers rolled in I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do it, but I kept my composure and met the first group of campers that would be in my cabin. My job was to lifeguard the waterfront and the swimming pool when the campers turned up for their day activities. During the evenings we’d have campfire songs, cookouts, camping out and the best part of the whole week which was the dance. We had long working hours and endless planning, but we had a lot of fun and happy moments.

Clearwater Lake at Camp Friendship

During my 8 weeks in America I did a lot of travelling on my weekends off. I went to the Pride festival in Minneapolis and visited Appleton, Wisconsin to spend 4th July with one of my colleagues, Abbie and her family. Seeing the fireworks that day was the most breath-taking thing I’d ever seen. I took a trip to the biggest shopping mall in America and the Minneapolis state fair, again the biggest in America!

Just above, I mentioned a girl called Abbie. We met at camp and became very close. She invited me to celebrate 4th July with her family and we soon began a relationship. I knew she was the one for me so, towards the end of my trip, I proposed to her and she said yes! I have never been so scared in my life, especially as I am only 20 years old, but she is the best thing that has come into my life and we are planning to get married in 2021!

I met people this summer that touched my heart in ways that I never thought possible, and the two I will remember the most are Rick and Jack. Rick was a little bit older than me and deaf in both ears. He relied on sign language to communicate so I learnt from him and the internet how to communicate with him effectively. I learnt the alphabet and a variety of words.  Rick was so pleased that I was able to sign to him when nobody else could. Then Jack… we bonded the instant he walked through the gates. He was such an inspiration to me and he had the biggest smile on his face every morning which reminded me that no matter how hard things are, you can always face the new day with a clean slate.

When the time came for me to fly home, I was not ready. I want to stay in America indefinitely, but I want to finish my University course first. I have never enjoyed anything more than this trip as it allowed me to find myself and my other half. I feel I have found my place in life.

And if you’re looking for a gap year opportunity, I would strongly recommend visiting the camp website and having the best summer of your life!”

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