The Day I Got My Leg Over

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I have always been terrified of heights. My co-counselors knew about this little phobia, the ropes course instructor at Camp Jened knew about this phobia - but it appears that nobody told Michael Stacini about it!

Michael Stacini is a 12-year-old boy from New York City who has severe learning difficulties. He has some speech, but it's stilted and he occasionally makes up his own words. He has pretty good control of his movements within limitations, but is very slow, very careful and not particularly athletic. I had been working with Michael for 6 days out of a 7 day session, and our cabin group had come down to the Ropes Course for our last activity period of the day. It was then that Michael Stacini decided he wanted to climb the high wall. The only problem was that he was only willing to do this, if he was attached to me at the same time!

Now I know that when I signed up for CCUSA I promised to give 100% to the campers in my care. However I did think that making me scale a 40 foot wall that looked as if it were made of toothpicks and wouldn't support a squirrel - let alone Michael and I - was taking things a little bit too far. Still, since I had promised myself new experiences and my cabin group and all the campers were egging me on, I decided to do my very best.

Kay (the ropes course instructor) fastened first Michael into his harness, then me into mine, and then both of us together and then we began to climb together. I climbed behind him and helped him to put his feet in appropriate places and gave him the confidence that he wouldn't fall. Unfortunately there was nobody behind me supporting my sagging confidence, and yet in a strange way as we reached the half way point I realised that I was so busy worrying about Michael that I'd forgotten to be scared for myself. However - it was then that we made the fatal mistake of looking down. Now 20 feet might not seem very much to you - but to Michael and I we were at the top of a precipice and we both froze with terror. To make this worse, Michael's terror was vocalised by a series of high pitch squeals. The people on the ground shouted encouragement and I tried to keep my voice calm and measured as I talked to Michael and whispered that he could make it and that I would never let him fall.

Slowly inch by inch, we made our way up the wall. It was agonisingly slow progress, and as we got further from the ground the shaking in Michael's (and my) legs got more and more noticeable. Finally, we were within arms length of the top platform and with a final firm shove I maneuvered Michael's leg onto the top and into safety. The only problem was that he flopped onto his stomach trapping his connector to my harness and leaving me within inches of safety but unable to move any further. I had to gently persuade him to roll onto his side so that I could unclip the safety harness and finally swing my leg over and pull myself onto the platform.

The feeling of relief was short-lived as I viewed the decent at the other side, but I had accomplished something I never thought would be possible. By putting someone else's desires ahead of my own I had overcome a fear that had haunted me since childhood. To this day I'm still a little scared of heights although the feeling of accomplishment and the sound of the campers cheers ringing in my ears as Michael and I gave them a victory salute from the top of the wall will stay with me forever. When we finally made it down to the ground the massive hug that Michael gave me and the very quiet "thank you" he whispered in my ear that nobody else could hear will always be my most treasured memory of Camp Jened - summer 93.

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Image courtesy Howard County Library System