By Alan Babbitt
Mason Dekker fondly recalls the bright smile that filled his camper's face when the two of them reached a sunny, sandy Lake Michigan beach together this summer.
Dekker watched hesitation wash away from his mentee as blue water came into view during Camp Sunshine week at Camp Blodgett in Park Township near his hometown of Holland.
Moments like that are difficult to top, Dekker said, even on the football field where he enthusiastically chases down opposing ball carriers for the Flying Dutchmen as a linebacker.
"Most campers are able to make it down to the beach by themselves. In my camper's case, it's just hard for him to walk long distances," Dekker said. "It took some convincing, but we got him up a few sandy steps and then got him in this chair that had wheels on it. We pushed him all the way down the beach. That was one of the highlights of my weekend because he stated out loud he hated the beach. But we got him down there, and he loved it."
Dekker and his Hope College teammates kick off the 2018 season on Friday, August 31 with a 7 p.m. Community Day game against Millikin University (Illinois).
The Flying Dutchmen are coming off their ninth eight-win season in team history.
Dekker spent time for the third consecutive summer as a counselor for Camp Sunshine.
It is a beloved program where people ages 12-50 with mild to moderate cognitive impairments have the opportunity to attend summer camp in a safe, caring and inclusive environment.
In its 36th year, the Camp Sunshine program served 280 campers at two West Michigan sites: Camp Blodgett and Camp Henry. Each camper is assigned a counselor while attending — a one-to-one ratio that makes Camp Sunshine unique, said Doug Ammeraal, camp recruiter and 2001 Hope College graduate. Dekker spent his time at Camp Blodgett.
Camp Sunshine relies on donations and volunteers such as Dekker to provide the best possible experience.
What started as an educational pursuit for Dekker has blossomed into something much more meaningful.
"Being an education major, one of the classes you have to take is Exceptional Child," Dekker said. "I took it as a May Term. I wanted to do Camp Sunshine, and this was a way I could do it and have credit for the class. After my first year, I absolutely fell in love with it. It just keeps getting better every summer."
What makes Camp Sunshine so special, Dekker said, is the unconditional love between campers and counselors.
"As a counselor, you're giving up your weekend in the summer, not hanging out with friends and just pouring into someone for the entire weekend. You're that person's caregiver. You're their everything," Dekker said. "The dedication of these counselors and the happiness of these campers is amazing. For many of the campers, this is their highlight of the year. It's just so unique. I have not found another experience like it."
Dekker, who is studying to be a social studies teacher, is a true example of what a counselor can be for Camp Sunshine, Ammeraal said.
"Mason has a servant's heart. He is a leader," said Ammeraal, who's been involved with Camp Sunshine for 11 years. "Mason impacts not only the campers but the other counselors around him by how he interacts with everyone, how he shows unconditional love, and how he speaks to everyone. Regardless of how challenging a situation might be, he has a leader's spirit. He shows compassion. He shows grace. He exemplifies what Camp Sunshine is about."
Dekker is grateful for the time he spends every year at Camp Sunshine. He believes the campers' impact will extend far into his career as an educator.
"It's amazing how much this population can teach us. Every year I go back, it shows me every person has a story. I think I can relate that to when I go into my career someday," Dekker said. "I know some students may be struggling — a lot of people are going to say, 'I can't do this. I can't do that.' But what can they do? What are they capable of doing? I think Camp Sunshine has helped me dive into what is a strength in each individual person.
"Camp Sunshine is a great reminder that God doesn't make mistakes. Whatever a situation someone might be in, God made them for a purpose and a reason. Everyone is extremely valuable."