Kiersten was 7 years old and in foster care when I met her at camp. Slim and tall for her age with long sandy-blond hair she looked average enough, but almost immediately upon meeting her you could sense something was a little different. She was assigned to a unit with other girls her age and it wasn’t long before we began receiving complaints from her unit counselors. Kiersten won’t stay with the group. Kiersten yelled at the other girls when they asked her a question. Kiersten is digging holes in the dirt instead of going down the slip-n-slide.
Soon, Kiersten was spending a lot of time with me or one of the other administrative staff members because she easily drove her counselors to their wit’s end and they couldn’t always juggle her and the 20 other girls in the unit without shortchanging someone. We’d hang out with her for a while and help her calm down and then try to integrate her back into her unit for the next activity. “You have two choices of what to do next”, I’d say. “You can sit here with me under this tree or you can go with your unit to the pool.” “I WANT TO GO GET A POPSICLE!” “You only have two choices, and getting a popsicle isn’t one of them. Sit with me or go to the pool. I don’t care which you choose – its totally up to you.” We’d go around like this several times and usually, eventually, she’d resign herself to the two choices at hand and decide to go back with her unit, at least for a while.
And we all fell into a cycle of dealing with Kiersten and giving her time to interact with her unit. It became almost normal, predictable, and very doable. One day, though, she seemed even more on edge than usual and the intervals of her needing special attention came quicker and quicker until it was evident that she might end up spending the whole afternoon with me. Giving her choices wasn’t working anymore and I let go of the idea that she’d spend any time with her unit that day. She happened to yell at me that she was tired and I jumped on the opportunity to take her to the small building we called the nurse’s station and let her lie down on one of the bunk beds. I assumed it wouldn’t last long and she’d be up and wanting to go dig in the grass some more before long, but I thought we’d give it a try. And she slept. And slept. For over an hour I sat in the dark and quiet of that space – so different from the rest of the camp – while she slept soundly and solidly.
When it was almost snack time I woke Kiersten up, knowing neither of us would have a good afternoon if she missed snack. I had to pat her back and call her name for several moments before she emerged from unconsciousness. She was a new girl. She started talking to me freely whereas before I could barely get her to answer my questions. She was, if not agreeable, at least tolerant. We had a few minutes before her unit would arrive at the dining hall for snack so I sat under a tree with her while she dug in the dirt with a stick she found lying near by. “You were pretty tired, huh?” I asked, not daring to hope for much of a response. “Yeah. I stayed up all night last night watching TV.” “Why did you do that?” Shrug of the shoulders and more intense digging. “Do you have a brother or sister at your house?” “I have a brother.” “Does he stay up all night watching TV too?” “Sometimes.” “What kinds of things do you like to do when you’re at home?” “I don’t wanna talk about my home.” Silence.
Despite my disturbing conversation with Kiersten at the end of that day, the next day she arrived at camp with a refreshing exuberance and team spirit. It happened to be “Wear Your Unit Color Day” and she burst onto the scene wearing a sunny yellow tank top, yellow socks, and yellow ribbons tied around her neat-as-a-pin ponytails. As soon as she saw me she said, “I’m wearing yellow for the yellow unit because I want our unit to win the spirit stick!” I was struck by her unit spirit considering it has been a struggle to even get her to acknowledge she belongs to a unit, but I was also struck by the work that had been put into her ensemble. She didn’t do all of this herself and I felt a small relief knowing that someone at home must care, at least a little.
But Kiersten’s team spirit deteriorated rapidly and it wasn’t long before I was hiking to retrieve her from where her unit was trying to play a game. Kiersten had thrown a fit, planting herself in the middle of the playing space so that the game couldn’t begin. The unit counselors had managed to get her out of the way sitting on the grass next to a high school unit assistant, but it was a precarious peace and she was visibly fuming, the rage building up to an inevitable release. The unit thought it best if I come get her now, before said release. As we were walking away from the unit, Kiersten told me she was tired, and wanted to go to the nursery. Puzzled, I thought for a moment and realized she was talking about the nurse’s station, with the bunk beds. So we marched up the hill toward an hour of blissful sleep, which Kiersten embraced fully. When she awoke for snack she was full of sunshine again and seemed almost pleased with herself that she successfully avoided her unit for another afternoon.
The next afternoon I grew weary of our quickly developing routine. It all seemed a little too convenient this third day in a row – cue the meltdown right when the unit is trying to start an activity, cue the staff member (me) to come and rescue her from any group interaction. I was sure Kiersten was using the nap less as a means of recharging with needed sleep and more as a way to get out of what she really didn’t want to do – participate. So on my way out to her unit that day I made a decision: I was taking away nap time – taking away her cheat, her crutch. When her inevitable request for the nursery came I calmly told her that we weren’t taking naps anymore – that the nurse’s station was only for girls who are hurt or sick – and that she could sit with me in the shade or she could go with her unit and those were her only two choices. I unleashed a demon.
“I WANNA GO TO THE NURSERY!” “I’M GOING TO THE NURSERY!” “No, Kiersten, you’re not. I’m not taking you there. Its not one of your choices today. I’ve told you your choices, its either-” “I’VE HEARD ENOUGH OF YOUR CHOICES!” Kiersten’s voice suddenly dropped an octave and took on a throaty growl quality I usually only associate with demonically possessed characters in movies. And with that she took off, running wildly in the direction of “the nursery”, running toward her solace, her release. I took off after her and miraculously was able to arrive at the door just before she could reach the handle. Placing myself between Kiersten and the door, I protected it as if protecting my home against invading marauders. She reached around me and threw all her weight into pulling on the door handle. When that didn’t work she slumped to the ground and crawled behind my legs, facing the door. “I wanna go to the nursery. I wanna go to the nursery.” She chanted over and over, tears streaming down her cheeks, banging her head against the frosted glass door.
It was at this point the idea that maybe I had made a mistake crossed my mind. Maybe she really did need this nap. Maybe I should have just continued our pleasant little arrangement. But it was too late now and I went into damage control mode. I was able to get Kiersten to stop banging her head by sitting down next to her, my back against the door. She kept up her mantra though, and we just sat there, me in silence, her chanting “I wanna go to the nursery” for several minutes. Eventually I got her to agree to go with me down to the picnic tables and I’d let her dig in the dirt and collect sticks if she promised not to run back up here. We made our deal and we walked, side by side, her sniffling but otherwise quiet, and me pretending to be in control all the while having no real idea of what to do next.
The rest of camp passed without major incident. The next day we took a field trip and Kiersten’s foster parents decided not to send her. Maybe they had something else going on. Maybe they knew Kiersten out in the open environment of the aquarium would be too much for us. Either way I was at first thrilled at the prospect of an easy field trip and the Yellow Unit counselors were relieved that they wouldn’t have to worry about her. But throughout the day Kiersten’s absence seemed less of a respite for me and more like a confusing void. How could I miss her and the chaos that inevitably surrounded her? Other staff members reported similar feelings. At least she made things more interesting. The following day was the last day of camp and was spent mostly in a large mass, which seemed to jive better with Kiersten’s way of coping. She could flit from group to group, leaving anytime she felt the confines of too much participation.
When we lined the girls up to get on the bus that last afternoon of camp I watched Kiersten climb aboard, aware that I’d probably never see her again. I figured she’d make for an interesting story to tell back at the office but hoped the next batch of girls would present no similar behavioral issues so we could have a quiet, pleasant week. Today, three years later, I still think about Kiersten from time to time. I wonder if she still lives in the same foster home. If she still stays up all night to watch TV. I wonder if she has learned to cope any better. And I wonder if her time at camp provided her with a few good memories to look back on during her long journey to adulthood no doubt complicated in countless ways by circumstances beyond her control.