Pay it forward
Once again Mrs. Johnson insisted I go to class. I was a regular in her office. I would say to her, “But it’s my last class of the day. The year’s almost over, so we aren’t doing much anyway.” I would try to miss class as much as possible; she knew that. Other than my coaches, she was one of the few adults I liked, one of as many as I have fingers on my right hand. As I started toward the door before I got her importance-of-going-to-class lecture, Mrs. Johnson asked me if I had given any thought to the weeklong summer camp she had suggested to me. I said, “I just don’t have time for it.” In reality, I wasn’t doing anything that week; the only reason why I would go was to avoid having to deal with my parents. Let’s just say they weren’t one of my fingers on my right hand.
Apparently this camp was supposed to be a life-changing experience, but Mrs. Johnson wouldn’t say why. She was pushing it on me because of the choices I was making. Like most of my friends, I was going to drop out. As the school year was coming to an end, her insistence paid off. I told her I’d go to camp. She gave me a great big bear hug, literally lifting me off the ground, and then set everything up. All I had to do was show up June 6 before 10 a.m. at the Anytown office in Phoenix where the buses would take us north to Prescott.
I woke up on June 6 moving at a sluggish pace. My dad, urging me to hurry up, picked up my bag and said, “Let’s go!”
As we pulled into the parking lot that morning, I saw about 20 people walking in and out of the office with sleeping bags and luggage in hand. I grabbed my bags, waved to my dad and slowly walked to the bus that was to take us on the epic journey.
Once at the camp, camp directors Sandy and Joe told us the rules for the week. Counselors began to call out names, dividing us into our cabin groups. I looked at my cabin mates and thought they all appeared to be the loners from each of their respective schools. This week could be the longest one of my life.
Feeling that I had jinxed myself for thinking that, I followed behind them up the hill. As we walked up the rocky path surrounded by trees, I started to sense an intimate and safe environment. We met our advisor for the week, an older man, early fifties I would say, tall and built like Paul Bunyan – except he wore a black t-shirt and red gym shorts – with hair as white as snow, smooth and sleeked back. He introduced himself to us as Bill Saul. Little did I know that this older man was going to become my hero and would welcome me into his life as I welcomed him into mine.
Openness had never been a condition in my life. It had never been required for any relationship that I had, and was certainly foreign to me. I really never felt loved by family or friends. The only love I thought I ever knew was really devotion to the fellow gang members to whom I “belonged.” I hated older folks and never trusted them because they reminded me of the authority figures I disliked throughout my life: the police, the teachers, parents, who always made assumptions about me or accused me of things I never did.
After the icebreakers and activities to get to know each other, we left to our cabins that evening, closing the first official day of camp. I broke down in tears realizing that I had been able to trust others with my emotions, and others were trusting me with theirs. Upon entering the cabin, I stood over my bunk with my head in my hands, crying. Bill walked in and asked me if I was OK. I was trying to wipe the tears away. The next thing he did and said would stay with me my lifetime.
Facing each other, he hugged me and said, “You are not a bad kid.”
That simple statement changed my world. I looked into his eyes and felt comfort, love and acceptance. That evening broke down my defense system as we started our weeklong conversation about life, family, friends and school, and the importance of each.
That week marked the beginning of a relationship based on trust and love that has continued since. I had found in Bill Saul the hero of my life, a role model. That one week helped me see that I wanted to make a difference in the lives of others as he made a difference in my life.
The final morning of camp, I sat on a bench and began to replay the week in my mind. Soon I would have to get on the bus that would take me down the hill toward home. I cried.
I cried for the relationships I never thought I would have created and now had to leave. I cried for the sense of family and community that we had created. I cried for the unconditional love and acceptance that I had felt from so many people in such a short time. I couldn’t go back to who I was prior to that week. I cried for the joy in my heart that I shared with others. I cried for the fear of stepping out of my box with the desire to tell my family that I loved them for the first time in my life.
I cried because I realized that I had changed forever. I was no longer going to sit on the bench of life and let it pass by me. I was ready to be on the court – in school and in life.
Those seven days changed my life; enabled me to change my life. Once a person allows him or herself to go from mind to heart, the doors just open.
Hector Araujo is student body president at Pima Community College in Tucson. He’s a former Anytown delegate and volunteer for Anytown, serving as a counselor for junior high, high school, and collegiate leadership conferences.
Anytown Arizona, Inc. was founded in 1952, and over the years has been a leader in interfaith dialogue and building positive community relations. Its mission is to develop leaders who, in turn, strengthen their communities.