I had just over a year to get used to being a "mom" to the HFC kids when I started my first summer as the nurse at Chop Point Camp. One hundred and twenty 12-17 year-olds came from all over the United States, from France, Spain, Austria, and England to spend 3-6 weeks in a small town in rural Maine. I was their nurse, ready to hand out tylenol and ice sprained ankles, but I quickly discovered that hugs and a listening ear were the real necessities. It wasn't long before the staff gave me a new nickname: Mama Kez. Compared to the kids in Haiti, these campers have everything, but they too were looking for the kind of acceptance and caring that a mom gives. And somehow, they found it in my infirmary.
The French girls from the second 3 week session started calling me "Mama" after I yelled at them for not putting their seat belts on. The name stuck. I am the only staff member at Chop Point who speaks French, so I am their safety net, the person they come to when things get overwhelming or when they just need to talk to someone who understands, literally. Everyone at camp refered to them as "Kez's French kids", as if they really were my kids.
I got to know Lyndsey Labbe last year when I was a counselor and lifeguard. She would come sit on the dock with me and help me moor and de-rig the sailboats. This summer, during the 8 weeks that she spent at Chop Point, she cried on my shoulder more times than I can count. Her parents are recently divorced, her best friend had been talking about her behind her back, and her mother had to be hospitalized with a chronic illness for a week. For a while, Labbers called me Mama Kez, but she eventually dropped the Kez and just called me Mama.
Regina was our sole orphan. Her father died when she was 2 and her mother died 6 years later of breast cancer. Regina spent hours in the infirmary talking about everything going on in her life. Many evenings I had to physically remove her so she would go back to her cabin before lights out. Like Lyndsey, she dropped the Kez and called me Mama all summer.
15 year-old Tom was a surprise addition to the Mama Kez club. He started coming to the infirmary every evening just to talk. On one such evening, he told me that he had hated me last year but he didn't really know why. This summer though, he always wanted to have me at his table or in his group at activities. And he talked. He never revealed anything very personal but on 2 occasions, he cried without explaining why. I still don't know exactly what he was looking for in those late night talks or what is troubling him, but I was his stepsister and his mom for 4 weeks so hopefully some of the things I told him about God's love will stick with him.
Little Baptiste from France was horribly homesick for his first week at camp. At least twice a day, someone would call me down to talk to Baptiste and I would just hug him while he tried (often unsuccessfully) not to cry. Things turned around by the second week and he ended up having a wonderful stay. When I took him to security at the airport on the last day, he sobbed the whole way and kept walking back through security to give me another hug. "I don't understand, Kez," he whispered. "At first I was so sad to not be with my mom and dad, but now I am so sad to be leaving you and my counselor Jon." He was our baby.
Thibault was one of my special kids who came from France two years in a row. I nicknamed him "Mon Soleil" (My Sunshine Boy) because he brightened my day so much. He's not verbose but he sent me an email after he left this year: "You were like a mother to me at Chop Point and I will never forget you. Lot of kisses, Your Sunshine Boy".
The mama thing was toughest with Chad. Chad comes from a very broken family - no father, several siblings who have been given up for adoption, a mother who has no job and may be going to prison in a few months. He is clumsy, has a speech impediment, and gets into fights at school, to the extent that he got expelled at the end of the year. His grandmother is the camp cook so she brought him along for the whole summer. No child was there longer than Chad was and I got to know him really well. On the last day, after everyone else had said good-bye to me, Chad slipped into the infirmary, all red-eyed. "What are you crying about, little man?" I asked jokingly and he just burst into tears. "I'm so scared to go home, Mama Kez," he wept. "People are kind here, I don't have to worry about getting into fights or being teased. And I don't want to say good-bye to you." Several of us had tried to convince Chad to be a boarder at Chop Point school this year so I talked to him again about that possibility and how much that would help with his issues at school. He just kept crying, "I can't be away from home that long. You were my mom this summer and you won't be here. I can't do it."
Sometimes I hate being Mama Kez. I hate being the one who is careful about safety and the one who misses out on activities because I'm sitting under the porch with a sobbing British girl. I hate hearing the heart-wrenching stories that the kids tell me. Most of all, I hate when they cry in my arms because then I can't keep myself from crying too.
But at the same time, Mama Kez is who God made me and I love it. I love how much kids and staff trust me. I love how girls and boys alike will tell me about deep hurts and wounds. I love having the opportunity to give them a taste of God's love and compassion. And, as much as it hurts, I love it when they cry in my arms.