Cara Paolicelli, right, worked with counselors from across the globe

Cara Paolicelli, right, worked with counselors from across the globe, who volunteered their time to help those with special needs.

My name is Cara Paolicelli and I am a rising senior at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. I am grateful that I’ve been able to continue my education in recreational therapy for the disabled thanks to my family, and the American Indian College Fund.

My family’s roots are from northern Wisconsin and we are part of the Redcliff Band of Chippewa Indians. My family’s credo has always been about service and giving back.

I changed my major my sophomore year after spending a summer at Arc of the Triangle, a summer program for kids with disabilities near my mother’s house in Chapel Hill. The joy and satisfaction I felt at helping kids with autism and cerebral palsy and a wide spectrum of challenges gave me a sense of purpose that is hard to put into words. Until that moment my major had been public health and policy. I changed it to recreational therapy with an emphasis in working with the disabled and never looked back.

One day I saw an email from Beacon Camp Lodge encouraging applications for summer camp counselors who were majoring in recreational therapy for the disabled. The position was actually a three-credit course with internship hours and counselors are paid to live there for the summer.

The Pennsylvania Lions Beacon Lodge Camp is a 583-acre summer camp for children and adults with special needs including blindness, deafness, and many other physical and mental challenges. It has grown into a favorite retreat for many people with disabilities as well as a conference center for special groups. The goals of the camp are to present a well-rounded program adaptable to all campers and others, regardless of age, race, creed, or color.

The day I arrived at Beacon Lodge I had been told about special care, a week which involves complete care for every camper who comes.

I can officially say that special care week was the single most incredible experience of my life. The love, joy, and compassion that I felt from these incredibly special people is unmatched by any other feeling I’ve known in my 21 years. My campers this summer showed me some of the best dance moves, incredible musical talents, sweet smiles, and VERY unique ways to eat food. These individuals have taught me so much about the importance of unconditional love. This summer experience was a life-changer for me. The love I feel at helping others and the sense of purpose I feel at knowing that every task involved in taking care and enjoying those who need special care has shined a light on my future and put love in my heart that is hard to articulate.

My mom says that by helping those in need, especially people with limited care systems, I was doing God’s work:  reaching into the hearts and lives of those in our society who needed the most help.

The motto of Camp Beach Lodge defines my goals in life.  They say “Our most important goal in everything we do is to motivate each person to focus on what they can do, not what they can’t.”

It’s the toughest job I will ever love. The counselors I met were from across the world: New Zealand, the UK and more. They will be my friends forever.

Thank you American Indian College Fun, my family, Camp Beacon Lodge and the remarkable participants for helping me to be a better human being.