By Moses Leos III
San Marcos resident and Barton Publications employee Paige Lambert slowly moved around behind someone who was talking about her long journey.
No longer the shy introvert that the camp parent was talking about, her big smile radiated and caused laughter. Then he saw her, and the fun of going back to the camp that changed her life began.
The parent had been telling the students all about this amazing girl, who came to the Hands Down 2 (HD2) camp, not wanting to participate. He told the camp kids how she gained confidence, came out of her shell and soon became a counselor herself.
It was a story that affected him years ago and he loved telling, every year, how much this camp helped children.
For Lambert, what began as a trip to get braces for her wrists to play soccer as a tween turned into a chance encounter with the counselor who told her about a special camp.
On that day Lambert met Amy Lake, co-director for Hands Down 2 (HD2), a camp offered by the Peaceable Kingdom Retreat for Children, a non-profit that helps children with special needs and chronic illnesses.
For Lambert, a Texas State alumna who lives with TAR syndrome, a rare genetic blood disorder characterized by the absence of the radius bone, attending the camp bolstered her confidence and the ability to rise above limitations.
She discovered the camp when she was 12 years old. Lake, who was Lambert’s occupational therapist at Scottish Rite Hospital in Dallas, told Lambert and her mother about what HD2 offered.
Lake said the camp’s main goal is to introduce children with hand differences to other kids in similar situations. A much larger goal, Lake said, is to build their self-esteem and confidence.
“They go to camp defined by their hand difference,” Lake said. “When they leave (camp), they are defined by who they are on the inside.”
Lake said Lambert was initially hesitant to attend, due in part to her introverted and shy nature.
“She didn’t really have a lot of self-confidence and self-esteem at the time, which is a total 180 from today,” Lake said.
But Lambert ultimately warmed up to the idea, based on her desire to step out of her comfort zone, Lake said.
That didn’t mean Lambert wasn’t hesitant when her mother dropped her off for day one of the weeklong camp.
“I was literally in my mom’s car and thinking, ‘don’t make me go,’” Lambert said. “I was thinking, ‘I don’t want to,’ and ‘what are you doing to me?’,”
Once at the camp, Lambert did her best to talk with her fellow campers. It was a challenge, Lambert said, based on her introverted nature.
But she soon realized that even though everyone in HD2 had somewhat similar hand differences, it was something no one ever talked about. Discussions instead focused on topics such as issues with school, dealing with bullies, and talking about relationships.
“You’re talking about that, not about your hand difference. It’s to understand how to get enough confidence to not think of your hand difference in those situations,” Lambert said. “You talk about what normal kids talk about. The social awkwardness of a teenager.”
Over the course of a week, Lambert slowly began to warm up to the ideas and support given by HD2.
The counselors, whom Lambert called “superheroes,” provided not only guidance, but also motivation to accomplish tasks, such as completing rock wall climbs and zip lining.
For Lambert, the turning point came when campers cheered her on to complete a rock wall climb, despite her fear of heights.
“These people, they wanted me to do something cool. They see more than I’m seeing,” Lambert said. “They want me to do more than what I’m doing. They care about what I’m doing.”
Over time, Lake said Lambert began to open up as the camp went along. She soon saw the transformation, as Lambert went from a person who didn’t interact with anyone, to someone who was “all in” by the end of the week.
Lake said Lambert continued to transform over the course of her eight years attending the camp.
“She was a person who felt like she felt loved, no matter what she did,” Lake said. “Whether she failed or succeeded, she was still going to be successful and loved because she tried.”
For Lambert, the time at HD2 helped strengthen bonds with her camp mates, who, she said, became her family.
“I made my whole life around this camp every year. They’ve become my family,” Lambert said. “They would be the people I call at 2 a.m. if I had issues and my mom and dad couldn’t help.”
Lambert’s experiences at HD2 led her to become a counselor at HD1, a weeklong camp for children ages 4 to 9 years old and their families.
With HD1, Lambert said her goal was to help parents and children adjust to life with a hand difference.
But for some parents, worries about whether their child will get married or will struggle in college were legitimate issues.
“These kids are five years old. All they’re worried about is getting the toy out of the bottom of the Cracker Jack box,” Lambert said. “With HD1, it shows kids and their parents that it’s okay. Your kids are going to be fine.”
For Lambert, the camp taught her she could overcome physical limitations. It also taught her how to be confident in dealing with people more “in a positive, than a negative way.”
Lake, who has been a part of the camp for 15 years, said seeing people such as Lambert who succeed motivates her.
“It’s so fulfilling to me. The kids tell me all the time that I give so much to them, but they give so much to me,” she said. “I feel happy and I feel like I’m making a difference.”