Wednesday, July 9, 1997
Kindness, caring special abilities

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Tom looks up from his chicken sandwich.

"Will you do me a favor?" he asks, choosing every word as if he were picking only the sweetest fruit from the tree of life. "When you get back to work, please, tell them what you were up to today."

Tom says this with a pleading look in his 60-year-old, baby-blue eyes. He's afraid that the moment I leave I'll forget all about him.

He extends his hand, wanting to shake on his request. We do, and Tom smiles.

"Now you've promised," he says, fidgeting in his wheelchair. "It's a deal."

The handshake was unnecessary. There's no way I could forget people full of such unconditional kindness.

I was having lunch with Tom and his cabin mates, Ron and Jim, at Camp Allyn, nestled deep in the cool, green woods of Batavia Township. It was another "Lunch with Cliff" where I treat people to their midday meals and they tell me what's on their minds.

This time out, three adult summer campers told me what was in their hearts. Open and unguarded, giving as much kindness as they get at Camp Allyn, they gave me an often wordless lesson in how to savor life moment by moment.

Tom, Jim and Ron are in the final days of their annual stay at Camp Allyn. For the past nine summers, they've come from Dayton, Springfield and Cheviot to share a cabin for two weeks at the camp for disabled adults and children.

All of the summer camp's cabins are named for birds. Tom and Jim and Ron are Falcons.

"The Falcons rule this place," boasts Jim, who's 37. "Look at where we sit." Their table is next to the lunchroom's food line. Over lunch the Falcons talk a little, think a lot.

"We discuss how the day has gone so far," Tom says. "And so far, it's been pretty good. This morning we made something with Popsicle sticks."

Before that they hiked to the camp's lake. Ron and Jim swear they saw bass glistening in the water. They've tried to catch some of the fish.

"Got two or three bites," the 49-year-old Ron says disgustedly. "But no fish."

Without warning, Jim slaps the Falcons' counselor, Greg Butler, on the back.

"We have the best counselor in camp," Jim says. "See this shirt on my back? Greg gave it to me."

The purple T-shirt carries two words on the chest: Friendship Club.

"If I can't get out of bed in the middle of the night, Greg helps me," Jim says. "If we need some water, he brings a glass."

Tom raises his hand for permission to speak. "If you have children, this is a nice place for them to visit for a little vacation."

"But they would have to be in the condition we are," Jim warns between bites of french fries.

"I like the people here," Ron says as he adjusts the baseball cap on his head. "They understand my way of thinking. They know how to treat people with my kind of disabilities. They're kind to me."

They talk about their conditions with a casual frankness. They know, I say to myself. I am surprised and ashamed for thinking it. Why can't the rest of us - supposedly more able - be as open.

"Freddie the cook always says hello," Jim notes.

Freddie is Fred Neiheisel. The former restaurant owner "could go anywhere and make double what I do here. But I wouldn't have the rewards of working with these kids. At the end of the sessions, they give you hugs."

"Nobody works here for the money," says Beth O'Connor, Camp Allyn's program coordinator.

She talks while keeping a watchful eye on the campers. Suddenly, there's trouble at the Falcons' table. Tom is choking.

Greg immediately wheels him to the nurse. Another counselor works to calm the campers. Everybody starts singing, "Bingo." There was a farmer had a dog and Bingo was his name-o!

Minutes later, Tom returns. He's embarrassed. "A piece of meat wouldn't go down right. That's the first trouble I've ever had like that.

"I hope," he tells his fellow Falcons, "it didn't upset you too much."

Through Tom's ordeal and his return, Ron remains silent.

Later, he says he was feeling sad, thinking about camp coming to an end for another summer. He'll miss the caring staff and the other Falcons.

And after only one lunch, so will I.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.