Out of the 26 years I’ve spent on this earth, year 15 was the worst. You’re old enough to drive, but not without an adult in the car. You can’t do anything fun because you don’t have any money. You can’t get any money because you can’t get a job. You’re too old to build little ramps for your bike and skateboard. You’re too old to have sleepovers and make little forts where no parents are allowed. Thus, you’re left with very few things to do.
One summer, between 9th and 10th grade, I found something particularly unusual to occupy my time. For two weeks, I volunteered at a wheelchair sports camp. It was run by my church and my parents strongly encouraged me to do it. “It will help you get work next year when you’re looking for a job, and it will look great on your college application” they explained. Which as it turns out couldn’t have been more right, McDonalds and Moorpark Community College were very impressed with my resume.
As pointless as this service would seem, I came to find many others were tricked into donating two weeks of their time to help the less fortunate. Most of them, like me, thinking it would put them a step ahead later in life. So many others in fact, that the camp had more volunteers and counselors than campers. Meaning that each camper would have his or her very own volunteer, and in some cases, two.
The camper assigned to me was Bobby. He had two volunteers to watch him, the other being my best friend, Bryan Luce. Bobby was about 9 or 10. He had dark brown hair and hazel eyes. If he could stand on his feet he’d be about normal height for his age. Apart from not being able to use his legs, he was like any other 9 year-old boy. After talking to him for a few minutes, it was clear his disabilities were strictly physical. This was true for the vast majority of the campers in the program.
Although it was run by my church, the volunteers came from all over. The first day we got in a big circle and played one of those name games that helps everyone get to know each other. It was exciting to see new people my age I hadn’t seen wandering the halls and playgrounds of my school for the past ten years. Of course, the game was pointless when the only names I committed to memory were of the cute 15 or 16-year-old girls.I’d then pretend I forgot them.
“Oh hey umm. . . sorry I’m drawing a blank here. . ”
“Oh right, ok cool, hey Rachel”
I would casually play it off like I hadn’t been repeating the name Rachel Pratt in my head for the past 48 hours.
There wasn’t much for us to do as volunteers. I remember cheering a lot over everything. There were relay races and weird wheelchair obstacle courses we would watch the kids “run” as we cheer’d enthusiastically. It was exhausting. Lunch was my favorite part since we could sit down and enjoy our food in peace and quiet.
One day, when a group of us volunteers and campers were all gathered around a table for lunch, Bobby asked if I could grab him a soda. When I returned, he had a challenge for me. Worried I might lose some sort of physical competition to a 9-year-old in a wheelchair, especially in front of a group of older girls, I reluctantly said “ok”. “I bet you can’t roll this quarter down the center of your face” he said. Relieved I wouldn’t be embarrassing myself in front of everyone, I snatched the quarter from his outstretched hand. I rolled it perfectly down the center of my face, moving it slowly and meticulously so it wouldn’t sway too far to the left or right. When finished, I looked up to see smiling faces followed by an uproar of laughter. I didn’t know what happened, but I had a terrible feeling in my stomach that something had gone wrong. Trying his best to hold back the laughter, Bryan leaned over and whispered “Dude, you have a black line going down the center of your face, you should probably check out a mirror.” Calmly, I stood up and slowly walked to the nearest bathroom, trying not to look like I was in a state of panic. When I looked in the mirror I saw a distinct line running down the center of my face. I ran water from the sink and vigorously rubbed my face in a feeble attempt to remove my new mark of shame. I’d been duped by a 9-year-old cripple.
On the last day, they had a mini carnival set up. All the parents were invited and there was a dunk tank, a clown making balloon animals, miscellaneous games, and a raffle. Uninterested in any of these, I simply strolled around, enjoying my last day of volunteer work. A green apple dipped halfway in caramel caught my attention. As I waited in line for my treat, a girl in a red apron walked by and asked if I wanted to buy a raffle ticket. “For what?” I inquired, thinking my answer would surely be no. “For that” she pointed, revealing a big red frame of steel with one bicycle tire in the front and two bigger ones in the back. It sat low to the ground and had a large bucket in the middle with multiple seat belts that crossed over each other. It almost looked like the wire frame of a small dune buggy with the engine removed.
“It’s a wheelchair bicycle. You just sit in the middle and steer with your body by leaning into the direction you want to turn. To move it you pull back on those two handles on the side. . . kind of like a row boat.” she explained.
“But I’m a volunteer, are you sure I’m allowed to buy a raffle ticket for that? ” I asked, confused.
“Of course, anyone can play, it’s a dollar a ticket.”
I bought one.
When the raffle time came, everyone gathered around a little stage. Parents and campers started pulling out their rows of tickets, anxiously awaiting the numbers to be called. Bryan and I sat next to Bobby and his dad who had bought over 70. He had so many he asked us to hold on to a couple rows and check for a winner. Bryan grabbed a long strip. I told him I’d bought one for myself and was going to look out for my own numbers.
Before it was called, the organizer of the raffle told us that everyone should share the first four numbers and it’s really the last four you have to look out for. She then began reading. Bryan nudged my shoulder and pointed at the first four numbers on all the tickets in his hand. They were off. We both looked at each other and laughed. She then began to slowly and dramatically read off the last four numbers.
“SEVEN . . . TWO . . . . NINE . . and THREE”
I looked down at my ticket. 7293. I stood up half way in disbelief. I kept checking the numbers to make sure it was real. “Seven two nine three, thats what I have, I have that, I won!” I whispered. I showed Bryan and he concurred. A rush of excitement ran through me. I’d never won anything in my life. Everyone desperately wanted that ticket with the numbers 7293 on it, and I held it in my hand. I announced my winning ticket out loud. There was a little applause and a bit of cheering, as one would expect to find after someone calls BINGO at the local retirement center. The camp director walked up to confirm it, and with a big smile said ” Congratulations! Does this mean you will be giving the bike to Bobby?”
I paused for a second as the volunteers, campers, and parents all looked at me.
“Well um . . . no . . . . I think I’m gonna uhhm . . keep it for myself. That thing looks pretty cool.”
The director gave an awkward smile and an embarrassed laugh. “Well congratulations” she said again uncomfortably. People started throwing away their tickets and disassembling. “Dude that thing looks awesome, we gotta take it down my hill tomorrow!” Bryan suggested. I looked at him, smiled, and shook my head in agreement.
We called his sister, and after 20 minutes of convincing her we weren’t joking, she agreed to come by with her truck to help us take my new wheelchair bicycle home. As we stood around waiting, many campers approached me. They’d roll up in their chairs and congratulate me on the amazing prize, some giving high fives as their parents rolled them away.
“Ahh thanks man.” I’d reply. “Yea I can’t believe it . . . so awesome!”
The next two months I rode that thing everywhere. My friends and I were constantly looking for steeper and longer hills to take it down. Once you got enough speed you could sit back and lean side to side to make long sweeping curves like you were bobsledding in the Olympics. Eventually the novelty wore off and it spent more and more time in my garage, until one day, I came home to find it was gone. My Mom informed me that the camp director called and asked if I still had the bike and if I would be willing to donate it back. Apparently I was.