Ask a Nurse: 10 Things I learned from my special needs friends

Pamela is an RN, MSN/Ed.

Pamela is a mother of 6 amazing children ages 11 to 24. She is a nurse educator and loves to travel overseas to work in medical clinics and teach health-related topics to schools and communities. She has been married to her best friend, Steve, for 29 years. She has many different interests including reading, writing (NOT arithmetic!), baking, teaching, and spending time with her family. She lives in central Pennsylvania with her husband and two youngest daughters. To see all Ask a Nurse articles click here.

10 Things I learned from my special needs friends

I recently volunteered at a camp for developmentally disabled adults. My children and I have done this since 1998. I had some major surgery on my foot a few years ago that didn’t heal well, so we haven’t spent the entire week for a while. Some of our campers have been coming since my first year, and have enjoyed watching my six children grow up. My youngest, Katja, and I had such a great time seeing all of our old friends and meeting some new ones! They are family…coming to Camp Hebron is like coming home for us! I wanted to share with you some truths I have learned from my special friends, so here we go!

  1. A smile from your heart speaks louder than a thousand eloquent words!

Make eye contact and smile at people! You can be having the worst day ever, when you pass someone who gives you a genuine smile. Suddenly, things just don’t feel so bad!

  1. Don’t take life too seriously! Let loose and be goofy, laugh often and discover how great this makes you feel! Camp is the perfect place to be silly, of course, but being silly at home is so much fun; you really should try it! Our house is loud and filled with laughter when all my kids are home. We thrive on goofy moments and I think it makes our home a happy one.
  2. Anytime is a good time for a dance party! Why wait for a special occasion? Make any day a special occasion with twinkly lights, friends and good music!  If dancing breaks out, get in there and dance!
  3. There’s always time for a hug. Many people live their adult life with little or no physical contact with others. We were created to give and receive love and affection through physical contact. A hug can say, “I love you,” “I’m sorry,” “I’ve missed you” and many other sentiments. I think some people are afraid they will be rejected or offend someone if they give them a hug. A simple, “can I give you a hug?” or “would you like a hug?” will help solve that problem.
  4. You’re never too old to play. Many of my friends at camp have not outgrown playing. You might see them rocking or dancing with a baby doll or enthusiastically coloring in a coloring book. How long has it been since you’ve colored in a coloring book? How about since you’ve blown bubbles and watched them swirl in the sunlight? I find both of those activities extremely relaxing. If you don’t have children or grandchildren, borrow a friend’s child for a few hours or offer to volunteer in the pediatric ward of a local hospital. Bring some toys to play with, crayons, coloring books, and bubbles. You will not only have fun and decrease your stress level; you will make a child happy!  The picture below shows our counselors at camp waiting for our campers. They are all busy coloring, with not a camper among them!



  1. Find joy in simple pleasures. Some of you may remember my dear friend, Jess, who passed away this past year. Jess loved sunshine! She loved to feel the warm sun on her face and loved to rub her hands on a warm windowsill. I can still see her look up toward the sun with a big smile on her face!  We often surround ourselves with so much outside distraction that we lose our appreciation for the simple joys of life. Turn off the TV, radio, iphone and computer and take notice of what you take pleasure in. Is it the soft grass under your bare feet? The sound of birds singing in your yard? The beauty of colorful flowers? How about the explosion of flavor as you bite into a just picked blueberry? See what simple things you can find pleasure in this week.
  2. Serve others cheerfully! My special friends look for ways to help out and serve others. Almost every meal we had campers offering to clear our table and wash it off (sometimes before we were finished, they were so eager!).  Back and neck massages were tirelessly given to staff, chairs were set up and put away when needed; all with a smile. I really learned a lot about how to serve others and work with a cheerful attitude that week. What can you offer to do for someone else this week? Maybe you can just quietly do someone else’s job to bless them! You will find that along with making someone else happy, you will feel joy from giving.
  3. Don’t be afraid to share whatever talent you have! Oh, how I wish we all could be more like my special friends in this way! We had a talent show one night and almost every camper got up on the stage and shared a song, a poem, or a dance. Most of them were not shy about getting up front. Those that were went up front with support from their counselor or another camper. The talent show is a favorite night for all! Any staff that can get to it (kitchen staff, support staff, etc.) try to be there. Although he didn’t know any chords or notes, the guy in the leather jacket above just strummed away, singing a song he made up as he went along about how wonderful his parents were (“my mom…is so young…and beautiful!) and how great his counselor was! I think I saw a few tears besides my own.

  1. Slow is OK. In our fast-paced society, many of us cannot tolerate slow people, slow traffic, slow grocery lines or pretty much anything slow. Slow is one of the first things you learn when working with special needs people. It takes many of them a long time to get from point A to point B. We need to step back and realize that this is ok. We can start to notice more of those simple pleasures when we slow down. It doesn’t upset my campers when it takes 8 minutes to take their medicine, why should it upset me? I always need to re-set my internal speedometer when I work at this camp, and once I get re-set…it feels GOOD!
  1. Forgive and forget. It is very easy to misunderstand some of my friends. Sometimes they get very frustrated when I can’t understand them. It must be so hard to not be able to get people to understand you! Even though they live with this, they still are quick to forgive! When one of their friends hurt their feelings, they are quick to forgive and forget. I wish we all could be more forgiving of each other’s faults! Even when we do forgive, we often don’t forget. We bring up past misdeeds with each other and hold grudges. We all make mistakes; wouldn’t it be nice to remember that?

I hope you learned something along with me today.  I am always happy to receive your mail at [email protected]!  Let me know if you have a topic you would like me to cover in a future article.

Be Well,

Nurse Pam


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