First Person Singular

(Walter P. Calahan - )
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Sunday, August 10, 2008

I FEEL PERSONALLY RESPONSIBLE for every child that's with us, especially now that I'm a mother myself. Before I had kids, occasionally a mom would say: "Oh, you don't really understand. You don't have your own kids." And I thought: Yes I do; I care about kids. But now I know what they meant. Until you are a mother yourself, you can't understand how hard it is to trust someone else to care for them; so I try really hard to keep moms informed of what's happening when their kids are with us at camp.

I know it's an unrealistic goal, but I want every kid that comes to have the most amazing time of their life. If even one person is unhappy about something, I just can't quite let that go. One visiting day, a very well-meaning parent brought some rats to donate to the camp to let the snakes eat them; we have some snakes in the petting zoo. We celebrate Mass together on visiting Sundays, so just as we're assembling everybody, a little girl, who was not one of our campers and did not know the rules, opened the cage and [a] rat bit her. Eventually the parent of this little girl finds her, and she is very distressed, convinced that this little girl may have been exposed to rabies. The possibility of a domestic rodent having rabies is -- just none at all. So I'm trying to calm her down, and I convince her: "Okay, if it will make you feel better, I'll get this rat tested." I go to Brother Roger, who's in charge of our animals, [and] I tell him I need this rat. He tells me the rat's [about to be] fed to the snake -- they were just carrying [them] over. So I get on the walkie-talkie, and I start calling all over the camp, "Get over there and stop this rat from getting fed to the snake!" They radio back: "One rat got eaten; the other two are okay." I'm thinking, I know which one got eaten. Sure enough, the little girl says, "Neither one of those is the one that bit me." So, like, great, it's in the snake. So I say, "I guess we're gonna have to kill the snake to get the rat," and the mom seemed satisfied with that. But I don't know if the snake heard me say that he was gonna get killed, because he threw it up. He threw up the rat into the cage.

The next morning, when I called the health department to come to pick up the rat for testing, the representative said, "You know this rat doesn't have rabies." I said, "I know, but I want to make sure this mom feels good about it, so go ahead and take it." He did, and of course it wasn't rabid.

Often people think I lounge by the pool and it is a fun job; [but] it's also very stressful to be responsible for a large number of people. Somebody's unhappy or somebody's sick or somebody's not getting along -- all those kinds of logistics have to be worked out. Coming to camp is like coming to a unique little world. No day is a typical day for me; it's always different, [but] I just couldn't imagine not being a part of everything going on here.

Interview by Robin Rose Parker

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