Fire Drills–Lessons Learned at Camp Tatiyee about Living with Disabilities

At the beginning of the summer, my daughter, Olivia, was invited to help the counselors at the Lions Camp Tatiyee prepare for their task of serving disabled campers. The staff needed to practice evacuating the dormitories in the event of fire–not an easy task when working with mentally and/or physically challenged campers.

Olivia was one of several actors recruited to play the disabled campers. They were each assigned a name and specific disabilities and asked to remain in character throughout each fire drill. I asked her to share more of her experience and the lessons she learned.

Who were the characters that you played and what challenges did they have?

My first character was “Crystal.” She was developmentally delayed, so her mental age was not equivalent to her physical age. She needed a walker to get around. As far as her personality, she was always looking for attention, and could be demanding when she did not get it.

My second character was “Selena.” She was also a developmentally delayed adult. She could get around without help, but moved a bit slowly. She was super sassy and fashion conscious, with a propensity to throw things when frustrated.

My third character was “Martha.” She was blind and walked with a cane. She was slightly developmentally delayed. As far as her personality, she was constantly asking questions.

My last character was “Richard.” He had severe muscular dystrophy. He could not control his muscles, but had full feeling in his nerves. His mental functions were completely normal, but he spoke very softly because the muscular dystrophy was affecting his vocal chords.

Talk about your experiences during the fire drills. What did it feel like to portray these characters in the midst of a life-threatening scenario?

It was a little intimidating to feel like my life was in the hands of the counselors, who were people I barely knew. It involved a greater degree of trust because I knew I was dependent upon them.

As Crystal, I was so focused on my own needs and desperate to get help that I literally didn’t see anyone else. I ran over other people with my walker and distracted the nurse, who was needed by other campers.  In retrospect, I recognize that it’s easy to judge people who act that way, but sometimes they don’t mean to be so demanding. They just don’t recognize how their behavior impacts others.

As Selena, I was able to see more of what the staff were doing to help everyone in the crisis. They were working together to use their unique skill sets in ways that would benefit the most campers. Stronger people who had an easier time evacuating physically challenged campers kept going back in to get more of them out of the building. Those who were less physically strong took care of the needs of campers who were already outside the dorm. I almost cried because the team was so real, so much a living, breathing organism, and that team had saved my life.

Because Martha was blind, I wore a blindfold throughout the drill. My instinct was to scream any time I didn’t know what was going on. I realized afterwards that this only added to the chaos, but I wasn’t intentionally trying to be a problem. It was simply my natural reaction to feeling disoriented and afraid.

As Richard, I remember lying on my bunk, realizing there was nothing I could do to get myself out, and just praying that the fire wouldn’t start near me. When I heard the staff passing by to evacuate other campers, I began to feel scared that no one would notice me. Everyone else was screaming and yelling, but I knew that, as Richard, I couldn’t even call for help. I began to get frustrated because no one was coming to get me and angry because they were getting other more able-bodied campers out before me. Finally, it took two counselors to support my body and get me out of the building. Once outside, one of them looked me in the eyes and asked if I had epilepsy. I knew then that he was committed to keep me safe, and would not leave me if there was any chance that I might have a seizure. It was the most meaningful question anybody had asked me all day.

How did these experiences affect you personally?

I have new insights into the behavior of disabled people as a result of portraying these individuals. It’s tempting to be frustrated when someone won’t cooperate with those who are trying to help them. Now I understand that usually they are not trying to be difficult, but simply to communicate their needs.

I was struck by the passion and dedication of the staff. Working at this camp is far more than a summer job. I saw how much of themselves they threw into rescuing actors in an artificial crisis and marveled at the intensity with which they approached even training situations.  When an evacuation didn’t go well and the mock fire prevented them from getting every camper out safely, I saw some of them break down in tears. Their emotional investment was beautiful to see.






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