Lessons from the Shore

I had experienced sheer moments of stress and panic, knowing Mark and I would not be there next to him to protect him – to pure euphoria as I watched our older son, Hayden, take control of the situation and coach his brother through the experience.

After looking at my calendar, I'm still processing that it's the middle of July. Where did the time go? I'm afraid to blink because then it will be the middle of August and I'll be processing that my oldest son will officially be a senior in high school. I'm not ready. That seems to be my motto lately, "I'm not ready." I desperately seek moments where I feel calm and balance, but then I get slammed with a feeling of stress and panic.

A great example was this morning. I got up at 5 a.m., determined to have a relaxing cup of coffee before the kids were up. I sat on the couch with my rescue dog, Jack, smiling as I felt the caffeine jump-start my body when, all of a sudden, Jack rolled on his back and kicked my full cup of coffee out my hand. I was drenched in hot coffee and ripped the couch cover off, hoping that coffee didn't soak my couch. This story seems to be the best analogy to describe the past few months that have been riddled have been riddled with stress and anxiety to then be laced with euphoria and amazement.

Camp Cole is a new camp in the area that provides a place for children with all abilities to experience the outdoors. There are cabins giving them an opportunity to stay overnight, a beautiful lake to fish and kayak, as well as horse stables. To add to the overall experience, the camp also has a zero-entry pool. Broden's ABA clinic, the Unumb Center, hosted a day at the camp to give their clients an opportunity to experience what Camp Cole had to offer. Broden's older brother, Hayden, volunteered as a counselor earlier that month and wanted to show his brother around the camp.

When we pulled the car up to the camp and walked into the building to sign up, the noise level was high and Broden started to plug his ears. He turned to me and said, "Ready to go home." I looked at Mark, "I don't know about this." After Mark gave me a "we packed everything, but the kitchen sink and I'm not getting back in our car to go home" look, I knew we needed to push through to see how far we could coax Broden through this camp. This was going to be painful and uncomfortable. Not just for Broden, but for me too.

Once we got outside to our assigned group, a team leader yelled, "Green Team, get ready to kayak and get your swimsuits on!" Of course, everyone had their swimsuits on under their clothes, except for us. Mark, Broden and I crammed into a family bathroom, threw our swimsuits on, and then ran down to the lake. I thought to myself, "Well, maybe we'll see if Broden will just sit in the kayak. That will be a win for us."

As usual, Hayden grabbed Broden and said, "C'mon B. let's go." As always, Broden followed Hayden towards the lake while Mark and I looked on to allow Hayden to take over. Mark and I stood off to the side in awe as Hayden told Broden to pick up an oar and showed him how to paddle, "B, do what I do." As Hayden would paddle to the left, Broden would paddle to the left. After a few minutes of instruction, Hayden went up to one of the camp counselors and said, "We're ready. Broden, get in the kayak. Sit in the front. I got the back."

As Broden walked to the kayak and continued to follow Hayden's instructions, Mark and I looked at each other and then started fumbling for our phones to document the moment. Just as I started to video, and Mark started clicking to take pictures, the camp counselor shoved them off into the lake.

Then we heard, "Ok B, paddle like I showed you." Broden started to paddle and Hayden started to paddle with B in unison. They paddled all over the lake and were the last kayak to come back to shore. I have watched the video hundreds of times because the video shows Broden's excitement and joy after trying something new, but I also see Hayden's face of satisfaction and self-confidence after successfully teaching his brother something new. After watching Hayden with Broden on the lake, Mark and I said, "Hayden, you're in charge. We'll stand back and watch you work with Broden. We're here to help if you need us." Hayden nodded willing to take on the responsibility.

After changing out of our wet clothes, it was time for lunch. We walked into the cafeteria where all of the campers were getting their food, finding places to sit, and reminiscing about the morning activities. Conversations with laughter and clapping echoed through the cafeteria and Hayden noticed Broden getting very agitated, "Broden, do you want to leave and go to where it's quiet?" Broden answered, "Yea!" while plugging his ears and tensing up his body. Hayden motioned all of us to a picnic table outside under an overhang, "I think this will be better for you, B."

After eating, Hayden looked at the schedule to prepare Broden for the next activity. Mark and I could tell that Broden was starting to max out and was telling us he wanted to go home. Instead of taking charge of the situation, I looked at Hayden and asked, "What do you want to do?" Hayden looked at the schedule again and said, "Let me talk to one of the camp counselors. I don't think Broden is going to like the next activity because it's going to be too loud, so I'm going to see if we can slide in with another group and spend some time in the pool."

Minutes later, Hayden told us to get back into our swimsuits to join another group in the pool. Due to this decision, Hayden was able to extend our time at the camp and give Broden an opportunity to take part in an activity that he enjoyed. We were able to spend most of the early afternoon there that day at the camp, which was hours longer than we had originally expected. We left early, but for us, we called that day a win for our family.

That day at Camp Cole was like my morning coffee. I had experienced sheer moments of stress and panic as I watched Broden slide his life vest on by the lake, knowing Mark and I would not be there next to him to protect him – to pure euphoria as I watched our older son, Hayden, take control of the situation and coach his brother through the experience. As I would start to panic again with Broden getting upset at lunch, and wondering where could we go to calm him and encourage him to eat, Hayden was familiar with the camp and knew exactly where to go to set the conditions for Broden to keep going.

After looking through photos of that day and re-watching the videos of the two of them on the lake, I realized something. Intertwined in feeling uneasy and uncomfortable, I witnessed something that presented a sense of calmness. Mark and I had stepped back from Broden and we had the opportunity to see Hayden advocate for his brother. Hayden stepped up and took the initiative to alter Broden's environment to set him up for success, creating a priceless life lesson for Hayden, but also one for Mark and me as parents. They'll be just fine out there and it's ok to stay on the shore.•

Shelly Huhtanen


Shelly Huhtanen is an Army wife stationed at Fort Benning, GA who has a child with autism. She enjoys sharing her experiences of day-to-day life caring for her son with autism while serving as an Army spouse. She authored "Giving a Voice to the Silent Many" that encompasses many stories of raising a child with autism in the military. Shelly is passionate about autism advocacy for our military and works to bring awareness to our local legislators and command about providing better support for our military autism community, such as better health care and education.