Thursday, July 2, 2015

Spidey Swings by Camp Michitanki

    The time I spent last Friday at Camp Michitanki, a week long sleep-away camp for kids who have received an organ transplant, was the most enjoyable volunteer experience I have ever been a part of.  Probably because I was dressed as Spider-Man for most of the time.  I'm going to go into a lot more detail than would ever be necessary for the book, but that's okay, because I want to have a record of every amazing moment that I was able to witness and be a part of last week.

     When I arrived, despite the urgings of my youngest brother, it was in civilian clothes and not my costume.  I couldn't drive in full costume anyway, because the eye lenses blur my vision a bit, and without glasses (I've never been able to touch my eye to put in contacts) I have horrible eyesight.  So, once I arrived at the camp's location, I helped set up what is regarded as one of the culminating highlights of the week:  a carnival with games, food, tickets, prizes, and of course, entertainment.  The initial e-mail to Gift of Life volunteers asked if anyone could dress up as a clown-- I figured Spider-Man could be a good addition, and after e-mailing the person in charge of organizing the event, Jenn, we were in business.  My initial contributions were setting up a photo area, a Plinko style game, and then filling water balloons with another volunteer.  So many balloons.  

     Once we finished, some of the campers were already starting to arrive, and the organizer, Jenn, drove me over to a place in the camp where I could change-- a men's bathroom in the main hall.  This was the best option, but featured poor lighting, a stall door that wouldn't lock, and no hooks on which to hang my clothes or backpack.  But, Spider-Man has surely changed into his costume in worse situations.  When I realized my suit's eyes, which I bought separately and keep in place with tiny magnets, was not cooperating, I went and told Jenn to go back without me; I would walk back to the carnival area once I was able to get my costume on.  Little did I know...

     The campers at this large facility were not exclusive to Camp Michitanki.  There were day campers and other overnight campers there because of YMCA connections and whatnot.  It was only a matter of time before a kid saw my costume on the floor beneath the stall door as I worked on getting the eyes on properly.  "It's Spider-Man!  Who's in there?  What are you doing?  Are you the real Spider-Man?  Who are you really?"  He sounded about six or seven, and I could hear one of the counselors there trying to get him to calm down.  He kept returning to the bathroom, imploring those in charge to let him linger behind in the bathroom to see me when I emerged.  I was already feeling rushed to get to the transplanted campers as soon as possible, and now I had this little fella going nuts at the mere glimpse of my costume on the floor.  

     One of his calmer compatriots began saying, "It's not the real Spider-Man.  It's Elmo.  It's just Elmo."  What?  Why did they think I was Elmo.  I was mystified.  Despite all this external pressure and my inability to really see what I was doing without my glasses on in the darkest corner of the bathroom, I finally got the costume on.  It's only flaw, aside front the fact that the eyes are a bit tricky, is that I can't zip it completely closed without a bit of help.  Come to think of it, that may be more of a flaw with my arms than the costume itself.  Anyway, this time, my zipper situation was a boon, because I opened the stall door and saw the kid who'd been waiting for me.  He started shouting, "I told you so!" to anyone who'd doubted that Spider-Man was really in the men's restroom.  As I approached him I asked him to help me and make sure the zipper from the top by my mask and the one in the middle of my back met in the middle.  He gave me a hand and I told him I'd be right out after I gathered my backpack and clothes.  Stepping out of the bathroom, the incredulous counselors looked at me.  But there was no time to explain, because this little guy who had always known the real Spider-Man was inside the bathroom took me by the hand and began talking a mile a minute.

     It turns out that, according to him, he was my biggest fan, and my brother, and if he said it once, he said it twenty times:  "I found Spider-Man in the men's room."  We hadn't made it far when a chorus of disagreement reigned down on me.  I wasn't Spider-Man, I was Elmo.  Again?  What is going on that these kids didn't know Elmo from Spider-Man?  There was no time to ask questions, only deny that I wasn't Elmo and fend off one kid who leaped at me from behind to unzip my costume.  I was beginning to question the wisdom of walking all the way to the carnival area.  Spidey needed a bodyguard.  I bid farewell to the kid who originally discovered me, and stamped out a few more accusations (no I'm not really Garrett-- or Dylan) as I walked away from the day-camp kids and toward the Camp Michitanki ones.

     As I approached the bustling crowd of carnival attendees, I decided I would try to play myself off as the "real" Spider-Man to the younger kids, but cop to my true identity to the older ones after having tiptoeing around the truth.  I wanted them to know that I, too, was a transplant recipient.  Perhaps due to the bounce house, or the distraction of carnival games, or the spectacle of hoola hooping acrobats next to a magician-- whatever it was, the Camp Michitanki kids were more mellow than my "biggest fan and brother."  Which is not to say they didn't have their moments.  Here's a list of things that happened or were said to me during the hour and a half that I mingled with kids who've had a transplant, ages five to 18:

  • You're not tall enough to be Spider-Man (had to use the Tom Cruise milk crate story to help me there...)
  • Your muscles aren't big enough.
  • Your belly sticks out too much.
  • Apologize for making Spider-Man 3.
  • Where is the Green Goblin?
  • Do a back flip.
  • Do a front flip.
  • Sling a web.  (All of these three I declined to do, because "the camp's insurance policy didn't allow me to use my powers, or cover the circus performers breathing fire."  And that last part is true.)
  • Can you do the whip?
  • Do you want to take a squad pic?
  • What's your real name?
  • I can tell you're the real Spider-Man 'cause you're wearing his costume. (Said by the most adorable child I've ever met (barring my own son) when I asked her if she thought I was the real Spider-Man so I could decide if I should tell her about my transplant.  She was the only kid with whom I spoke who never doubted for a second that I was the genuine article.)
  • Are you Elmo?!  You're Elmo!!  
     At least I got an explanation for the Elmo thing:  three girls who looked like they'd really bonded through camp were absolutely convinced that I was Elmo.  I finally got them to explain to me that Elmo was a staff member, not a dude in a furry red costume.  He'd become very well known to all of the campers for taking part in a skit where the final scene of Dirty Dancing was re-eanacted, and he somehow, as one of the campers explained it, "kicked another counselor in his special area."  Apparently this guy was my same height and my vocal doppleganger to such a degree that, despite my protestations, the default assumption was that I was him.  One of my favorite moments was when I found the three girls as they wrapped up their meal at the post-carnival barbecue.  I approached the one who had told me her name earlier, and I called her by it and said, "do you still think I'm Elmo?"  She almost seemed mad that I wasn't him after all.  Middle schoolers are weird.

     There were many other magical moments.  One kid asked if I'd be at camp next year, because he's really good at drawing Spider-Man, and wanted to make one for me.  At one point, I had a chance to play a pub style game, the name of which I was not told.  My Googling yielded no answers, but maybe one of you can leave a comment if you know what it is called.  The game is played within a long, waist high box that is lined with cheap, fake turf.  At each end of the box is a pit, and each player puts out five billiards in whatever arrangement he or she choose.  Then the players toss/roll the cue ball to try to knock the other's billiards into the pit.  This is the kind of game I could spend all day playing.  After a kid who'd been undefeated for seven games fell to a challenger, it was my turn to play.  As my first three four tosses knocked in all five of my opponent's billiards, the bespectacled little guy next to me and a few of his friends were exclaiming, "Spider-Man's got skills!  How did you get so good at this?  Have you played this before?"  While I initially credited my Spider Sense, near the end of a particularly tight overtime match, I leaned over the the kids next to me.  I'd already told him about my real identity, and I give him a little more information.  I said, "When I'm not in costume, I wear glasses just like you-- I honestly have no idea how I'm doing this well."  I can probably credit my success to years of playing baseball, but the day was so incredible, perhaps I was imbued with super powers.

     I took so many photos in the booth that we'd set up that I lost count.  They had cleverly decided to make the booth an instant-print set-up, so kids could leave the carnival with a physical copy of the picture.  Along with Blasty the Michigan Wolverines Stormtrooper, many, many kids walked away with a really cool memento of their day.  It also prevented a flood of photos on Instagram, though a few (including mine; are there with the hashtag campmichitanki.  Near the end of the evening, the little girl who knew I was the real Spider-Man had her picture taken with me.  As Spider-Man's creator, Stan Lee, would say, she was a "true-believer."  I asked the gentleman volunteering at the printer to please make an extra copy of the photo.  Just before the carnival ended and kids went to dinner, my little true-believer walked up and showed me that she had three pictures.  She said one was for her and one was for her brother.  I asked if I could have the third one, and she smiled and handed it to me.  That was the first time I've ever cried in the costume.  To see that despite all she's dealt with, she retains the sense of awe and innocence that could have easily been driven out by facing mortal realities before elementary school was awe-inspiring.  I know how difficult my ordeal was, and I'm an adult with a huge support system of family, friends, and colleagues.  As much as I can imagine what she and the other kids have faced, I also can't imagine it.  Further tugging on my heart strings, a boy came up to me as he was supposed to be walking toward dinner, and silently wrapped his arms around my body.  I hugged him back and fought off more tears.

     This group of survivors was so lively, so full of spirit, that it was easy to forget the physical and emotional scars that were present but hidden on each and every one of them.  One of the last kids I talked to, an 10 or 11 year old boy, came up to ask me a few Spider-Man related questions.  I told him my real story, and he looked at me thoughtfully.  He said, "You know what?  Every year on the day of my transplant, we celebrate my Liver-versary.  I get to pick the restaurant we go to for dinner, and then we come home and watch a movie.  And my dad makes popcorn."  This, perhaps more than any other moment that day, reminded me of what this camp is about.  It's a chance for these kids to share a connection that they couldn't find elsewhere, to speak freely about that which most kids (and adults) can't fathom, and to immerse themselves in this special opportunity.  I told him I liked his family's tradition and plan to celebrate my Lung-iversary in about two months, and we parted ways.

     It was time for me to change back into Evin, so I went and did that, returning in time to help clean up the carnival.  About six of the volunteers were able to stay after and make it to the barbecue, and after proving I wasn't Elmo to the skeptics, I got some food and sat down with the others.  The staff was rounding up their kids to head to a bonfire finale, and one shy little guy came up to each of us and, without saying a word, hugged us, one by one.  I didn't have a costume to hide my tears this time.

     I am so grateful to Jenn for allowing me to be a part of this incredible day, and honored to have brought a smile to the faces of kids who have encountered things that, in a fair world, nobody, of any age, would be forced to face.  I have every intention of returning next year.  Maybe I'll even receive a drawing of myself.

** The video below was originally 30 seconds long. Unsurprisingly, once I told the kids I would do a cartwheel (in lieu of the flips they had requested), they were like bears to honey.  I didn't want to post anything of the kids without their parents' permission so I edited it down.  The original cut featured the boy who promised me a drawing saying, "For all the kids here at Camp Michitanki, ready, hats off for Spider-Man!"  The cartwheel (which was obscured on the video by a swarm of kids) went so well that I did a round-off next, and was able to cut around a kid who claimed he was "Spider-Man's bro" so that I could at least post that portion of the video.   




  1. Ohhhhhh Evin.......
    What you do to my heart!!!!!! What a lucky group of kiddos to have met you! I didn't get to see the video. :(

  2. Woooohoooooo.... I did see it!!!!
    Great job!