Hospital visits give Swig kids a lesson in compassion

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A young woman with long, dark hair and carefully applied pink lipstick wheeled herself into the lobby of Shriner's Hospital for Crippled Children in San Francisco. Her upper thighs were raised, covered with burns.

This was only one of dozens of children a group of Camp Swig kids saw on their tour of the non-profit hospital.

As part of Swig's annual social action day on Aug 17, a group of 100 campers ages 14 and 15 left their bucolic campgrounds tucked in the Santa Cruz Mountains to learn about poor children and those with physical and mental disabilities in San Francisco.

Each year, the kids and counselors choose a theme, ranging from AIDS awareness to learning about the disabled. This year it was "children helping children," a logo that campers sported on homemade black-and-white T-shirts.

But at Shriner's, one of the first lessons they learned was that some children can't be cured.

Recreational therapist Tom Barisone took the campers on a tour that included visits to the hospital's special pool, which contains a device to lower paralyzed patients into the water; the school room; the workshop for custom prosthetics; and the physical therapy room, where a small blond boy was agonizingly pushing through a set of leg lifts.

As Barisone explained about equipment designed to help improve the lives of children with damaged spinal cords, he made sure the kids understood that such injuries cannot be healed.

At one point, he told the kids, "I don't know what you've heard about Christopher Reeve [whose spine was injured in a horseback riding fall], but there are no miracle stories."

As the kids finished the tour, they met two teenage boys in wheelchairs who had rolled into the lobby to look out the window onto 19th Avenue. The campers crowded around the disabled boys, who chatted with the visitors before their bus arrived.

"It freaked me out," said David Moilanen, who at 17 is about the same age as the two patients. "How could they have 60 years of life ahead without ever being able to take a step?"

Other Swig campers were expecting to see kids who were more demoralized than the ones they met at the hospital.

"The kids were so calm there. When I smiled at the parents, they smiled back at me. I thought people would be more scared and depressed than they were," said Lauren Adler, 13, who plans to volunteer next year at a hospital in her hometown of Palos Verdes.

The campers, divided into eight groups, also took buses to other health care facilities, such as Mt. Zion Hospital and the Lighthouse for the Blind, both in San Francisco. At St. Patrick's Day Care Center for low-income children, the Swig campers walked through a large room full of toddlers. It was nap time, and the young ones were curled up on cots, covered with animal-print blankets.

The camp kids were so taken with the sight, they asked to walk through the room of sleeping children again.

"I love little kids. They're so adorable. I just wanted to stay in there and watch them," said counselor Caryn Schiffman, 21, a U.C. Santa Cruz senior.

Schiffman was busy enough watching her Swig kids, some of whom saw social action day as social interaction for campers. But while some of the kids may have been overly stimulated by their day in the city, or simply too cool to remove their Discman earphones, others seemed genuinely concerned about how they could help.

Swig campers spent three weeks preparing for the trip, writing questions to ask tour directors and a hand-out explaining their purpose. The kids planned not only to observe children in need, but to take action on their behalf.

Some of the campers met with Sen. Barbara Boxer's assistants to talk about children's issues. Others distributed a petition against prayer in the public schools and handed out leaflets on issues like child abuse and the Special Olympics at Justin Herman Plaza downtown. Nearby, a group of campers performed a brief mime skit about the plight of poverty-stricken and sick children.

Before boarding the buses to return to Swig, the group held tefillah (prayer) services at Golden Gate Park.

With just a few days left of the Swig summer, counselors and action day organizers are hoping the kids will return home with more than bug bites and someone else's towels. They hope the campers will learn more about the problems some kids face, and even donate some old toys to St. Patrick's.