Leadership in Disabilities Intern – Alex Abramo – Arrowhead Bible Camp (PA)

Alex Abramo serves as an intern in the Leadership in Disabilities program at Arrowhead Bible Camp (PA). She transferred from a large Christian university into Anchor Christian University, with a degree completion map that will finish with an master’s degree in Organizational Leadership degree from our other partner school, Clarks Summit University. Most importantly, she is building a robust resume and toolbox for her dream… to launch a nonprofit art studio that serves adults with developmental disabilities. Our conversation covers a range of topics from the story God is writing with her life, her ministry, and her journey through college to date.

Finding Arrowhead Camp

Ben – Well we’re here today with Alex. Alex is an intern serving at Arrowhead Bible Camp in Brackney, Pennsylvania, also part of their Leadership and Disabilities Program. So before we talk about school and the program, tell us a little bit about yourself, where you come from, kind of your ‘origin story’.

Alex – Yeah, so I’m Alex. I’m from Annapolis, Maryland. I started working here this Summer because I was going to school in Tennessee, actually, and… really strong desire to work with the disability community. And so I was like, “Hmm, we’ll see if there’s any camps for adults with disabilities,” because I didn’t know if I really wanted to work with kids. I ended up coming here for the summer working here and then I was like, “Maybe I don’t wanna leave.” So I ended up doing school here and yeah, I’m loving it.

Ben – So did you find Arrowhead from a Google search, or how did you land there?

Alex – Yeah, Google search. So I was thinking of summer jobs. I was like, I don’t really necessarily want to work in a coffee shop in Maryland and just have a normal job. So I was like, “Hmm, let’s see about summer camps.” And I really realized that I wanted to work with adults with disabilities through, like, working with Best Buddies and stuff at college. And so I was like, “I wonder if there are any camps for adults with disabilities.” So I was Googling it and Arrowhead was the first camp that popped up that wasn’t in Wisconsin, a little bit closer to home than Wisconsin. So I emailed Ben (Myers) in about April, and ended up here in May.

Ben – So when you started, graduated high school, heading into college, at that point what did you envision for your life, path, trajectory, et cetera?

Alex – Yeah, so, I knew I wanted to work with individuals with disabilities. I wasn’t sure what age range, what capacity. I knew it wasn’t really wanting to do it within the school system, like within classrooms. I looked for a little bit into occupational therapy. And then I ended up at Carson Newman in Tennessee studying human services.

Ben – And so dialing back a little bit then, at what point did you decide, “Hey, I know I want to work with individuals with disabilities.” What was the root of that?

Alex – So my aunt actually has Down Syndrome. So just growing up with her, I didn’t really realize that she had a disability until I was probably late middle school because, you know, she was just my aunt. And then we had a gal who came to join my class in seventh grade who had Down Syndrome and I loved hanging out with her, helping out with her, and did that all throughout the rest of middle school and high school, and then did Best Buddies in college and… It sort of was a gradual thing, but it’s sort of been there my whole life as well.

Ben – Well, it’s interesting because I think a lot of times– I work with a lot of people that end up in ministry because of what I do– and when you look at why did so-and-so end up in camp ministry, or youth ministry, or whatever, almost always there are some key experiences, or relationships, or whatever that kinda solidified and they’re like, oh, my heart connects… I see gifting, all of that… so it’s interesting to hear just your own personal history there. So explain a little bit– cause I’m familiar with Best Buddies– but explain a little bit what that is and what that experience was like.

Alex – Yeah, so it is a nonprofit dedicated to forming relationships between individuals with and without disabilities. So they’re common in a lot of high schools, elementary schools, middle schools, and colleges. They have programs for after they’re out of the college system, if they go to college or they have housing options as well. 

So, I went to a private school growing up, so I didn’t really have a “Best Buddies” chapter. I mean, I did have my friend Jackie who had Down Syndrome who we were a part of… I don’t remember what we called it, but it was sort of like Best Buddies. But going to college, it was actually sort of the reason I picked Carson Newman because they included their Best Buddies group into like their intro video. And I was like, “That’s so cool, like, they prioritize that.” So I ended up there. 

And so we would meet twice a month, do events. We had match parties where we got paired with our buddies. I went to proms with my buddy, like Night to Shine. We would get together and have lunch all the time, movie nights. So it was really just fostering friendships with them and just being a friend.

Ben – Amazing. And, you know, having those experiences and not just experiences but building relationships, I think changes the dynamic of what it looks like to head in that direction vocationally. Because it’s not just a job, it’s not a target, it’s not a sale, it’s not a, you know, whatever. There’s a life and a person and a relationship. I guess it changes the level of how you engage. So thinking about your schoolwork when you were at Carson Newman, your first couple of years, how did that set of experiences shape how school felt and worked for you?

Alex – Being in a traditional college setting, it was very much like school was the main thing and then I would pile on clubs and activities, while there was like Best Buddies, or marching band, or Bible studies on top of that. Whereas doing school while I’m here (at Arrowhead Bible Camp) is very much like hand-in-hand with each other. So it’s very different, and it was a little bit of a struggle to switch my mindset when I came here, but it’s been really good. It’s really interesting to think about how I was doing school last year versus how I’m doing it now.

Working with Adults with Disabilities

Ben – Yeah, and I want to get back to that in a minute because I really want to dig into that for you because it is a very fresh transition for you. So I think you could put words on it that I talk about it all the time from where I sit with, you know, we had that conversation with you and your parents, you know talking about that transition. And I try to put my own words on it, but I think yours are going to be more valuable. So we’ll get there in a minute. So you did Summer at Arrowhead. Talk a little bit about what the Summer experience was for you and what you expected, what it actually was, and what surprised you.

Alex – Yeah. So going into it, I mean, I just found them online and I emailed Ben and I was like, “Are you still accepting positions for summer staff?” And he was like, “Of course.” Yeah, we did some phone calls and then we started with staff training in the middle of May. And, I don’t know. I wasn’t really expecting what camp was. I know that’s weird, but I sort of had like, “Oh, I’m just going to be working with individuals with disabilities.” I hadn’t really thought through what it would look like as a camp, like a summer camp. Like, it was really cool to think about how, like I’m actually working with adults. You think camp and you think kids. And even though I knew I was working with adults, it doesn’t actually click until you see the sweetest 94-year-old woman, and you’re like hanging out with her. Like, oh yeah, adults. 

Ben – Awesome. So give me a couple of your experiences from the summer, maybe some that stick out for you, that began to shape your perspective moving forward about how you were going to navigate. Like, school and all that.

Alex – So when I started thinking about doing school here, it was more towards July. Yeah, early July. And so far, the summer had just been great. We had our two week sessions and our one week sessions. And I think the moment that… like, I’d been playing with it in my mind too because this is pretty much what I want to do with my life. I want to work with adults with disabilities within a nonprofit setting. So, you know, it’s pretty spot on. But we were doing a worship night one night and I don’t remember if it was a coworker or one of our volunteer groups that come in, but someone said in Jesus’s last days he was serving. And I was thinking, if it was my last days, what would I want to be doing? And I was like, I’d want to be helping our campers. Like even in the situations that aren’t the funnest, I still would want to be helping through them, having fun with that, you know, doing puzzles with our campers, going to the lake with them, so.

Ben – Ok, so that spawned another question in my mind. Because I think– for you– working with adults with disabilities, there’s an obvious connect there, right? There’s a trajectory, there’s a call in your life, there’s a heart connect. But there are a lot of college students that don’t quite know where they’re headed, or maybe they’re headed in another direction. They’re in a business degree, et cetera. They wanna do something meaningful for the summer. If you were to make your best pitch for why they say, “You know what, I’m gonna take a summer and do Arrowhead”, what would that be?

Alex – It honestly is so much more than just a camp. And I know that sounds so like, “I’m doing a pitch. It’s like a family!” But no, it’s such a tight community here as well. So many of the campers know each other from different either group homes or different, like, day halves, like day programs that they go to. And then our nurse used to work at some of the group homes that a lot of them go to. So it’s such a tight connection between the campers and the counselors and even the caregivers for those campers. 

And it really changes the way you view certain things, because here at camp we do a lot of physical care for our campers. And sometimes it’s not the funnest job. But when you have those campers sitting there, like watching you help them, and being so grateful, and having still such a joyous attitude and point of view on things while either they’re in a wheelchair, or they’ve had these problems in the past, they’ve been mistreated. They still are so grateful for everything that you’re doing and everything that is still good in the world. I have a friend, V, who broke both her femurs, and she was really in like a really bad accident type thing, and she was like, “I’m sorry that happened to me but at least now there’s better safety things in track for my other housemates.” And I was like, I wish… that is such an amazing point of view to have. It’s really life changing.

Ben – That is amazing. You know, that’s interesting because I think for young people, most of your experience if you’ve had experience with camp, is as a camper, in, you know, primary camp or junior high, high school. And that’s your perspective on camp. And that’s a lot of the camp counselor experience that’s available if they show up on a college campus, recruit, et cetera. Everybody does that, which is great.

And so, when you’re a counselor for, you know, junior high boys or whatever, they’re just in a different mindset and different place. They definitely have needs. There’s pain. There’s all kinds of things that are happening that you have an opportunity to speak into. But man, what an interesting distinction in what the relationship is like and the engagement is like in the Shepherd’s Camp in that experience. That’s awesome. That makes me smile.

Deciding to Intern at Arrowhead

So you get to July and you’re starting to think, “Man, I don’t know if I wanna…”– let me rephrase– “I’m thinking, man, maybe I want to do this (Arrowhead).” As opposed to, “No, I don’t want to do this other thing.” As you start having that thought, what’s your process moving forward from that little inspiration to, “All right, I’m here.”

Alex – Yeah, so I had, I honestly had been playing with the idea all summer because you know, it’s fun here. But then I was like with what I want to do, how much hands-on experience am I getting here that a classroom can’t necessarily teach me? Like, and there’s only so much that volunteering as well can get you. Like if you’re volunteering like three hours a week, it’s not like you’re immersed in it like you are while you’re here. 

So I brought it up to my parents and they were not thrilled with the idea at first, but they eventually came around after talking to you, Ben, the camp director. And honestly I think a big part of them getting on board with it was the fact that I was able to continue doing school while I was here and end up with my masters. And then I went home for a week and then came back to start our fall sessions.

Ben – And I remember that. I think there were a couple of conversations, but there was one web conference conversation we had with both your parents and you. And I was super impressed with the questions they asked and how they were thinking through it. Cause it was clear that, you know, obviously what we do from an integrated coursework standpoint is very different. It’s not, you know, something like, Oh, I’ve seen that before.

And so they were asking really good questions, not just about, ok, where do we end up, not just about the piece of paper at the end, but the process and what you’re going to get and whatnot. And it’s clear that not only did they, you know, have this goal and pathway in mind for you and wanted to provide a process for you, they see the capacity in you. It’s just that language coming out of them. A lot of parents, I have lots of those conversations and they’re a little bit all over the map. A lot of parents get stuck on process stuff as opposed to path and trajectory and ultimately, like the call on the student’s life, even though they’re thinking about that. And your parents were just really dynamic in that. And I was super impressed and enjoyed that conversation. So you can tell them I said that if you want. Well, this will be recorded, they can watch it. 

But no, it was interesting because I think one of the things I see consistently with students that come into our process into a place like Arrowhead is that generally they do come from families that are a lot more tuned in to development and not just getting, for instance, a degree, a piece of paper at the end, but actually growing through a process. And it’s like I saw the light bulb starting to come on and like, the degree part was solved. And then the meet in between, it was like they started to kind of connect with that process. It was fun for me to watch that because I’m a dad and I have, you know, kids from 23 down to middle of high school. So I’m involved in that process myself, thought-process wise. 

So anyways, besides that… So you end up starting this fall at Arrowhead in the Leadership in Disabilities Program as a student. You’re doing your undergrad work. Talk a little bit about, before we talk about the school side of it, talk a little bit about what is your average day, week? What are you doing from a ministry standpoint, from a team standpoint? Where do you sit in that ecosystem?

Alex – Yeah, so most weeks we have camp going on because we’re working with adults, so it allows us to do camp year round, which is spectacular. So it’s just like our typical camp day. We have breakfast and then we have music where we sing like worship songs and we have crafts and games and we throw in a few special activities. And so throughout the day, we have a few different points where, like the campers are, like, in bed and so we get time for free time to do like, our own thing. So we have two hours in the middle of the day and then a few hours at the end, before we go to bed. So I typically use those for schoolwork and then weekends as well. But it’s really great because it is such a small-ish… I think there’s 12 staff members at the moment. So it’s a really tight community and like everyone’s super supportive and willing to help and, like I’ve been in charge of arts and crafts. So like everyone pops in when there’s help needed. Help needed, yeah, English. Doing good.

Learning With the Internship

Ben – Awesome. Cool, so with the schoolwork, obviously you were… campus environment, structured class, the way that everybody is used to. What is the same and what is different this year for your schoolwork? And how does that kinda mesh with what you’re doing on a day-to-day basis?

Alex – Uh, yeah, so one of the big things that I noticed right off the bat that was really different was the fact that, sorry… sometimes it seems like you have a lot less school work here, but so much of it is integrated with what you’re doing. So a lot, whereas previously you would have different classes and you would have a project for this class that was sort of like the project for this class, but you had to do like an entirely different project. Like with this, I’m taking a class on Bible Survey and I’m taking a class on Genesis. So I get to like, I am putting those projects together and just doing essentially like one project for both of those, but they cover both of the materials that I need to cover. So that’s a really cool part of it. That’s also super different. And also just thinking of project ideas that are practical to covering just your, like the education side of things and also what will benefit camp and like what I am doing here. Also, it’s part of the integration that is super cool, but it’s also super hard to get your mind around when you first start.

Ben – Yeah, it’s a different process. So have you started, because I know we’re only, I guess we’re over halfway through the semester now. Have you started targeting specific projects for the semester or a project?

Alex – Yeah, so for my Bible survey and Genesis project, I am doing a Bible study for the gals here at camp just so we can have that because we don’t have a chance to really go to church most Sundays because we’re doing camp. So like, we have worship nights as a staff and we do devotionals as a staff, but it’s another way to feed into the people here at camp who are serving because we feed into others all day every day. So that’s what I’m doing for that one. And then I just started a theology class as well that I’m actually going to do crafts for the campers and talk them through different theology topics as we do a craft together.

Ben – Love it. That’s awesome. So when you think about having those project outcomes, like, “I’ve got to create this devotional, I’m going to do this thing with crafts”, how does it change the way that you engage your coursework, the content side of it?

Alex – Yeah, so a lot of it, like I was talking to Ben about this the other day. It’s writing it all down and understanding it at like a collegiate level, so that then you can fully explain it to the level of our campers, which is often like a sort of middle school mental level, like intellectual level. And so, but you have so many different points of views and questions that you get about God or theology or just totally random things too. So it’s really important just to have that understanding of it to begin with so then you can transfer it to the individual campers. Cause not everything is just going to be a blanket statement that you can just say to someone and they’ll understand, especially like, with our campers. While everyone has a different way of learning things, sometimes that’s more amplified for our campers here as well.

Ben – That’s super interesting. So not only do you have to have command of the content, which is like, ok, I understand it and I can spit it back to you as a prof., but you then have to come through a level where you say, I can communicate and do something with this. But then in your environment in particular, you have that whole other layer of, “How do I not just communicate this, but communicate this to people with a range of capacity, reading levels, understanding levels, et cetera.” Now, if I remember, correct me if I’m wrong, but your campers aren’t all coming from Christian backgrounds, correct?

Carrying Out a Calling

Alex – Nope. I mean a good majority of them do have previous knowledge or have been coming for a while. So they do know like some basics of Christianity and, like, the stuff that we teach here. But not all of them are super like eager to learn about it or might not even like fully grasp exactly what we’re talking about until you sit down and have that conversation with them and just go over it.

Ben – Which is interesting because I think we’re used to thinking of missions and evangelism and all of those things. Like if you said, “Oh, I’m going on a mission trip or I’m going to go serve with a mission organization, I’m going to such and such country, et cetera…” Our minds snap into that place of, “Oh, ok, I get that. That fits a grid.” But thinking about gospel level evangelism to people that are right around us that actually just have different grid capacities, et cetera, that have some disabilities, that’s not a normal thought that flies through most people’s head. They’re like, “Oh, okay, how would I communicate the gospel to this adult that’s in my world that has some disabilities, even to the point where I understand, okay, how do I engage them in a conversation level where they’re at?” So it’s interesting to me because the framework of the courses causes you to have to not just master the content, but do something with it. But that something isn’t just camp related, it’s discipline related in your field of study and what you want to do eventually from a professional standpoint. So the layers of skill development are just a lot more dynamic, so, fun. That’s awesome. Ok, so given that, at this point, again, you’re just over halfway through your first semester. In a new place, new people, all of that. What’s surprised you so far?

Alex – I mean many things, but with school related, it’s just, honestly it seems so flown by. It doesn’t feel like we’re halfway down the semester already. And just sort of how easy it sort of comes to at this point. Like I think back to where I was at the beginning and I was like, “I have no idea how I’m gonna like, do this project concept,” and like figure out how I’m gonna like, learn it and integrate it into camp. And then I just was doing my project plan and concept for my theology class. And I was like, “Oh yeah, I know exactly what I’m going to do.” And it’s just like that change in mindset that sometimes feels like you have no idea what’s happening. Sometimes it feels like you don’t have it down. But other times it’s like, oh wait, when I look back, I actually really am integrating this in a way that I did not necessarily realize.

Ben – Which is interesting because having had a recent conversation with Ben, one of the things he talks about is starting like, from an advice standpoint for younger people, is “start now and get started,” right? “Don’t just plan and try to do it in the future. Don’t just prepare and then think maybe someday, but like just get going in the process.” And you have the opportunity to do that. And all of a sudden you’re like, “Oh wait, not only can I do this, I am doing this. This is actually happening and I’m doing it at a level that surprises me.” So. Which is great. Okay so, a little bit of… we talked about the ministry of Arrowhead. We talked a little bit about ministry to adults with developmental disabilities, talked a little bit about school. Explain for those that haven’t been inside of Arrowhead, what is the team– you used the word “family” before– what does the team dynamic look like? Because with twelve people, you’re right in the middle of all of it.

Alex – Yeah. So we’re all super close and we do have, essentially, individuals who are on full-time staff, and then us who are doing LIDS, leadership and disabilities, and then we have someone who’s also doing like the gap year here. So she’s also doing classes. So the people with the full-time, who are on like full-time staff, they have like set jobs that they’re doing. So like, we have our nose in the kitchen and like, people who are doing all the program stuff and then a few of us who are counseling. But we’re all very eager to help each other. Like we have coworkers who are just co-counseling and so they’ll hop in and help in the kitchen when, like after meals and stuff and then our program manager, assistant? Assistant to the program? I don’t know. Something. Assistant to the Program Manager, I guess… councils sometimes, and so then we all step in and do program stuff, whether it’s leading music or doing games or doing crafts. So it’s very fluid, I guess. So like while we each have our own jobs, we also pop in and help wherever we’re needed.

Ben – Awesome. So… because I want to honor your time, because I could ask questions forever, my mind is curious and I love hearing what’s happening there. Because for me, I sit on the other side of a desk, the other side of a phone, the other side of a website, and there’s a lot of stuff happening, frankly, globally. And for me to be able to actually see eyeballs, hear voices and hear the stories of what God’s doing. I’m like, “Okay, yeah, all of this behind the stuff actually matters and it’s helpful.” So it’s encouragement to me. So I appreciate that.

But thinking forward for you, you’re going to finish in a couple of years with a master’s degree. We’ve got that mapped out. It’s all integrated through what you’re doing in LID. What’s the dream? What do you want to do?

Growing Toward the Future

Alex – So as of right now, my dream is to start an art studio for adults with disabilities where they can create, and then show off their work, and then make a little bit of income through selling their work or sort of, like, merchandise per se, like taking their artwork and like putting it on a shirt or a button or like little crafts that they can sell. So that’s the dream, eventually, but…

Ben – Awesome.

Alex – We’ll see where God takes me. 

Ben – Yeah, absolutely. When you think about the map that we have and what’s in front of you at Arrowhead… again, you’re still early in the process… I mean, if we have this conversation 6 weeks from now, 6 months from now, you know, 12 months from now, you’re going to have all kinds of other stuff to fill in. But when you think about the map in front of you, how do you feel like that is going to prepare you or tool you up for when it’s time to take that next step, you know, file the nonprofit, do all of that fun stuff?

Alex – Yeah, I think working here and like, doing my school while I’m here is giving me the unique opportunity to see the inner workings of a non-profit as well. Because it is also such a small staff, like, I have the opportunity to pop into different things and to learn how different things are run. It’s not just necessarily, “Oh like you’re designated to do this, and then someone else is going to do this.” Like, you can pop in and help with some of the paperwork, some of, like, the program stuff, like leading things, and it’s not just like, “Oh, you’re strictly a counselor.” Which gives like a really unique experience and is going to just– sorry, words aren’t working right now– but going to benefit me going forward as I do have that experience that you definitely wouldn’t have just like taking the Human Services classes or the Leadership classes.

Advice for High School Students

Ben – Awesome. So last question, I think. We’ll see. See if anything comes out of it. 

Alex – Okay.

Ben – So if you were talking to your 19-year-old self, I’m assuming you’re maybe 18, whenever you’re getting ready to exit high school and you’ve got a little bit of path. Because high school to college – no matter what you do or high school to that next step – is a pretty significant leap from a very structured path to, “Oh! I have choices.” What advice would you give your 18, 19-year-old self at this point as it relates to how to look forward and attack the next steps?

Alex – Yeah, I would say that nothing… None of these decisions that you’re making are necessarily permanent. I know I was terrified of committing four years to a place seven hours away, even though I felt completely home there when I visited. And then here I am two years later in a totally different place. And that there are gonna be so many different experiences that point you to where God is sort of gonna have you end up that it doesn’t really matter if you don’t have 100% what you wanna do with your life all mapped out. It’s okay, a majority of us don’t! But even taking like that first step and that first ‘leap of faith’, if you will, to go to where you feel like you’re being called is huge and that will just work from there.

Ben – Awesome. Love it. I’m still working on my plan for life. So, which is interesting because I mean, to your point, when I was, when I was that age, my thought process was business school, law school, takeover world. Just that’s where I was at in life and in my heart mentality-wise. And literally right before my senior year in high school, our family moved and that trajectory got fired sideways. And then, you know, there are all these steps in between of trying to recover ‘the vision’. And even going into, like, a finance degree going into the finance world for five years, and then God called me back to ministry and, you know, twenty years ago, and I’m still doing this. And even this has shifted over time. And the ‘what’– not the ‘why’– but the ‘what’ has shifted over time. So that’s I think spectacular advice, because that’s life. And God is a whole lot more creative than we are.

Alex – For sure!

Ben – Awesome. Well, thanks for your time. I really appreciate it. It’s been a fun catch-up and glad to see that things are moving along for you. I feel like we need to catch up again, maybe at the end of the year…

Alex – For sure, Yeah.

Ben – …and just kind of track with what God’s doing there. So thanks for making time, I know you got other stuff going on. So have a great weekend.

Alex – You as well! Thank you.

Ben – All right, thanks, Alex!