Carol LeBoeuf will never forget the day her 12-year-old son came running out of day camp, yelling, "Mom, they’re all just like me!"
After years of attending a school where he was the only child with diabetes, David made an amazing discovery: There were other kids like him. He – and they – could have a serious medical condition, one that is alarmingly on the rise in this country, and still enjoy the carefree summer activities of normal children.
"David has always been a serious child," says his mother, a registered nurse who gave up working to be on call for David’s school in Massachusetts, because it had no nurse on staff.
David’s time at Clara Barton Day Camp was the first time she felt confident letting him leave home since he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as a young child.
"At camp, he met a counselor named Kevin who also had Type 1 diabetes and bonded with him instantly," says LeBoeuf. "He began to relax to the point where he got the ‘Barton Boy Award’ as the most happy camper."
Making a common bond
Across the country, among families dealing with serious diseases, the camp movement is on the rise. Whether it’s juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, diabetes, or lifelong challenges such as blindness, camping can create a common bond and allow children to not define themselves by their diseases. They can view themselves as kids first.
One in 500 children suffers from either Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes. Juvenile arthritis affects an estimated 285,000 children under age 17, and 50, 000 of them have juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Cancer is the leading cause of nonaccidental death among children.
Serving those with special needs
Clara Barton Camp has served close to 30,000 children during its 70-year history. In Northern California, Bear Meadow Overnight Camp is a weeklong program that serves a similar group.
"Diagnoses of children with both Types 1 and 2 diabetes are rising astronomically in this country," says Shelley Yeager, executive director emeritus of the Barton Center for Diabetes Education. "But a diagnosis is only the beginning. Parents need help in coping. A child and her or his family and friends must learn to adjust to the many changes in lifestyle necessary to enable a child to live as normal a life as possible."
Camping is one of the ways to help that realization happen.
According to the American Camp Association (ACA), there are currently more than 200 camps for children with special diseases such as diabetes and cancer. The camps serve those with a range of diseases, including HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis and cerebral palsy.
Several of these camps include those with related conditions, such as spina bifida, blindness and hearing loss.
In some cases, the national associations lead the way.
The American Cancer Society (ACS), for instance, runs 46 camps nationwide under its Camp Center of Excellence program. All of them are free.
Former director Sheryl Markowitz describes the camp experience for past or present sufferers of the disease as "a significant therapeutic intervention."
Reintegration at camp
When children who have cancer are diagnosed and treated for this life-threatening illness, she says, they are often removed from their everyday circumstances and may lose the ability to interact with their peer groups. Reintegration with other children (at camp) is an invaluable lesson about how to navigate the challenges of relating to other children their age.
At any one time, half of the 5,000 children in attendance may have beaten the diagnosis. Although recovered, they may still have scars or disabilities and being among others who understand and make them feel accepted is an important experience in their steps toward wellness.
Bradley McGory, 11, of Ohio, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia when he was 4 and went into remission at 8.
He started going to Camp Friendship North in Ohio while he was still ill, on medication and feeling its side effects His mother, Dee, only sent him at the urging of his doctor and medical staff.
"I was frantic, seeing him off for a whole week, and wanted to hide in the weeds and watch him," she recalls. "The camp management doesn’t want you to phone because a child can get homesick and want to leave. But the nurses were wonderful. They called me every other day to tell me how he was doing."
Looking back, she thinks the camp experience made her son more open to and understanding of others. He enjoyed the fishing, hiking, archery and the last night special celebration, Carnival. And he looks forward every year to meeting up with his camping friends and counselors, including Patrick, a counselor whose leukemia is in remission and who has married another counselor.
The Arthritis Association does not yet have a national program in camping, but local chapters are filling the gap. In Southern California, Camp Esperanza uses another camp’s accredited facilities to hold its annual programs.
Amanda Fleckenstein’s mom, Penny, credits that camp – held under the auspices of a YMCA camp in San Bernardino – for making her 11-year-old daughter more knowledgeable about her condition.
Amanda, who has had juvenile rheumatoid arthritis in her right wrist and ankles since she was 6, has met other children and counselors – some with conditions a lot worse than hers.
"My counselor has so many scars on her legs from operations she can’t bend over, so she uses special tools to pick things up. But she’s just great, and we all like her," says Amanda.
Her mother thinks the camp is just as important for the parents; some are overprotective and may actually be holding back their children.
Lions Clubs International
Lions Clubs International, a service club with chapters nationwide and abroad, raises money and donates funds for charitable causes. Its chief mission is blindness prevention. Since diabetes may sometimes lead to loss or diminution of sight, the group’s foundation focuses contributions on diabetes awareness, screenings and camp activities through its two-year-old program Core 4 in the United States, Finland and Australia.
The Wisconsin Lions Camp serves 1,400 children a summer – kids with diabetes, visual and hearing impairments and mild cognitive conditions. It is free and, as expected, has a waiting list.
Fifteen-year-old Cale Newton is one of its star campers. Legally blind since birth, Cale is the youngest of six children and the only one of them with a disability. His siblings have always encouraged him to participate in their play.
When he first arrived at the camp seven years ago, he announced his intention to swim across Lion’s Lake, an achievement his peers regarded as unattainable. He was only 8 at the time. Accompanied by a lifeguard swimming beside him and another in a rowboat, he reached his goal and was presented with a "very cool award, certificate and patch" as the youngest camper to ever to swim across the lake.
Melora Mayo, R.N, served as health services manager for the Barton Center for Diabetes Education in Massachusetts. She has Type 1 diabetes and was a camper at the Clara Barton Camp as a child.
Originally printed in CAMP Magazine, reprinted by permission of the American Camp Association © 2005 American Camping Association, Inc.
Specialized Camps for Kids
Looking for a special camp for a special camper in Northern California? Check these out.
Bear Meadow Overnight Camp is a weeklong program, June 17-24, for kids with diabetes. It is run by the Diabetic Youth Foundation in Concord, but the camp is near Fresno. 925-680-4994 ext. 106. www.dyf.org/our-programs/bearskin-meadow-summer-camp/bearskin-meadow-camp.
Camp Altitude, located in Belmont, offers year-round programs for kids with social cognitive disorders, such as Asperger’s Syndrome, high-functioning autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and others. It operates two-week summer camps as well as weekend family camps. 408-353-0377. www.altitudefamilies.com.
Camp Grizzly will offer a residential summer camp from July 29-Aug. 4 for children ages 7 to 15 who are deaf or hard of hearing or have family members who are. The camp is located at Grizzly Creek Ranch in Portola and includes sports, recreation and educational programs. 916-349-7500. www.norcalcenter.org/campgrizzly.
Camp Okizu is a residential camp for children with cancer. It is a collaborative effort between the Novato-based organization and pediatric oncology treatment centers in Northern California. It includes programs for siblings and other family members. 415-382-9083. www.okizu.org.
Camp Ronald McDonald at Eagle Lake is a fully accessible, residential summer camp for children with a variety of special needs and disabilities. The camp works in collaboration with other nonprofits, including Camp ReCreation and Camp SignShine, to provide camps in the Lassen National Forest that include arts and crafts, sports, campfires and more. 916-734-4230. www.campronald.org.
Camp Superstuff is a weeklong camp in the Bay Area for children, ages 6-12, with asthma and allergies. Its staff includes professionals to help with asthma symptoms and teach the children how to manage their chronic illness. 408-998-5865. www.lungsrus.org/Programs/Asthma/asthma_camp.htm.
Enchanted Hills, located on Mount Veeder near Napa, is one of only two camps in the western United States that serves blind, visually-impaired, deaf-blind and multi-disabled children and adults. 415-694-7319. lighthouse-sf.org/programs/enchanted-hills.
Firefighters Kids Camp, a free, sleep-away camp for young burn survivors ages 6-17, will take place June 24-30 at Camp Concord in South Lake Tahoe. 916-739-8525. ffburn.org/programs/kids-camp/camp-info-parents.
Via West (formerly Camp Costanoan) provides weeklong summer camps and weekend respite programs on 13 wooded acres in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains for children ages 5 and older with physical and/or developmental disabilities. Sessions range from 3 to 7 days. 408-243-7861. www.viaservices.org.