Can you imagine a place where children of various illnesses, disabilities, and deficits all gather together for a week in a location where they can just be kids for once, and not sick kids?
Can you imagine a place where these same kids can go rock climbing, paddle boating, fishing, shooting at the archery, horseback riding, and even create their own hip hop song at a radio station?
Can you imagine a place where the dining hall is full of singing and chanting, and the wheelchair accessible playground is adorned with kids of all shapes, sizes, heights, ages, and skill levels?
Can you imagine a place where the pool is full of children proudly showing off their scars, because it is there that each child has a scar to show and a story behind it?
Although there is no Mickey Mouse or Splash Mountain, to many of these kids the small camp just outside of Atlanta is better than Disney. Because for one week each summer, kids from all over the southeast get to throw away the stigma of being a “sick” child who is “different” from all others, and just be normal. In light of camp week for the children in my specialty ending just this past weekend, I wanted to highlight the beauty of the place in an effort to spotlight an organization that has truly impacted the lives of so many, including myself.
Camp Twin Lakes opened in 1993 and has since hosted more than 30,000 children and volunteers through activities that last year-round including week long camps in the summer and weekend activities extending through the year. Each week throughout the summer a different group of children with similar illnesses and disabilities are invited to camp to experience a week of pure bliss. The founders of the camp had their creative juices flowing when they named the various groups. For example, kids with hemophilia attend Camp Wannaklot. Children with celiac disease- Camp Weekaneatit. Camp for kids with asthma- Camp Breathe Easy. Camp Sunshine is their largest group, gathering children with all types of cancer. Kids who have received solid organ transplants- Camp Second Chance. And my personal favorite in the name category, Camp Twitch and Shout is for those children who suffer from Tourette Syndrome. The camp that I have attended, Camp Braveheart, is for children with congenital heart defects and those who have received heart transplants. And I have realized that using brave as a description of these youthful souls is an understatement.
I was fortunate enough to serve as a cabin counselor and a nurse at Camp Braveheart for new campers, the youngest group of boys. I was amazed at how quickly these seven and eight-year olds became great friends and loved observing the camaraderie they shared when telling each other about their heart surgeries. It was refreshing to see all of the youngest cabin members helping the boy who was wheelchair bound at each activity, and it delighted me to see the teenage girl on continuous oxygen therapy gossiping with all the other girls as if nothing about her was different. These children who are immersed on a daily basis in a world of hospital beds, needle sticks, medication administration, and perceived as fragile, ill, or even scary because they look different in their cyanotic state have the chance to be normal for a week… a gift that not all chronically ill children get to experience. The facility and its surroundings are state-of-the-art, and the staff that does the programming is phenomenal. The facility has a full medical lodge stockpiled with volunteer staff capable of dealing with a broad scope of scenarios from life-threatening emergencies to the normal childhood scrapes, bruises and bee stings.
When I first started at Childrens, I always wondered what all the fuss was surrounding the rave reviews that the older teenagers (the “experienced campers”) gave in discussing Camp Braveheart. After attending, I realized that these kids make lifelong friendships that cross school, city and even state lines. And it was both heart-wrenching and heart-warming to witness a special song written for a camper that had passed away performed by cabin-mates that had all grown up together at camp.
In light of summertime where camps are in full swing and pools are overcrowding with rambunctious children of all ages, don’t forget to remember and be thankful for places like Camp Twin Lakes. Because it is places like these that make sure that no child, regardless of diagnosis, is left out. Disney may be the happiest, most magical place on earth to most, but I would venture to say that to some of these children, camp week would compete for that honor.