This won’t come as a shock to anyone who has read this blog before, but I was never a prime candidate for summer camp. (Or any sports involving physical contact, catching round objects, copious running, or inherent dexterity. In addition to a lack of natural talent, I broke too easily and coughed too much.)
In fact, I didn’t even like hearing those two words, “summer camp.” I watched the yellow buses wind through our neighborhood every morning, toting eager campers with lunch bags and bottles of sunscreen, and all I could do was thank God I wasn’t on such a bus.
My one and only bout with summer camp can be summed up this way: five-year-old me got released from the hospital after spending several weeks in an isolation room. A staph infection spread from my ears and was traveling towards my brain, so they shaved part of my head, cut it open, and drained it out. Good times. Lucky for me, I was released just in time to start Summer Session 2 at the day camp near my house. As it turns out, girls with partially shaved heads, IV bruises, and an assortment of meds and inhalers who aren’t allowed to go swimming or run around aren’t exactly popular.
(I should note that this wasn’t a high tech camp—swimming in the lake and running around were pretty much the only things you could do.)
Seriously, can I even blame the other kids—who’d been swimming and running with each other since the early days of Summer Session 1—for avoiding me altogether?
I lasted about two days.
I think the point in sending me was to re-acclimate me into the world of “normal” kids after so many weeks in isolation, but it just didn’t work. I was plenty social, but day camp took every weakness and insecurity I had and magnified them. My mother promised no more day camp, ever, and I spent most summer days playing with my cousins or friends on the beach or reading. When I was well enough to swim, I wore ear plugs and a nose clip and no one cared because they were used to it—or had been warned by their mothers not to comment on it.
To this day the thought of summer camp makes me a bit uncomfortable. I see plenty of kids who love it, and I am amazed by the variety—drama camp, dance camp, techie camp, music camp. Perhaps these specialized programs eliminate that whole notion of exposing vulnerabilities and sticking out.
“If we have kids, they’re only going to camp if they really want it. Like if they look it up and beg us and it’s totally their thing, ” I said to my husband recently, poring over the advertising supplement for summer camps in a local magazine. He was never a day camper sort either, so we were in agreement: if they want it, great. If not, we won’t force it.
Anyway, the whole point of this trip down memory lane is the fact that in addition to camps for sports and drama and academic enrichment and all of those things, there is a growing number of camps for kids with chronic illnesses. From well known conditions like diabetes and asthma to camps for kids with less common diseases like neurofibromatosis (and you know what a soft spot I have for the rare disease patients), there’s an emerging variety in options. And according to this article in the Boston Globe, these camps provide more than just a rite of passage:
“Now fledgling research suggests such special camps may offer more than a rite of passage these children otherwise would miss: They just might have a lasting therapeutic value.”
In addition to learning more about their conditions in hands-on and creative ways, children who may otherwise feel ostracized get to meet others just like them, which can be an incredibly valuable “normalizing” experience, one that can also boost confidence and self-esteem.
Who knows. Maybe if I re-wound the clock about twenty-five years and found a camp for kids with dodgy lungs, runny ears, deficient immune systems, and partially shaved heads, I’d have embraced the day camp experience with less terror. Maybe I would have even liked it.
Or maybe I would have still preferred looking for starfish at the beach and checking books out of the library. (Likely.)
But with so many specialty camps out there for aspiring singers, soccer players, and science stars, it’s nice to know that this generation of chronically ill summer campers have so many more options available to them, too.