Friday, April 18, 2008

Summer Camp, Sick Style

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.


Lyrehca said...

I should probably read the Globe article before posting, but in MA, the Clara Barton Camp for diabetic girls and the Elliot P. Johnson camp for diabetic boys have been around for eons ( I went, oy, 30 years ago). There are some rabid CBC fans online, too.

I remember some years more fondly than others, but I honestly had a better time at a non-diabetic day camp I went to, and then a super-awesome (non-D) high school summer program I did for four summers.

My husband never went to camp, so the idea sort of freaks him out, too. I suspect Baby L, when he becomes Big Boy L, will have at least one summer at a camp to see if he enjoys it.

Lyrehca said...

Oh, great new glamourous media headshot, by the way!

Aviva said...

Ugh, I hated summer camp. My brother and sister went to overnight camp and apparently enjoyed it. But I never graduated from daycamp, and I'm glad because I can only imagine how much worse it would have been to have had to live with those kids.

My only real health problem back then was relatively severe asthma. (I'm fortunate that it's mild asthma now that I'm an adult.) But the thing is, I just wasn't a very athletic or even coordinated kid. The other kids constantly ridiculed me, and the college-age counselors would just stand back and laugh and not intervene for me.

My means of survival was that I would sneak away, allegedly to visit the bathroom, and hide on the buses with a book to read. Actually, I guess the first couple times I hid in a bathroom, but then it became a daily thing when I discovered that the buses were not locked and I could sit on the floor and no one could see me in there.

My mom was appalled when I confessed this a few years ago. She couldn't believe that no one ever called her to say that I was missing. (I always showed up for lunchtime, but I hid for at least half the day everyday depending on when I could sneak away.)

She probably would have forced me into going to overnight camp too but whenever I had to attend (under duress) the occasional overnight they had at the daycamp I went to, the stress or my allergies or something always triggered a severe enough asthma attack that my parents were called and had to pick me up.

It was only a 40-minute drive to the daycamp, but the overnight camps my siblings went to were several hours away and they definitely didn't want to risk having to come get me early if they sent me! :)

Anyway, my 3-year-old will be offered the opportunity to go to camp, both daycamp at first and overnight camp later, but I won't pressure her. Since my husband never went to camp, there's no pressure from that direction either.

And like you mention, these days, there's so many specialty camps that Ellie will almost definitely be able to find something that appeals to her and plays to her strengths and interests.

(The only part of camp I remember enjoying was the annual play we put on. My last year, around age 12, I got to play Bert in Mary Poppins, and it was a blast. :)

Anney E.J. Ryan said...

I always felt that summer camp lasted too long. Who wants to go away for a month, or more, when you're only nine, ten years old? I did a week once, when I was thirteen, and it was enough for me. Although I didn't like it, I was glad I went. I met a bunch of girls from the city, and they liked me, which made me feel supercool.

I think it's sweet that your rents tried to put you in camp, even though you were too sick to really participate. There's an overt sense of care there, cos I bet it wasn't easy for the. At least you were given the opportunity to see that you don't like it. :)

themigrainegirl said...

I loved summer camp, but mine was a bit different--it was an intensive swim camp for a week in Colorado, so I spent most of my time in the water, not sweating and overexerting myself.

One year I also attended basketball camp there. I was 13 and just began my as-then strange pattern of getting really winded and lightheaded while overexerting myself. Within the year, I really struggled to play basketball without getting spotty vision and almost-fainting spells. No more basketball camp.

Also: one of my best friends (who has rheumatoid arthritis) used to volunteer at a couple different "illness camps," including one for children who were burn victims. Hearing her stories I was so happy that places like that exist for children who might be considered "weird" or ostracized at so-called regular camps.

Thanks for the link!

Jeff said...

I went to summer camp for 9 years and loved it 8 of them - the first year I went I hated it. But you're right. There's a camp for any kind of interest a kid might have. It was a hard decision on where to send our son - golf camp? horseback riding camp? basketball camp? And then getting all the gear together. We found some great camp trunks and information on this site:

Need I Sigh-On said...

I went to camp that was for kids with chronic illnesses and it was a positive experience. I made some great friends, and will be greatful for the experience, but I wanted to be the one helping not the one taking. It was nice for the short while it lasted to see functioning young people who happen to also deal with an illness. I eventually became frusterated when teh focus of the camp shifted to visibly handicaped children, and I felt that we the "walking wounded" had been displaced. I love many of those children, but the shift of focus was too much, I grew up and left. But I will cherish those three years. Come see the blog based on my brothers celiac! and thanks for this blog.

Anonymous said...

Good Job! :)

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