I just spent a week as a volunteer counselor at JA Camp (Juvenile Arthritis Camp) - and I think I'm still recovering!!
After being rejected to volunteer at Camp JRA in Pennsylvania, I did a little digging and discovered that there was actually a camp for kids with arthritis right here in Colorado! It is a much smaller camp - run by the same families for the past 20 years - so I was initially unsure whether they would let an outsider join their counselor staff. But they welcomed me with open arms and I got to spend a week getting to know 40 amazing kids with arthritis, ages 8 to 16. And the really amazing thing about volunteering at a camp in my home state is that I will get to see the same kids at other events throughout the year, which I am really excited about.
Camp. Was. BUSY!
We swam every morning. We did crafts. We played games. We went boating. We went horseback riding. We had a hayride and roasted marshmallows. We got a hip hop dance lesson. We went fishing and bowling. The bomb squad brought their robots for us to see. The Denver Zoo brought some animals to visit (owl, macaw, alligator, possum, snake) and HawkQuest brought some predatory birds (falcon, barn owl, kestral, and a young bald eagle). We got to go into town for one night and the kids did go karts, bumper boats, mini golf, and water balloon wars. The junior counselors (14+ who helped us look after the little ones) got to go zip lining. We had FUN! And I took pictures and videos of everything and made a short slide show for the kids to watch on the last night of camp, which everyone really seemed to enjoy.
We also learned about our arthritis and had a visit from a nutritionist. The kids' pediatric rheumatologists were counselors at the camp, so they had plenty of opportunities to ask questions and learn about their arthritis, both formally and informally. Aside from myself, there was also another counselor with arthritis - she was actually former camper - so the kids had opportunities to talk with people who understood them. The kids were also encouraged to be responsible for taking their own meds, and knowing which meds they had to take and why. And there was always someone around who understood if you were feeling too tired or achy to participate, and no one made fun of you for sitting on the sidelines.
But it wasn't all fun and games. For one thing, I was truly exhausted and achy (horseback riding, in particular, did a number on me). And I wasn't the only one. The kids were also exhausted and achy too, and that was really frustrating for them when they wanted to be having fun. And there were some hard, heart-wrenching moments for me as a counselor as well. One of them was having to explain to the kids why it was ok for our vans to park in the handicap spots - because none of the kids thought of themselves as handicapped. And, while I was teaching a little girl how to make a lanyard, out of nowhere she said to me "my friends at school don't understand my arthritis." And another little girl even had to leave camp early with a fever and ended up in the hospital. With all the fun we were having, it was really hard to get these little reminders of the kids' struggles, their chronic illnesses, and their compromised immune systems. It just doesn't seem fair to them.
But overall, camp was full of positive moments for these kids. On the first day there was a little girl who was really scared to have her parents leave her, but when she found out that her roommates and I all had arthritis too - that we all took methotrexate and did enbrel shots too - she was willing to stay and give camp a try. That little girl had a huge smile on her face for the rest of the week - she may have ended up having more fun than anyone! And I loved seeing the kids at the campfire with their faces and hands completely covered in marshmallow. One girl in the group I took horseback riding had fallen off her horse the year before and was really scared to try again, but she braved through it and I was so proud of her. And, when we were driving back from fishing listening to Glee's version of "Don't Stop Believing," one of the little boys in my car asked if we could stay in the car to listen to the end of the song - so he and I sat in the parking lot and belted out the end of the song together.
Really I think that's the message that all the kids at JA Camp heard - don't stop believing. They might have JA, but they aren't going to let it stop them. And I'm so proud of all of them and so honored that I got to meet them and learn from them last week. And I can't wait to see them again at the next event!!