Saturday, March 24, 2007

Transplant Camps

With the first weekend of spring upon us, and the last snow of the season melting (I hope!), thoughts quickly turn to summer. For many kids, summer camp is a key activity for the time of year and a great memory beyond. Swimming, arts and crafts, sports, playground time, meals, and campfires are just some of the experiences to look forward to, offsets to activities in school or daily life. Children with transplants have opportunities to enjoy summer camp as well, and they need all of these activities, medical supervision to keep the time healthy, and a way to meet other children who have been through similar experiences.

Transplant Living, the UNOS-sponsored patient education site, offers a listing of summer camps. Many of the camps are affiliated with a disease-specific program (e.g., a renal camp, a heart camp). They're usually supported through organizations such as branches of the National Kidney Foundation and individual hospitals. Several include children who are pre-transplant as well as post-transplant, and those who have related conditions but may not have a transplant in their future. These camps typically rely on generous financial donations for funding, and medical personnel donate time and effort to design and supervise camp activities. Since these experiences may be hard to find for transplanted children, and can be so beneficial for them (and so much fun!), I'm grateful to anyone who supports these camps and the needs of the children who attend.

Camp Sunshine

The one camp that I have firsthand experience with, however, goes beyond the typical "transplant camp" to provide a truly extraordinary experience for children with organ transplants and their entire families. Camp Sunshine is a family retreat for children with a variety of chronic illnesses. The camp is located in Casco, Maine, is open to children of all ages (from birth to age 18), from anywhere in the world, and is free of charge to families.

Camp Sunshine is the only "family camp" to my knowledge (versus a "kid's camp") and this has several ripple effects. First, there is no lower age limit--infants and toddlers who have received transplants can come and enjoy age-specific experiences in the nursery and Tot Lot (most transplant camps have a minimum age of approximately 8 years old). Siblings are also welcome, so they aren't left out of the camp experience. Parents have the opportunity to meet other parents and families with similar stories--for parents, part of the day features discussion and support groups led by a social worker and the other part of the day is for camp activities, including the legendary Super Duper Blooper Games. Since families are together, parents can supervise their own children, and can choose to spend time as a family rather than being herded through activities. Finally, for the entire family, the ability to take a trip that is designed for their needs, medically feasible, and safe and comfortable is something that isn't too easy to find.

The people that support Camp Sunshine are simply extraordinary. In all honesty, when I first considered volunteering seven years ago, this was a greater concern than the families (who I knew would be great). Would other volunteers be coming out of obligation and not care? Would they be excessively pitying? Would they be too young and inexperienced to contribute meaningfully? Would there be an excessive and dictatorial staff? Would the camp be chronically short on funding and have facilities and services that reflected that? NONE OF THE ABOVE! The volunteer staff is plentiful, with a range of ages and experiences. Every volunteer I've met has been dedicated to providing an amazing experience to those who come to camp. One-on-one support is available to children who need it, yet at the same time the activities are designed to be as full and as active as any camp, letting kids enjoy themselves. Whether Camp Sunshine gets the best volunteers or whether Camp Sunshine brings out the best in the volunteers that come, it's a wonderful relationship for both sides. Camp Sunshine is supported by an incredible array of donors, and many of the donors take a personal interest in the camp, not only sending money but volunteering time and other services. The permanent staff is made up of approximately a dozen people. Far from being "back office" staff, they fully participate in every camp session. Of course, they also make the place run day-to-day and develop the program year-to-year. Even though the existing support is incredible, more donors and volunteers are always welcome!

Camp Sunshine has held dedicated sessions for solid organ transplant since 2003 and renal disease since 2001. In 2007, the transplant session will be from June 8 - June 12 and the renal session will be from July 29 - August 3. Families of patients with kidney transplants are welcome in either session, and evenly represented in both. For more information about Camp Sunshine, visit their web site or call them at (207) 655-3800. Whatever your plans are for the summer, make it one to remember.

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