When Jodi Van Emmerik heard about Camp Cambria, a weeklong camp in Maple Lake, Minnesota, for kids with juvenile idiopathic arthritis, she couldn’t wait to tell her 11 year-old son, Taylor.
“I knew it would be good for him, being newly diagnosed, to have other kids to talk to,” she explains.
Although Van Emmerik had fond memories of going to camp as a child, she knew the experience would be different for Taylor who was diagnosed with JIA in 2013 and living with constant pain. And, she admits, had Camp Cambria been a regular summer camp, she would have hesitated to sign up her son.
The fact that it was an Arthritis Foundation-affiliated camp with a staff nurse and counselors trained to work with children with JIA, Van Emmerik registered Taylor for summer camp in 2014.
“I had no reservations about it,” she recalls. “I knew how much fun he would have at camp.”
Taylor, on the other hand, wasn’t so sure about the idea.
“I didn’t ever go to camp before and didn’t know what it would be like,” he recalls.
During the four-hour drive from their home in Parker, South Dakota, to Camp Cambria, Taylor was nervous and asked a lot of questions about what to expect. The minute he arrived, his fears disappeared.
“You just started talking about what we had in common and I felt a whole lot better,” he recalls. “When I was at home, I felt like I was the only one [with JIA]; at camp, I understood that I wasn’t alone.”
During the weeklong camp, Taylor interacted with 80 other campers between the ages of 8 and 17 who also live with JIA.
While he loved participating in activities like tubing and archery, he also appreciated the support he got from other campers on days he wasn’t feeling up to running around.
“You can open up and let yourself relax because everyone knows what you’re going through,” he says. “Even when you’re feeling down, they’ll help you get back up.”
After she dropped Taylor off at camp, Van Emmerik she started feeling nervous about how he’d adapt to being away from home for the first time. When counselors posted a daily blog update that included a photo of her son, Van Emmerik knew she had nothing to worry about.
“I was so excited and relieved to see a picture of Taylor smiling,” she recalls.
By the end of camp, Taylor was still smiling. In fact, the first thing he said to his mom when she picked him up was, “I’m coming back next year!”
“He was over-the-top excited,” Van Emmerik says. “I think he’s going to be a lifer.”
Camp Cambria had a big impact on Taylor. In addition to making new friends, including several he keeps in touch with via social media during the school year, he learned more about JIA and strategies to manage the disease from counselors and campers. Camp also built up his self-confidence.
“He went to camp shy and reserved; the kid that came home was way more self-confident. It was a huge growing experience for him,” says Van Emmerik. “All I hear now is, ‘When I go to camp next year…’”
Taylor returned to camp this summer.
After hearing him rave about his experience, the families of two girls from South Dakota who attend Juvenile Arthritis Family Network meetings with the Van Emmerik family decided to send their kids to camp, too. Taylor was happy to show them the ropes.